[27 September 2004]
Hidden Beach’s Unwrapped series is dedicated to bridging the cultural and musical gaps between jazz and hip-hop. To do this, they have concocted a pretty decent formula: assemble a crack team of some of the best and brightest jazz session players to reinterpret some of the most recognizable pieces of music in the hip-hop canon. Although the series has proven an undeniable commercial success, the third volume unwittingly straddles an unfortunate dilemma.
In the first place, producing instrumental reinterpretations of pop hits still carries the unfortunate stink of elevator music. There has been an explosion of mostly cut-rate “Tribute” albums in the past few years, mostly featuring anonymous string quartets or faceless studio musicians. (I actually purchased one of these, dedicated to the music of the Chemical Brothers, which remains—as you might easily imagine—probably the single funniest CD I own.) The liner notes of Unwrapped 3 take great pains to separate the series from the host of imitators who have flooded the market in recent years. There is definitely a musical acumen at work here that places the series above and beyond the level of mere imitation—but the question still remains, is it a compelling project on its own merits?
The collection features some of the most popular tracks of the past few years: 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” and “P.I.M.P.”, Eminem’s “Lose Yourself”, Outkast’s “The Way You Move” and Snoop Dogg’s “Beautiful”. There are tribute medleys dedicated to Tupac, the Notorious B.I.G., and Jam Master Jay. There are also a few more chosen picks from the hip-hop repertoire, such as A Tribe Called Quest’s “Check the Rhime” and Lauren Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing)”. I must admit that my proverbial Spider-Sense started tingling the moment I saw such a hit-heavy track listing. As funky as “In Da Club” or “Beautiful” may be, are they really the most interesting instrumental hip-hop tracks out there from the perspective of a panel of all-star jazz soloist? Or are they merely the most popular and recognizable tracks from the commercial perspective?
Fusion is tricky business. Anyone can mix genres, but to do so effectively, without losing the compelling aspects of either strain in the mix, is one of the great hidden arts in all of music. Miles Davis’s “Bitches Brew” is still perhaps the greatest jazz/rock fusion achievement of all time because Davis managed to get at the heart of what made rock and funk so powerful without sacrificing the intellectual or emotional rigor of modal jazz in the process. How many lame rap/rock combos were there in the genre’s salad days, and how few of them managed to have the same masterful impact on both genres as Rage Against The Machine?
The fact is, Unwrapped has the unmistakable stink of a uniquely commercial endeavor. That is not to say that this is a bad album, but in terms of a deep and involved examination of the connections between jazz and hip-hop, you’d be much better off with Modeski, Martin and Wood or any number of Ninja Tune artists. As the liner notes so eloquently put it:
[The] whole purpose of these CDs is not to ‘water down’ hip-hop, but to pay homage to it, with the goal of introducing younger audiences to the art of solo musicianship, and an older audience to the foundation that makes up several of today’s hip-hop hits.
It is only moderately successful at these goals. To begin, the vein of poppy, hook-based hip-hop they have chosen is, for the most part, musically uninteresting. “In Da Club” is irresistibly funky, yes, but it is also basically four bars, repeated with no variation, for the duration of a four-minute long song. In order to make something interesting out of this, the band has to turn on a dime in the middle of the groove and introduce a middle-eight section that didn’t exist in the original. The laid-back and sweetly funky middle-eight is great for a trombone solo, but totally at odds with the hard grime of the original groove.
In other instances, such as “P.I.M.P.”, the rhythmical bed is kept mostly intact while the melodic instruments are given carte blanche to solo. This is a slightly more interesting approach, especially given the presence of jazz keyboard impresario Jeff Lorber. The most interesting adaptation is made in their version of “Lose Yourself”, which inserts Karen Briggs’ manic violin into the song in place of Eminem’s desperate swagger. Peter Black’s hair-metal guitar work, however, adds nothing.
The Tupac and Biggie medleys are mostly uninteresting, showcasing the assembled musicians’ unfortunate tendency towards 1980s-style funky electric bass. Unsurprisingly, their version of Snoop Dogg and Pharrell’s “Beautiful” is a highlight. The original version featured some extremely canny and subtle instrumentation from the Neptunes’ house band, Spymob, and this version holds up its side of the bargain pretty well (save for the unfortunate wah-wah trombone work by Hidden Beach stalwart Jeff Bradshaw).
“Doo Wop (That Thing)” is noticeably unmolested from its original incarnation, with the exception of Mike Phillips’ saxophone solo sitting in for Lauren Hill’s voice. “The Way You Move” is one of the better adaptations on the disc, primarily because of the fact that it also hews closely to the original, without sacrificing the groove for a chance to solo.
Unwappred 3 is an oddball. It was obviously put together with strong crossover appeal in mind, but its appeal to the more knowledgeable jazz fan is limited. I don’t know how many hip-hop fans will be tempted either. That is not to say that the disc is totally without charms, but as anything other than a very basic crash course on jazz technique it is primarily uninteresting.