Hip-hop has been mistaken for many things and it is unlikely that hip-hop, even in its most commercial forms, has ever been mistaken for “smooooove” jazz. Obviously no one has ever explained this to Steve Mckeever and the Hidden Beach label which assembled an all-star collection of session musicians, including guitarist Paul Jackson, Jr., Patrice “baby fingers” Rushen, and saxophonist Everette Harp, for a collection of “smooove” jazz renditions of some recent hip-hop head-nodders. Almost a decade after a wide-range of hip-hop and jazz artists including Guru, Branford Marsalis, Digable Planets, and Greg Osby worked real hard to perfect the jazz-hip-hop hybrid that so many felt was so natural, Hidden Beach’s Unwrapped Vol. 1 quietly returns to that terrain.
The idea of instrumental hip-hop is of course not new. Many of the early 12-inch releases in the genre featured instrumental versions of the singles, which were inevitably used as break beats by crews on the street. Many of the early 1990s hip-hop/jazz hybrids sacrificed musical innovation for conventional hip-hop flow (Guru’s Jazzamatazz), while others sacrificed lyrical quality and continuity for more traditional jazz improvisation (Steve Coleman and The Metrics’ A Tale of 3 Cities and Greg Osby’s 3-D Lifestyles). Only Branford Marsalis’s two Buckshot LeFonque recordings came anywhere close to a balance between the aesthetic integrity of both genres, though his concept of hip-hop/jazz more rooted to the musical sensibilities of hip-hop as opposed to the lyrical. In the last year, the BBE label (Barely Breaking Even) began an ambitious “DJ as Instrumentalist” with initial releases by Pete Rock (PeteStrumentals), the long time “money earnin’” Mount Vernon native, who as half of Pete Rock and CL Smooth created a distinct hard-boppish East Coast sound with tracks like “The Reminisce Over You” and Detroit’s J-Dilla/Jay Dee (Welcome 2 Detroit) who has provided many of the beats for the Soulquarian collective and his own group Slum Village. Jay Dee’s “revision” of Donald Byrd’s “Think Twice” (the sample for the Main Source classic “Lookin’ at the Front Door”) in one of the great hip-hop moments of 2001.
Unwrapped, Vol. 1 is not nearly so ambitious. It is simply lite-jazz covers of popular hip-hop recordings with requisite “lite” backing vocals, but it is done in such a casual and un-pretentious fashion, one has to wonder why the Gerald Albrights, Dave Kozs, Richard Elliots and Najees of the world hadn’t done it first. One of the best examples of the project’s casual style is the version of Lil Kim’s “Crush on You” which originally sampled Jeff Lorber’s (oh the drone of it all!) “Rain Dance”. The Unwrapped version is as dreamy as the original is infectious (with Biggie’s “I know your heard me on the radio . . .”). On the track Patrice Rushen doubles, and finely so, on the vibes and the keyboards. Veteran session guitarist Paul Jackson, Jr. and flutist Louis Van Taylor are also given room to get their hip-hop grooves on as the high quality of the track may make some of the old-schoolers reminisce about Motown’s famed “Funk Brothers” (bassist James Jamerson and pianist Earl Van Dyke).
Few of the remaining tracks on Unwrapped match the fluidity of “Crush on You”, though L.L. Cool J’s “Loungin’ (Who Do You Love)”, based on Bernard Wright’s “Who Do You Love” is given a pleasing Latin-spin behind the acoustic guitar of Paul Jackson, Jr. Reed man Louis Van Taylor and the “Horny Horns” (Taylor, Johnny Britt and Steve Baxter) ground a sluggish and chunky rendition of Common’s “The Light,” (based on Bobby Caldwell’s “Open Your Eyes”) that lacks any of the sleekness of the original. Unwrapped’s version of Biggie’s “One More Chance” is quite frankly so boring, that one my be compelled to seek out the DeBarge original “Stay with Me” alternately yearning for El Debarge’s fine falsetto or Biggie’s classic “Crooklyn” flow.
Though all of the aforementioned tracks were logical inclusions on the projects, there were some notable missed opportunities and missteps. A Tribe Called Quest’s “Bonita Applebaum” gets a new twist via the harmonica of Tim “the Swede” Welvaars (Toots Theilman in the ‘hood I guess), but given the original song’s sampling of Roy Ayers (“Daylight”) and Rotary Connection’s “Memory Band”, the track comes off as flat. A more dramatic missed opportunity comes courtesy of Unwrapped’s version of The Roots’ Grammy Award winning “You Got Me”, though the work of violinist Karen Biggs, gives the track an edge that the Badu version of the song lacks. (Jill Scott recorded a still unreleased version of the song with The Roots initially). The Unwrapped version simply sounds cluttered and unfocused and while that may have been the clever intent, it is intrusive to a track which is essentially “smooooove” jazz. Along side those missteps are more than a few songs that may have listeners asking “what were they thinking”? The covers of Mystical’s “Danger”, Outkast’s “Ms. Jackson” and worse still “So Fresh So Clean” were simply mistakes, while the choice to cover Dr. Dre’s “Forgot About Dre” is just bizarre.
Hidden Beach is of course the label who introduced audiences to Jill Scott, whose follow-up disc Jill Scott: The Experience dropped in late-November. Rather than try to “take over” the neo-soul industry, Mckeever et al have tried to cultivate a small niche within the industry with Scott, Brenda Russell’s Paris Rain and Unwrapped. Like so many “smooove” jazz recordings, Unwrapped goes down smoothly and painlessly, fulfilling the multiple roles of progressive department store music, backgrounds for voice mail greetings, unobtrusive, but yet still conversation enhancing fodders for dinner parties and book signings, the CD most likely to be grabbed on “smoooove” winter drives.
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