The history, ingredients, and techniques behind jazz hop

With its roots in blues and ragtime music, jazz originated among New Orleans’ African American communities in the 1900s.

The genre evolved as it folded in influences from African, Latin, and European culture and music. Meanwhile, as jazz musicians continued to experiment with form and improvisation, hip hop arose in the 1970s when DJs began mixing percussive breaks from funk and soul records, and emcees rapped over them.

Both jazz and hip hop music offered Black Americans reprieve from the social and economic exclusion embodied in a country defined by the norms of Jim Crow. This pain is palpable in works like Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” Louis Armstrong’s version of Fats Waller’s “(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue?,” Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power,” and N.W.A.’s “Fuck Tha Police.”

Where jazz and hip hop first collided

We saw the first jazz and hip hop crossover in the late 1980s. Artists such as A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and Gang Starr ventured beyond soul and funk records into chopping melodic phrases from jazz records and repeating them over hip hop rhythms. Gang Starr’s “Words I Manifest” is one of the earliest examples, sampling “A Night in Tunisia” by Dizzy Gillespie. These two genres have evolved together and intertwined ever since.

Jazz hop’s most influential players from the 1980s – today

J Dilla and Madlib were instrumental in the evolution of resampling and re-processing jazz loops into hip hop beats, creating new rhythms to fit hip hop’s swing. Another game-changing technique they pioneered was to rely less on quantizing their beats—which has now become a common approach to give your drums a live, imperfect swing.

More recently, artists such as Moonchild, Robert Glasper, and Tom Misch have sculpted their sound by composing lush chord progressions alongside swung electronic beats. Lo-fi hip hop became a hugely popular genre in the last few years, in no small part through the “beats to relax/study to” stream by LoFi Girl (formerly known as ChilledCow) on YouTube.

ChilledCow used tape and vinyl emulation plugins and re-pitched samples of old jazz records to create a skewered, moody reflection of the original recording. Artists like Knxwledge and Flying Lotus have pushed the swing of hip hop’s rhythm even further to create a distinctive vibe with heavily processed and manipulated melodies.

The defining characteristics of jazz hop

Jazz’s unique openness to improvisation and its defiance of convention, as well as its rhythmic swing and sonic timbre, lend endless creativity when it comes to sampling and chopping. Even something as subtle as the timbre of a brushed snare over a hip hop beat quickly presents a whole different vibe to hip hop at its rawest. Then, adding layers of jazz piano alongside a deep, hollow tone of an upright bass places the track in a whole new context. Finding balances between the raw tone of hip hop beats and the complex shapes of jazz is the biggest piece of the puzzle.

Crafting original jazz hop sounds

I recently had the opportunity to create a collection of sounds for Sample Magic’s pack, Jazz Hop 2. When approaching the creation of this sample pack, I wanted the jazz side to sound as authentic to crate-dug records as possible. If I recorded a piano loop, I’d add subtle layers of room noise, a distant brushed snare, a hi-hat that sounds like it’s caught on the recording from headphone bleed, the wooden knock of the pedals, or squeaks from the piano stool. All of these details were very quiet, but added up to feel like you were hearing a moment captured in an environment, rather than a single MIDI-composed piano loop. Once I had a lot of melodic ideas, we reached out to some incredibly talented woodwind and brass musicians to record their own take on the melodies that I had composed.

My favorite technique was recording a chord progression on guitar an octave higher than I would, and then pitching the recording an octave down. This gave the loop a unique, deep tone, and instantly made it sound a little aged. The pack was eventually recorded to tape and cut to vinyl, and then recorded back off vinyl to give it that unique analog warmth and hiss.

The creative possibilities of jazz hop

I love the variety of moods you’re able to play with in a pack like this. So many vibes fall under the umbrella of jazz and hip hop. Merging any of these elements usually creates an interesting context, which I never get tired of exploring. A really worn, dark, and moody Latin guitar loop is equally at home in this pack as an upbeat and bouncy jazz quartet loop; lo-fi, foley-driven drums are equally at home as boom bap beats. There’s a ton of freedom in the timbres and vibes you can play with—I listened to a lot of the Bill Evans Trio, Artie Shaw, and Wes Montgomery, who all massively inspired the pack’s music kits, and a lot of Madlib and J Dilla, who inspired the drums.

Do you want to know more about the making of these sounds or the history of jazz hop? Drop a question in the comments. Or, if you want to share what you created with the samples in the pack, leave a link below—we’d love to hear it.

Incorporate the unique versatility of jazz hop into your own productions:

April 13, 2021

Jordan Booth Jordan Booth is a sound designer and music producer from Sheffield, UK, currently producing jazz and soul-inspired beats via the alias of Ten Poets.