Jazz-hop: A Lot of Hop, Not So Much Jazz

Don’t get me wrong, I love ambient beats as much as the next procrastinating college student. It’s the genre’s “label” that’s just a little confusing.

There truly is a genuinely tranquil sensation that comes with sitting down, opening your laptop, popping in your earphones, and listening to one of these playlists as you focus. Your average listener may think it to that extent and nothing more. But for me, once the first note hits my ears, I’m opening a mental notebook and flipping through the pages.

One thing’s for sure: This style of ambient music is definitely “hop,” borrowing from the boom-bap style of hip-hop that was popular in the late 80’s and throughout the 90’s. Almost every single track in every jazz-hop playlist you’ll come across will be a head-bobber and the percussion will be easy to follow. It’s almost as if each one is saying to sit back, relax, and let images of baggy jeans, white t-shirts, and maybe a red bandanna or two course through your brain.

But then there’s the “jazz” part of jazz-hop. It’s not that I have any problem with it. It’s that I think it should be…a little more narrow than that.

Let me give you some context. Here’s what people in the late 50’s and 60’s thought of when they heard someone say the word “jazz”:

To the non-purist, it’s just as ambient as jazz-hop. It’s a flurry of notes and nothing more, something you let waft over you instead of something you sit down to analyze.

But this association stayed relatively the same all the way up until just recently, when computers and the internet and easier means of music production took over. Now, when someone says “jazz,” you may find an audience member or two thinking of jazz-hop before anything else, or even something like the jazz fusion work of bands like Sungazer.

There’s nothing wrong with that. And it’s not that I expect anything to change because of my opinion. It’s just that…there’s hardly any “jazz” at all in the jazz-hop of today.

When you listen to the above jazz-hop playlist I linked, the first few sounds you hear are some jazz chords being played on a guitar, alongside some horns, on top of the beat. It’s jazzy for sure. And then, ten seconds after listening to that tune, you realize that nothing changes. The chords are the exact same all the way through, the beat is consistent, and the notes the horns are playing are so sparse and ambient that they’re hardly noticeable. Spare a handful of exceptions (like what producer Tom Misch does) and you’ve got the entirety of the genre.

Right there and then is when we run into conflict. Sure, the music the instruments being sampled are playing is “jazzy,” but that’s really where it ends; “jazz,” in this case, is an adjective rather than a noun.

The music is “jazzy,” it reminds you of “jazz,” its resemblance is that of “jazz,” but it’s not actually jazz.

It’s a matter of balance, of equally distributing both the hip-hop and jazz influences throughout your track to create something truly inventive. What most people do today is rely on a heavier foundation of hip-hop that’s sprinkled with jazz, rather than, say, working with the inverse. In that case, I’d think you’re better off just calling it instrumental hip-hop. What makes this compilation so different than, say, something Inner Ocean Records would put out?

With today’s jazz-hop, you don’t really get catchy choruses surrounded by virtuosic instrumental solos on top of a consistent hip-hop beat. I guess that’s why the genre’s a little odd to me. I like beats and all, but eventually I’d like to hear something that shakes it up, something that combines Charlie Parker’s bebop with the beat-work of Nujabes.

I’ll chalk it up to intelligent product marketing. Most people associate jazz with states of tranquility and relaxation, so when they see “jazz-hop,” they’ll think of just that, instead of what they may consider to be the more aggressive hip-hop or the confusing and sometimes-depressing “lo-fi” hip-hop.

What do you think?