The Beast emcee Pierce Freelon remembers a conversation with jazz musician Branford Marsalis about the intersection of the distinctly American art forms of jazz and hip-hop—namely, the experimental steps that young jazz artists are taking to combine them.
"I talked to Marsalis about Robert Glasper, and he was like, 'That's not jazz. He's looping Dilla beats,'" says Freelon. "But he has a point that would probably be validated by more senior jazz cats."
Marsalis' attitude about hip-hop's transformative nature isn't anything new, either to jazz or any genre that's occasionally resisted new ideas. It's exactly the type of preservationist philosophy that live hip-hop acts—just like Freelon's quartet, The Beast—have been fighting against for years. Mixing improvisation with rhymes, funk, Latin music and rock bravado, The Beast has attempted its own jazz-anchored fusion.
But before The Beast was hitting stages in the name of bridging the jazz and hip-hop worlds, people like the late Keith Elam, or Guru, the rhyming half of legendary hip-hop duo Gang Starr, were making whole albums devoted to meshing those genres. In appreciation, The Beast has just released a six-track homage, Guru Legacy, to honor the late Boston emcee and jazz reappropriator.
"He was tampering with this idea of an experimental fusion at a time when people weren't really up on that," says Freelon. "There were, of course, bands and hip-hop producers that had sampled jazz, but a full project dedicated to bringing together hip-hop and jazz masters and giving it a different title planted some seeds that paved the way for bands like The Beast to rock stages."
Outside of Guru's famed work with DJ Premier as Gang Starr, he staked out new territory with four highly collaborative Jazzmatazz LPs that featured jazz titans such as Donald Byrd, Herbie Hancock, Lonnie Liston Smith Jr. and the aforementioned Marsalis. Despite that pioneering work, efforts to immortalize Guru's work since his death last April have been few and far between, especially compared to the deluge of tributes for deceased Detroit producer rapper J Dilla (James Yancey). After Guru's passing, many fans raised suspicions about the ways in which Guru's frequent producer, Solar, handled the emcee's personal and business affairs. Many believed that Solar took advantage of his ailing partner and, for reasons unknown, attempted to shut everyone out of Guru's life, including Guru's extended family and even DJ Premier. The controversy surrounding accusations against Solar might be a key reason why we haven't seen or heard as much from the hip-hop community celebrating Guru's luminous career.
Freelon isn't quite sure if that's the reason, but he still holds Guru to heroic standards: "Dilla and Guru are like Tommy Smith and John Carlos—they're both lions in the same tribe. They're both trailblazers," he says. "They're both very important historical figures."
Guru will almost certainly be remembered mostly for the classic boom-bap that he and DJ Premier perfected as Gang Starr, but it should be noted that his Jazzmatazz series laid the groundwork for some of the genre mashing in today's market. And, over a rough Gang Starr beat or a smoothed-out jazz tune, Guru had one of the most identifiable, consistent voices in music. "There are some people like Lauryn Hill, Cee-Lo and Guru that have one voice, and you can hear and feel their voice being reaffirmed on every single track that they put out," he says. "There's very little straying from that voice."
This sort of reverence prompted Guru Legacy. Rather than simply covering and copying some of the more widely known Jazzmatazz pieces, The Beast—joined by local leading women Jocelyn Ellis and Shirlette Ammons, and New York rapper John Robinson—reinterpreted one song from each of the four Jazzmatazz albums, creating a bittersweet collage of some of Guru's more daring works. Freelon even conducts a lengthy interview with The Roots drummer ?uestlove, too, where the two discuss Guru's life as an artist and the resurgence of jazz as a popular art form.
"We were trying to think outside of the box just like Guru was doing when he created the first Jazzmatazz project," says Freelon. "It wasn't only just genre-bending, but it put jazz at the forefront. I can see the generational divide, which is something that we're definitely trying to bridge with The Beast."
A look at The Beast's Guru interpretations
"Keep Your Worries" (feat. John Robinson and Jocelyn Ellis)
It's easy to feed off a vocal spark plug like Jocelyn Ellis (formerly of Jocelyn Ellis & The Alpha Theory), so both Pierce Freelon and John Robinson offer a stream of hyperintelligent rhymes to complement Ellis' spasmodic soul. It's an intense update from Angie Stone's doo-wop approach on Jazzmatazz Vol. 3, Street Soul, with more of an inspirational essence.
"State of Clarity" (feat. Silent Knight and D. Noble)
Neither Common nor Bob James was able to save the original version of this song, but Freelon's decision to add Greensboro, N.C., spoken-word poet D. Noble to the end of this rendition is a great redeemer. Noble alludes to Guru's career with beautifully loaded lines like, "Blow a full clip in this socialist moment of truth until the seeds of strange fruit are no longer estranged from their roots/ Regroup the scattered matter of diaspora data until our collective energy gathers in an ethereal Gang Starr." It's a captivatingly long way to explain Guru's importance.
"For You" (feat. Shirlette Ammons and Freddie Watts)
Meshell Ndegeocello, her message and her mighty bass guitar are the most memorable things on the original "For You," from Jazzmatazz Vol. 2, The New Reality. Poet, vocalist and bass player Shirlette Ammons reflects on one of her idols, "...not only Meshell's sexuality but also the fact that she was a bass player just made me eat up anything that she put out. I was just really eager to do it. Her work has always been kinda informative for me and for her to be down with Guru made it cool."
"Loungin (The B-Side)"
In jazz, not much can compete with the sound of a Donald Byrd horn, which is precisely why The Beast totally reconfigured this song from Guru's first Jazzmatazz project, letting a violin and congas take over this instrumental makeover. It mostly lounges in somewhat of a funky dharma stance, but there's still plenty of opportunity for boosts of hip energy—just the way Guru would have liked it.