How Jazz Influenced Hip-Hop

Hip-hop owes its roots to jazz, and it's not just the music

Common & John Legend perform "Glory" from "Selma" onstage during the 87th Annual Academy Awards
Common & John Legend perform "Glory" from "Selma" onstage during the 87th Annual Academy Awards.

Kevin Winter/Getty Images 

Jazz has played a major role in shaping music for over a century. There are few genres of music around today that don’t owe their existence to Jazz. Jazz has been a key influence on hip-hop in particular. But where did it come from and why has it been so influential?

The word “Jazz” first appeared in print in 1913. Jazz itself was inspired by slave songs and southern blues, first appearing as ragtime music in the 1890s. Though ragtime evolved into jazz over the next 2 decades, its influence can still be seen in John Legend and Common’s song “Glory” which is the theme song for the movie “Selma” about the Civil Rights Movement. “Glory” won the Oscar for Best Original Song at the 2015 Academy Awards.

As ragtime artists began experimenting with freestyling over the next 2 decades, jazz was gradually taking form. The piano was the main instrument used for this, and although artists used sheet music for parts of their performances, they would often freestyle solos. This allowed for the invention of “scat” singing, a difficult vocal medium which lends itself to today’s freestyle rap.

The Evolution of Jazz

Swing music was the next evolutionary step for jazz. Swing bands brought multiple jazz musicians together to perform for white audiences where the musicians were often not allowed to patronize. The influence of swing music can be seen in today’s “All About That Bass” by Meghan Trainor.

Bebop came along in the 1940s, featuring complex harmonies and a quick tempo. It was often referred to as “Jazz for Intellectuals” because it was considerably more complicated than the freestyle jazz of previous decades. Amy Winehouse’s “Stronger Than Me” is a modern-day example of the bebop era.

Latin and Afro-Cuban music rose from bebop in the 1950s. Characterized by percussion, it was a direct descendant of ragtime and swing. Gloria Estefan drew on Afro-Cuban music in the 1980s to rule the pop world, and today’s “Addicted to You” by Shakira also owes its roots to this genre of music.

Free Jazz dominated the 1960s, and artists like Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana became household names as the strict rules of previous sub-genres went out the window. “I Don’t Trust Myself” by John Mayer can trace its roots to this style of jazz.

The 1970s saw jazz evolve into fusion music characterized by hard guitar riffs. Danny DeVito’s Taxi theme song is a perfect example of this style of music. The style can still be traced to today’s “Money Grabber” by Fitz and the Tantrums.

Jazz became modernized in the 1980s and 1990s when synthesizers came on the scene. This coincided with the emergence of hip-hop. A Tribe Called Quest, Jungle Brothers, NWA, and Tupac Shakur have all sampled jazz in their songs to directly pay homage to their musical roots.

The Influence of Jazz on Conscious Rap

This was also the era of music in which hip-hop artists began to directly tackle social issues in their music in addition to rapping, dancing and DJing.

A Tribe Called Quest brought a jazz-like sophistication to hip-hop. Tribe frontman Q-Tip grew up in a household where both parents collected jazz records. He told Spin that jazz and hip-hop are creatures of culture and politics. "There’s a politics that exists. It’s a commentary about who we are as people, the way we see the world, the way we see others, how we should be”.