brahja-and-jahsun

Interview: A Conversation on Hip-Hop with Jahsun (Kalmunity Vibe Collective) and Brahja Waldman

Brahja Waldman, Isis Giraldo, and Jahsun talk about Hip-Hop in January 2015.

“Because they didn’t do anything to uplift Hip-hop culture. They took one element that was popular, the rap element and on top of it they took one element of the rap element that they thought was marketable for their own purposes.”

“It’s like this general move away from show tune music that has this chord, and this chord, and this chord, and this chord, and then has a bridge, and then another bridge, and then a coda, its all this stuff we don’t need. Let’s just keep this one five second moment, ‘cause it’s the best thing about that song, and let’s distill it into a loop.”

IG: The most straightforward question is, how hip-hop and hip-hop culture are related to improvising, and to the culture that surrounded jazz in the 60’s?

Jahsun: Hip-hop is like a rising search you know. I think that’s what jazz was as well. It was almost like taking the popular music of the time and pushing it. Expanding on it. Adding to the tradition. And I think that that’s what hip-hop did too. It samples from music of the time. You know, breakbeat, like the DJ Kool Herc story, how he was the man that officially invented hip-hop. Through his parties hip-hop was born. People were just playing tracks that people loved to dance to, and what happened is that they invented this breakbeat art, like this section of the tune where a drum break would happen, DJ’s started extending. Calling the b-boys out to dance, hence the birth of the loop and the birth of the b-boys. So it was cultural music and I think that’s what jazz was, and as everything else it grows and people add to the tradition. In that sense I find they are related.

The improvisation aspect… I guess if you listen to hip-hop today you might not hear the improvisation but what it came out of was ghetto youth not having instruments, so the essence of hip-hop is improvisation because that’s how they came up with sounds. Like they didn’t have music so we’re gonna take bits of this record and start using turn tables as instruments. So to me that’s improvisation in its highest form. Like let’s make this happen even though we don’t have the tools or the instruments. They sample jazz so there’s a lot of even tighter resemblances. But again, the reason why those things are samples is because those kids were using their parents’ records. They had some jazz, some James Brown, they had some avant garde music. Especially in the 60’s, the Sam Cookes, and the soul music. And I know that sampling is sometimes seen as stealing. When you don’t give credit to the person you’re taking from. But there is some value in just passing all those songs on to the new generation. I just wish it was done in a more clear way, so that everyone understood where the music came from.

But I love sampling. I think it’s some of the coolest collage art. And it’s influenced production everywhere. Even like soundscape stuff. We don’t talk about it, the different genres it influenced…. it’s a heavy art.

BW: Yeah I like what you said about the search because I often think about the explosion of genius that happened in the late 50s into the 60s, and of course jazz had been around for a while but it started to sound like something completely different. And it was really a search for what is possible within this music. And everyone in their basement studio trying to come out with the freshest new way to approach this music and not knowing or having the answer of what is possible. Now we know… this is possible. That’s what early hip-hop represents to me. They are discovering the sound. It’s being discovered, and there’s so much creative expression within that. It’s like these elements, these sounds, these samples, are gonna be the freshest sound. And so many people were doing that, and they’re all coming up with things that rival in greatness. It’s like this collective genius. It’s like the incandescent lightbulb, like suddenly there’s a glimpse of what’s possible and people clamoring to make it happen. I guess Edison gets the credit but he wasn’t the only guy on it. Fortunately in music people get to share the credit.

And I guess going back to the lineage, I think about how music or jazz music in the 50s has a lot to do with Miles Davis slowing things down, opening things up making chords last for longer periods of time with more repetition. And then, the younger generation picking up on that, like Herbie Hancock, and Sly and the Family Stone, and soul music giving way to funk and Parliament, and all that being sampled in hip-hop, except maybe removing the bridge. It’s like we don’t even need the bridge. Let’s open things up even more, and even more repetition.

It’s like this general move away from show tune music that has this chord, and this chord, and this chord, and this chord, and then has a bridge, and then another bridge, and then a coda, it’s all this stuff we don’t need. Let’s just keep this one five second moment, ‘cause it’s he best thing about that song, and let’s distill it into a loop.

I think growing up hearing hip-hop, my ears are trained to agree with that approach. When I listen to that older music I might want to hear a moment repeated as well… and it just passes. Which is also a beautiful thing! That’s when I was first listening to Eric Dolphy it was so spontaneously beautiful and creative. I wanted to naturally hear an idea develop. But Dolphy is already onto something else, and there are all these moments that just don’t last. It’s ephemeral, and my ears got trained into appreciating that. Or listening to Ornette’s music or Monk’s music. That realization changing the way I hear everything. It’s different than them trying to repeat things but failing. So there’s a different way that you can listen. And I think for me as a musician that’s my life’s work, to play my instrument, and learn how to listen to music.

IG: That’s the thing that gets me about samples. Because a lot of times, they’re sampling stuff backwards, and in a different way what you are hearing on the original recording. So the way they’re listening is really unique. It’s not just like there’s this chord progression and then this one, and we’re gonna sample in that order. It’s like, oh what happens when we flip it and start it on the third beat. It’s like listening through a weird filter.

Jahsun: And I wonder if a lot of beatmakers are conscious of that. Or if they’re just looking for sound, you know? I think that’s really it. It’s like a moment that you want to have repeated. It’s a sound. Let’s get that.

Especially back in the day, sampling was so chunky. They were using a lot of different tracks to make one song. Now you have just one sample and a lot of production on it. But if you listen to a classic De La Soul album, its genius. First of all, classic album, Paul’s Boutique, Beatie Boys…just the instrumentals, I don’t know who their beat maker was, I know Hurricane worked with them. But you have pop culture, the beats, plus they sample themselves. It’s like a collage. Again, the business of it gets in the way of the creative aspect. But you know you gotta respect it if you are taking people’s music. That’s why I come back to it. I’m for the artists sampling, I just wanna find a way that benefits the artists that created it.

IG: I agree with what you’re saying. I’m just playing devil’s advocate. We all sample stuff all the time, music is just sampling. You’re regurgitating sound that you heard before, I just think you internalize someone else’s sound and you adapt it to your own thing, unless you are quoting something note for note, I feel like it really becomes something else. Because half of the time when I’m hearing a hip-hop track, I don’t always know what they’re sampling.

BW: To me, no one knows the sound. Like if someone wanted to sample me than wonderful! If they wanted to credit me, even better, not because I wanna get paid or something, I don’t need praise, but… I want to be a part of it. If my name is there than maybe I can plan your next tour… (laughter). I just want to be in the loop. In a sense it’s like…oh well can I be part of this community?

Jahsun: Yeah, why not say who you sampled. I don’t know, I think that actually makes the community stronger, because you are in the community just by the fact that they sampled you, but it’s not known. And to me too… for the kids that are listening to hip- hop and wanna do their research, it leads them to a bag of beautiful music. You know if you listen to mad-lib and the shit he samples. These are some beautiful records and other trips, and that’s what kids need. It needs to inform them. That’s what hip-hop always did, it informed them lyrically but also musically. Where they come from. At least in the States. I think that should continue. ‘Cause today’s stuff is rough. But the underground is doing some crazy stuff. Hip-hop is there. There’s rap. They’re just not getting as much exposure.

IG: Yeah I wanted to touch on that. Like classical music gets so zoomed in on sometimes and I found playing classical music growing up I was like, where is the creativity? But now I feel like the same thing is happening to jazz. But when it was being played back in the day, it was being played by black Americans in a really racist environment. It was charged. Now, we’re learning how to play the blues at a 10am improv class in university. With hip-hop it’s something that people are still exploring. It hasn’t been institutionalized.

Jahsun: Hip-hop is young. It’s old enough for people to know its not a fad. And in it’s teenage fragile years it’s been corporately sucked on. I don’t know what’s gonna happen with that aspect.

IG: Do you think that’s where rap starts coming in? Like the things that are associated with rap. Things like pimping culture, the money, the cars, and all these things that are tied to consumer based culture within music.

Jahsun: I entirely think that it’s a corporate thing.

IG: More than a cultural thing?

Jahsun: More than a cultural thing. Not that it doesn’t exist in the culture. It exists in the culture. There are people who are poor and getting a little bling gives them that sense of value, and they’ve never had that before. Unfortunately you can sit back, even me you know? Sit back and be like “yeah” but they have to treat us differently you know? yeah I can say that but I’m not in their shoes. And there is a reality that there’s a certain side of Hip-hop that is that. So when you have a little bit, you put it out there. And that competitive aspect is there. Living in the street, that storytelling aspect has been there. But there’s been other things as well. It’s always been a full community of music. Until the corporate world selects an element of that, and says well this is what we’re going to mass produce you know what I mean?

I still believe it’s part of racist America’s white supremacy idea. And if white kids are buying this Hip-hop there’s no way they’re gonna just put positive images out there you know what I mean? You’re gonna buy? ok, but you’re not gonna convince my kids to be like you. So it’s gonna be criminality that we’re gonna portray, and it’s twofold. It keeps us separated from the criminals. Although it still backfires because kids still gravitate towards the bad boy thing but in general it keeps the kids away, and second of all it creates a climate to continue imprisoning these young black men. It gives them the criminal profile in everyone’s mind cause you’re mass producing this stuff. That’s just my opinion. But I do think it does have an effect. Regardless.

If you travel out of America, and you go to India, the first thing an Indian man tries to do to connect with you is like “yo yo.. thug”… and you’re like “oh shit”, this is what they think I am… and so you realize that image is affecting what people think. If the positive stuff is not being pushed on a mass level, then we’re all under the same image, like this thug, drug selling, shooting up… whatever is hip today. So I truly believe that’s what it is.

Because they didn’t do anything to uplift Hip-hop culture. They took one element that was popular, the rap element and on top of it they took one element of the rap element that they thought was marketable for their own purposes.

IG: I don’t know anything about the statistics of this. But just from my perspective. This whole “thug” mass production image, has influenced so many things. Things like fashion, the types of cars people drive, slang, and I’m sure a lot of money gets spent on this image and lifestyle that is being advertised and pushed by the corporate music world.

Jahsun: Yeah it’s influenced everything. And the thing is, I saw this interview with a cipher of these young rappers right, and, the guy was like, “ok, give me some conscious shit, give me some conscious shit”, and these brothers were on point. Like deadly, deadly. And they went around and all of them were saying stuff that was sensitive to what’s going on in that world, not just conscious, like spiritual, but like really knowing what’s going on in their neighborhood and how it affects them. And then he goes “alright give me some gangster shit”, and they flipped, to saying killing this many people…. and super violent lyrics and he’s like, “what do you guys like better?” and they said “You know, we like the real stuff. But the real stuff don’t sell. This is what they want us to do… so we learn this.”

So you know… there’s a lot of kids that are playing the game to get paid.

BW: Yeah they wanna get the record deal.

Jahsun: Yeah. They need to eat. So it’s either spit up all this conscious stuff all day and hang out in the corner, and run away from cops, or I could get a record deal. So I’m not saying everyone’s like that. But the perpetuation of it is due to the fact that, if that’s what people are signing that’s what the income is that’s’ what the business is, and if you wanna be in the business that’s kind of what you gotta do. And you see it all the time.

So I can’t not think that it’s by design. But just listening to the culture, you want it to keep breathing, turn off your radios. Make the ratings drop and keep to underground hip-hop, cd’s, records. If you’re into it.

IG: I really like the idea of music that is going to stick around and has stuck around, is music that has been controversial at some point. The Rite of Spring, Mozart, Charlie Parker etc. And I wonder what the next thing to happen to this music is. If it’s going to soar, and stand up for itself or digress into a fad and become a way for, as you’re saying, continued separation and not recognizing the positive associations of hip-hop and all that comes with it.

Jahsun: Well… Ok I don’t know that much about classical music. But it is a music that has been institutionalized for a long time. And jazz has been institutionalized, not for that long but you can see the difference, and it’s changed things a lot. And I think what happens when you institutionalize something is… well… something living and breathing… institutionalizing it kind it in a sense. In the way we’ve done it. Because they have jazz in a capsule in school. And it’s alive. So how can we say what it is? You can say what it is up until this period. But what is it today?

In terms of hip-hop I don’t know because jazz was the big popular music of the time, but the time we’re talking about that was kind of a repression thing that people didn’t know what to do with, so it wasn’t grabbed by popular culture like hip-hop is today. So it’s kind of taken a different path than the music we’re talking about.  It depends on if it gets institutionalized, what they institutionalize, will they institutionalize the crap that’s on the radio? or real hip-hop culture?

There’s people like KRS One. He’s a great dude, just check out his speeches online ‘cause he gives you good history of hip-hop, and a different perspective. Someone who lives and breathes hip-hop and was there when all these changes happened.

IG: Do you find it’s hard to find your own voice going through the cookie cutter system?

BW: If something is good like jazz or like hip-hop it’s going to attract a lot of money, or maybe no money (laughs) depending. But it’s going to attract students, and people… the force is too great! But it’s still your responsibility as an artists to try and find something new.

I hear people play old Cole Porter tunes beautifully. To hear jazz played in a really conventional way can be beautiful. But I don’t feel there’s enough of a connection amongst the community. You know it’s even hard to find people to play Thelonious Monk tunes. People who truly feel it. And if you truly feel it, that’s a whole different conversation.

So it’s like, what did you grow up listening to? What’s our common ground? If we’re both trained musicians, how can we relate? Popular culture is no longer informing jazz. There are disconnects. And I think that has a lot to do with how people improvise together freely. Let’s just make sound, texture, let’s see if we can get along. Let’s see if we can have a conversation with sound… Or you can be a composer and indoctrinate people into your sound, but there’s not always time for that. You gotta be fast, you gotta have a conversation. So yeah…

As far as finding a voice, that’s always the challenge, I listen to everything I can get my hands on. Try to not rip anyone off, try not to just go with an arbitrary zeitgeist, but stop and think. Also my limitations have a lot to do with it. I can’t do a lot of things other people do, so I do what I can do.

Brahja Waldman on Stravinsky and Charlie Parker:

Living in the year we live in. So much has been done. What do have left to explore? Well, I think a big thing we have in this millennium are these collaborations we have. You would never hear that Stravinsky and Charlie Parker make an album together. Even though Stravinsky was in the audience. They were listening to each other, and feeding off each other though the worlds were so divided. There’s a famous story of Stravinsky being in the front row seats, and Charlie Parker quoting “Firebird” in the first few notes of his solo. And Stravinsky in delight raising his hands “hahaha” and just loving it. I think if we’re going to get anywhere new, it’s bringing these worlds together. You know making a Stravisnky / Charlie Parker record, which, now, any hip-hop producer could do by sampling, but also from living artists getting together. Like Q-tip and Kurt Rosenwinkle. did with Heartcore.

Brahja Waldan on Producing:

I was thinking about what you were saying about living in your old apartment. And it occurred to me that hip- hop and electronic music really shifted the focus to the producer at least to what would have been referred to in the past as the composition of the music. We haven’t even touched on the mc’s or the rhyming, but I think a lot of that is the acknowledgment that people had, that in order to create something new we needed to recycle some of these things. So for you to sit between what your roommate is hearing and what your neighbor is playing how those sounds can intermingle. Well a DJ can do that and a produce that. That’s a new method of composing, and you can call RZA a producer or you can call him a composer. ‘Cause instead of working with an Ab, he’s working with a sample. This is his pad, these are his set of colors.

On Live Drums:

BW: Maybe we could talk about how you approach playing? Wow you approach performing hip-hop beats…the sampling that goes on, along with a live performer. I’m just curious how you try to get everything crisp on a live kit?

Jahsun: I just grew up on that you know? So that’s how I hear drums from the 90s & 2000’s. Obviously with acoustic drums you know, they don’t all sound the same so I try to tune them. Obviously it’s stacked, it’s stacked with something, a tambourine, or what’s the production layer, you try to imitate that. Or stacking cymbals to make them a little dryer and chunkier. A dryer tighter sound in general. So not so open sounding toms too… well… I like open sounding toms personally ‘cause there’s a lot more variety. So make sure you have something you can throw on and change the sound of the kit. ‘Cause my stuff is kind of open.

BW: Really? What about the bass drum?

Jahsun: The bass drum’s a little tighter I use the one at Résonance but I just give it a nice big boom. It sounds great many ways, and many sounds. In terms of the playing, it’s all about incorporating space in your beat. Like play a space. Play a pause. Even in your beats, to make it feel sampled…. just trying to… I’m not a technical drummer…. but just placing silences you know what I mean? So that you feel you loop. And then a lot of displacement… slight displacement… slight displacement.

BW: One  last thing I would say…..the rapping will gain more and more respect as a part of the poetry scene. Even though there’s a clear delineation between poets and mc’s and where they may come from. You can also trace it back to black arts writers and poets like Amiri Baraka, and speaking about the stuff that’s hard to hear. I love Motown and beautiful lyrics but it’s dealing with subject matter that’s easy to digest. Like love and heartbreak. Who’s been saying the other stuff, what’s the voice of the people that live in struggle. Hip-hop has taken that role like David Henderson

Also UMBRA… black arts community group of publishers, musicians, poets, thinkers, getting together. Amiri Baraka was part of it. I was listening to a panel of him talking about 2pac. I don’t know how much he listens to hip-hop in general but I know he has a special love for 2pac and talking about bringing it back. And trying to claim it as something that goes back to this lineage that would go back to black arts and all that.

Jahsun: Yeah 2pac was definitely a revolutionary rapper. He was just two sided you know? Like he had his thug side, but he had a hard life and that would sometimes really bust out. But he was also super political, super smart, super involved in his community, not a rapper that you could say he wasn’t giving back. The dude was always in his community trying to fight youth on the street. And his lineage you know. His mom was a black panther, his uncle a political prisoner. So he definitely has a lot of that link and that knowledge and he put it in his raps. He also put a lot of thug stuff. He was honest, and he wasn’t trying to be glorified. But people glorified him. He put out everything. His diary. His thoughts. He was an artists’ artist.

Check out…

KRS-One (self titled)
Ghostface Killah (Wu-Tang Clan): Iron Man GZA (Wu-Tang Clan): Liquid Swords
Kool Keith: Black Elvis
Digable Planets: Blowout Comb
Mobb Deep: The Infamous
Public Enemy: Fear of a Black Planet
De La Soul: Buhloone Mindstate
De La Soul: Stakes Is High
J Dilla: Jay Deelicious
Wu-Tang Clan: Enter the Wu-Tang 36 Chambers Nas: Illmatic

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