A fresh brew of old numbers
Hip-hop and jazz are like a separated parent and child. When Kendrick Lamar released his sophomore album To Pimp a Butterfly in 2015, it was a reminder of the relationship between the two genres.
In the 1990s, hip-hop and jazz were almost inseparable.
East Coast hip-hop consisted of jazz on albums such as Nas’s Illmatic and Jay Z’s Reasonable Doubt.
South African artists such as Tumi, when he was still playing with The Volume, deepened the tradition. Optical Illusion and The Federation also sampled a number of jazz records in their songs to enrich their beats.
Then crunk happened. The Dirty South (Atlanta) style of hip-hop dominated radio with 808 drums and electronic bass-driven production. South Africa followed suit.
Trap, which shares the same sensibilities as crunk, is the most dominant style in mainstream rap today, and again South Africa hasn’t been left behind. Songs such as Sidlukotini by Riky Rick, Roll Up by Emtee, and Doc Shebeleza and Tito Mboweni by Cassper Nyovest are among the biggest trap songs to come out of South Africa.
Most of the hip-hop producers in the country, especially those who are over 25 and making trap now, started by sampling jazz records in the 1990s and mid-2000s. Rapper and producer Rick is among that crop of artists.
He was inspired by producers such as Madlib and J Dilla, who sampled jazz and were super-innovative. In fact, they can be considered jazz musicians in their own right, even though most of their music was produced electronically.
“Around 2007, nobody was into that [Madlib and J Dilla type production],” says Riky, who is sitting next to jazz legend Hugh Masekela in front of a crowd of celebrities and journalists in an auditorium in Sandton, Johannesburg.
The two artists are discussing their collaboration, facilitated by Standard Bank, before the annual Joy of Jazz Festival. It turns out that they will remix a selection of each other’s songs.
“With the whole new crunk 808 beats, people weren’t doing soul beats anymore. So I had to jump on my own beats, and that’s how I became a rapper,” says Riky.
The artist says he got into production through his uncle’s jazz CD collection. Riky and his friends, twin brothers Bandile and Banele Mbere, who are now the Major League DJz, would mess around with the CDs until they became DJs and transitioned into production.
Bra Hugh explains how he found himself rapping on his 1970s hit, Don’t Go Lose It, Baby, a cross between disco, jazz, pop and hip-hop. He was signed to Jive Records at the time, and a label executive played him some records of rap, which was emerging at the time.
“The group I liked most was The Sugarhill Gang,” says Masekela. “And I lived on Sugar Hill in New York. And there was also Afrika Bambaataa and Melle Mel. I loved it.”
In the song, Bra Hugh spits a pristine verse towards the end of the track in a style reminiscent of early rappers such as The Sugarhill Gang and The Furious Five, of which Mel was a member. “It became a memorable piece of rap, because people still ask me to rap today,” says Masekela.
The jazz veteran goes on to talk about the first time he saw Rick performing in Ladysmith.
“I was like, ‘damn, I wish I could do that’, because he was getting applause right through. He was blowing them away and all I could do was shake his hand after his performance,” Masekela says. “He reminded me [more] of praise poets than rappers because he had these machine gun non-stop words coming out of his mouth and I’m asking where the hell is he getting this information from?”
Riky responds to Bra Hugh, saying he envies jazz musicians for being able to play a musical instrument, which most hip-hop producers cannot do.
At this point, the two artists’ chemistry is obvious, and their admiration of each other’s traits signals an ingredient for a synergetic collaboration. They express their excitement about getting into the studio and reworking some of their key songs.
“Me and Riky are gonna get together, at least with a keyboard player, and take the songs that we are going to choose, and figure out how to rework them. We don’t know what we are going to do, but when we get there we will find out. But we’re certainly not going to tell you,” says Bra Hugh.
One other thing the two artists, who are generations apart, have in common is their sense of style. Riky is one of the most fashionable rappers in South Africa and he was recently on the cover of GQ Style. Sitting together, Riky looks relaxed in a Gucci tracksuit and a pair of Air Jordan 1 Retro sneakers and Bra Hugh sports a smart casual look, with a brown cashmere blazer, a black polo neck top, black pants and a pair of formal shoes.
Riky says fashion is therapeutic for him, and it also comes from growing up poor and seeing kids at school wearing clothes his parents couldn’t afford. “Going to an American school in Austria made me hate fashion because kids were just killing it. It completely fucked my head up. So, from then on, I told myself I would try my best to have the best clothes.”
Bra Hugh also has a long history with style, which started in his high school days when he couldn’t fit into the cool circle because he was wearing lousy John Drake school shoes.
“I saved up for months for [a pair of St Louis shoes],” he says. “When I finally bought it, it was like a new birth. But, over the years, I became an expert. Now I can’t wear any kind of wool but cashmere. Even this coat I’m wearing is cashmere.”
Bra Hugh then goes on to talk about how jazz influenced modern life, much in the way that hip-hop has influenced this young generation. “If it wasn’t for jazz, you wouldn’t be Mr Kotini,” he says to Riky, whose nickname is King Kotini, a joke that makes the audience laugh.
The two will perform their reworked songs on September 27 to an exclusive audience. There’s no telling what the collaboration will be like but, judging from their chemistry and their extensive catalogues, it should be memorable.