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Jazzmatazz: Too Soft or So True?

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Jazzmatazz: Too Soft or So True?

Jazzmatazz: Too Soft or So True?

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Back now with DAY TO DAY. From the beginning, hip-hop artists have always mixed together different musical genres. Think Run DMC and Aerosmith in "Walk This Way". In that spirit, hip-hop icon Guru broke away from the rap duo Gang Starr and started collaborating with jazz icons like Ramsey Lewis, Roy Ayers, and Lonnie Liston Smith.

GURU (Hip-hop musician): I was like, I want to take it to the next level and actually get the jazz cats who we sampled, get those dudes to come into the studio and jam over some hip-hop beats and blend that.

(Soundbite of music)

GURU: (Singing) Get the party started and get in a word. I got a heart that's stronger. I got a part that's longer. Your time is up, give it up. You've got to pop this corner.

BRAND: Guru named it "Jazzmatazz". And 15 years later, he's back with "Jazzmatazz, Vol. Four". NPR's Christopher Johnson talked with Guru and he has this report.

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: Anyone who knew Guru's story would have seen the first Jazzmatazz coming a mile away. Well, more like 215 miles away, just four hours northeast of New York City. That's where Guru grew up, in Roxbury, Mass. And ever since the mid-'70s, when rap was born in the Bronx, Guru's been loving him some hip-hop.

GURU: I followed everything that was going on in New York. I bought all the records, had all the tapes. And every chance I got, we used to come to New York. Whether it was in a stolen car or whatever, we got to New York.

JOHNSON: Artists born outside of hip-hop's New York Mecca have been some of the culture's biggest innovators. From Kingston, Jamaica's Kool Herc to Slick Rick out of London — once the outsiders hit NYC, they often taste a freedom to flip the script in a way that helps rap grow. Guru moved to New York in 1985, and helped create Gang Starr two years later. His raw, laid-back delivery drove many hip-hoppers crazy.

(Soundbite of music)

GURU: (Singing) And for my peeps who actually care. Without some of them I wouldn't be here. They all know how I feel. (Unintelligible)

JOHNSON: In '93, it was revolution time again for Guru. He dreamed up "Jazzmatazz," and called Donald Byrd. Guru explained to the veteran trumpeter his new solo-project idea.

GURU: He got it right away. He helped a lot, because he put the word out amongst the more open-minded jazz cats about me. There were a lot of jazz cats that were down on hip-hop, that were saying it wasn't real music. But Donald wasn't one of those.

JOHNSON: A decade and a half later, Guru is running his own record label called 7 Grand. He's worked with jazz acts including Branford Marsalis, Herbie Hancock, and, on the new disc, saxophonist David Sanborn.

(Soundbite of music)

GURU: (Singing) My stack don't stop now. I'm back on your block now. Eat your food until I'm back on top. And you ain't gonna dare do nothing. Go ahead and try it. I dare you to do something.

JOHNSON: But "Jazzmatazz" isn't just about jazz. The song "State of Clarity" lines up piano man Bob James with Chicago rap star Common.

(Soundbite of song, "State of Clarity")

COMMON (Rapper): Like LaDainian, y'all, I be charging in. Touching down with the people from my town. It's a sign that this beginning to be my ground, dug in the crates of my soul that I found. State of clarity. Just be yourself and be so clear.

JOHNSON: Guru says "Jazzmatazz" is a bridge between younger hip-hop fans and the jazz and soul lovers from the old school. He's confident the formula works, because Guru mixes grown folks music with the edge he's had since his first rap group.

GURU: That legacy of Gang Starr — street knowledge, intelligence, spirituality — those principles have been taken to new heights by 7 Grand. And the real Gang Starr heads, they get it.

JOHNSON: Maybe. Because even when "Vol. 1" came out 15 years ago, it was clear that Guru had crossed over to the soft side. That Gang Starr rawness was suddenly way overcooked. On this new disc, the jazz/rap/R&B fusion has blended everything into a bland cliché that's sapped rap of the fury which was also once its creative fire.

(Soundbite of music)

GURU: (Singing) You're on it. I smash, I trash you like I own it. This news, I refuse to lose, I'll let you clone it. Renew, (unintelligible), no way to dethrone it. I'm king of this jazz style. I seize the moment.

JOHNSON: But what do I know? Maybe "Vol. 4" is hot among old-school rap fans and jazz heads. Now, how to find out?

The streets. That's where rap is from, and I figured that's where I'd find the best critics. So I loaded the boombox with D cells, slapped in the new disc, and headed out into wide, wide Los Angeles.

So here I am at the corner of King Boulevard and Crenshaw Boulevard, across the street from Louisiana Famous Fried Chicken and M & M Soul Food. Los Angeles has all kinds of hoods, and this is certainly one of the more famous. It seemed like a good place to come and ask folks passing by what they think of the new "Jazzmatazz, Vol. 4."

Mr. STEVEN TELLERMAN(ph): I am Steven Michael Tellerman. I represent Southern Cal, Los Angeles to the folks.

JOHNSON: OK. And have you ever heard the rapper Guru?

Mr. TELLERMAN: Guru, one of the major founders of hip-hop.

JOHNSON: So you know that Guru went off on his own and started a project call "Jazzmatazz". So I have an album here, his new album, And I want to play a track for you and you just tell me what you think. Does that sound good to you.

Mr. TELLERMAN. Yeah, that's what's up.

(Soundbite of music)

GURU: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

JOHNSON: Is it working for you? Is it hot? Is it not?

Mr. TELLERMAN: Well, on this what I'm noticing, I don't hear the live instruments.

JOHNSON: What's the verdict? Thumbs up? Thumbs down? You feeling it? No?

Mr. TELLERMAN: Oh man. Well, even in the lyrics, you know, I heard some truth, so yeah, I'm going to give it a thumbs up.

JAMES(ph): My name is James and I'm from LA. The rapping is overbearing to me. I'm 54, I'll be 55 in June, so more old school jazz for me.

Ms. HELEN CHILES(ph): My name is Helen Chiles. I'm from Southern California. I like the background. The wording, you know, it's more my daughter than it is me.

JOHNSON: What do you think about - oh no, don't get too far. Helen liked the disc, but she had to run. So, for what they're worth, three mostly positive reviews from a Gang Starr lover and a couple of older jazz fans.

(Soundbite of music)

GURU: (Singing) Let's see if you can stop and wrap this production…

JOHNSON: And what about the 20-and under set? Guru assures me that one was a done deal. He and his partner, DJ Solar, both have kids.

GURU: They love it. In fact, they're the barometer. You know what I mean? We play it for them first; they're gonna let us know. They ain't gonna say it's hot just because it's us.

JOHNSON: "Jazzmatazz, Vol. 4" comes out today. And if you do get a copy, take it out to a street corner, press play, and bump it for yourself, the younguns and the elders. Just make sure you don't get so into it you don't miss your bus. Christopher Johnson, NPR News, Los Angeles.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) (Unintelligible). Come here today, not tomorrow. Now walk the straight and narrow. Their mind's too shallow, in the midlife borough. (Unintelligible).

BRAND: DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News with contributions from Slate.com. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And I'm Alex Chadwick.

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