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March 22, 2016

Tapping Into the Mo’ Better Music Well

Striking a balance between referencing music from the past and the here and now.


In the movie Mo' Better Blues, Spike Lee’s exploration of a gifted trumpeter dealing with the internal battle of playing music that’s true to his heart vs. what’s commercially viable in contemporary jazz, there's a scene where Bleek, the beleaguered trumpeter/bandleader played by Denzel Washington, leads the quintet in a fun and entertaining hip hop-inspired composition. The purpose of the piece and performance, as we learn in the film, is to give the people "what they want.” Of course, the clear implication of this sentiment is that the people assembled at this popular jazz club (who are all affluent and mostly white), do not want the classic style of jazz that Bleek prefers to play. This is one of the major underlying themes of Mo’ Better Blues: Since jazz has lost much of its broad-based common appeal in the contemporary music landscape, how do you remain commercially relevant while still remaining true to the classic jazz style and sound?

For Bleek, who’s torn between the choice of two women as much as he is between the choice of selling out and not playing the kind of jazz that's in his heart, it's important to maintain a connection to the essence of an era long gone, the Jazz Age, ca. 1930s-1960s. At various moments throughout Mo’ Better Blues, we see Bleek’s attempts to maintain this connection. In one scene, he laments about how jazz used to be (sound familiar). In another scene, we see how he guarded he his with his collection of rare jazz records — all vinyl. And, in perhaps one of the most telling scenes, we see Bleek's commitment to practice — a practice regiment meant to echo the legendary practice regiment of the great saxophonist John Coltrane.

Although Bleek is firmly committed to keeping an emotional, mental, and stylistic connection to the essence of the Jazz Age, he is at all times acutely aware of the commercial realities of contemporary jazz. Bleek is paid well and treated like royalty. The club he and his band headlines is pricey; and there's a huge line for all of their shows. Yet, Bleek is deeply troubled. In one scene, he complains to bandmate, friend, and nemesis, Shadow (Wesley Snipes), about the lack of black people who attend his own performances. More disheartening to Bleek is his realization that the people who attend their shows have no idea what “real” jazz sounds like or even care.

The feeling is crystalized when Bleek leads the band in the tune "Mo' Better Blues," a song (written by him) that serves as an ode to the style and sound of jazz that he knows he will never be able to let go despite the commercial realities of contemporary jazz. After finishing the song, Bleek walks off the stage, refusing to perform again that nigh. It is at this precise moment that Bleek realizes he no longer has to struggle to maintain a connection to the musical past. He knows that it's in him, and he's content with the fact that, for a moment at least, the club-goers were able to take in a piece of music that was well within the jazz tradition he loves and so admires.

For me, Bleek’s plight in Mo' Better Blues is analogous to the battle that many contemporary beatmakers face. Like Bleek, there are some beatmakers who look to uphold the essence of the hip hop/rap music and beatmaking traditions. Still, there are many who do not. If you look at the foundational influences that beatmakers referenced throughout the first 30 years of hip hop/rap music, clear patterns emerge. In the 1970s, DJs (beatmakers) referenced early funk musicians. In the 1980s, beatmakers continued to reference early funk musicians while expanding their references to include late funk, rock, and electro pop. In the 1990s, beatmakers further expanded their musical references to include jazz and a return to soul. Thus, between the early 1970s and the mid-1990s, beatmakers, by and large, referenced the vast music well of the past. Here, it's important to point out that this does not mean that during this same period, beatmakers did not reference each other; of course they did. It’s impossible for beatmakers — like any other artists — to not be influenced (in some way or another) by the work of their contemporaries. But it's worth noting that for more than 25 years, most beatmakers referenced a healthy balance of the past and their present. It’s also worth noting that many beatmakers looked to the past, not only for inspiration and understanding, but for cues on how to create new styles and sounds of the future.

In recent years, referencing the music well of the past has increasingly become an unfamiliar practice for many beatmakers who have instead chosen to flock — in clone-like droves — towards referencing only the music of their contemporaries. Such a trend, which, for all intents and purposes, flies directly in the face of one of hip hop/rap's most fundamental traditions: Referencing and studying what came before in order to be the sound- and style-leaders of the future.

Again, referencing the music (sounds and styles) of one's contemporaries is certainly not a bad thing for beatmakers. I strongly support and encourage the practice. But I believe it’s unwise to only reference your contemporaries or to be deferential only to current trends. I see this as a dereliction of artistic and creative duty. Without some conscious link to the essence of the hip hop/rap music and beatmaking traditions, a beatmaker is more likely to ignore what came before. And by ignoring what came before — whether due to contemporary commercial realities or some other pressing concern — in favor of what "is now," a beatmaker disconnects him or herself from the musical well of hip hop/rap and other musics of the past.

Thus for me, Mo' Better Blues serves as a cautionary tale for beatmakers. If we don’t want to go the way of the jazz legends; if we don’t want hip hop/rap music to lose its cultural and commercial relevance; if we don’t want hip hop/rap music to become something witnessed and experienced only by one affluent ethnicity, inside of plush, pricey clubs and the like; then, I believe we must balance our musical referencing of the here and now with the healthy inclusion of the vast musical well of the past. To strike such a balance means to enrich your overall musical understanding. It also helps assure the survival of the hip hop/rap music tradition.

The music and videos below are presented here for the purpose of scholarship.

"Mo' Better Blues" (By Terrance Blanchard, performed by Brandford Marsellis Quartet)

Gang Starr - "A Jazz Thing"

The BeatTips Manual by Amir Said (Sa'id).
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Dedicated to exploring the art of beatmaking in all of its glory.

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