Hip Hop, James Brown and Duke Ellington

I have spent the past several years doing workshops on the connections of hip hop and jazz and although I’ve never used it in an example in my presentation, one of the best pieces that shows how hip hop rhythm is connected to jazz is the recording of “Chinoiserie” off of the Duke Ellington album Afro Eurasian Eclipse

Duke used whatever he could to create moods and colors and one of the prevailing rhythms during the time of this recording was the backbeat groove played by James Brown. This recording was done in 1971 and the soul music of the time had captured the black community and the nation at large.  Black exploitation films were starting to come out and funk was just around the corner.  The theme from Shaft and Sly and the Family Stone’s “Family Affair” were on the Billboard Top 100 in 1971 and James Brown had released “Get Up” one year earlier.

As most hip hop aficionados know, James Brown’s music is the foundation for hip hop and his recordings were ubiquitously sampled to create many of the early hip hop records.  The backbeat became the central groove for hip hop and it is this rhythm that makes a curious entrance several minutes into the recording “Chinoiserie” by Duke Ellington.

If you listen to Harold Ashby’s tenor sax solo it starts out in the jazz swing style but halfway through Rufus Jones shifts to the backbeat groove on the drums and the song takes on a whole new character.  Ashby starts to blow over this rhythm with a different kind of tenacity.  The groove is solid and you can feel the band getting into it.

Interestingly enough the inspiration for the album is Duke’s perspective on what he referred to as “oriental music.”  The song “Chinoiserie” has elements of the pentatonic sound which is characteristic of traditional Chinese music and is very similar to the sound of the blues.  The blending of Duke’s big band arrangement with this sound works well on this song and hip hop would have its own relationship with Chinese culture years later with the influence of Kung Fu theater and The Wu Tang Clan.

It’s fascinating to see how things come full circle and how cultural influences are interpreted and then reinterpreted by a different generation.  Such is the case with jazz and hip hop, so the next time you start bopping your head to the backbeat groove on a hip hop track, you can feel good in knowing that even Duke Ellington bopped his head to the same groove years ago.

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