What is Shaolin Jazz, you say?
A unique musical hybrid spawned from a playful graphic designer’s album cover musings.
However, I spent about 37 minutes chopping it up with the Washington, DC duo that created the unique project, hitting New Orleans for a music lecture at Tulane University and their official debut listening party for Shaolin Jazz this Thursday, to find out… what inspired two Hip Hop heads to marry Jazz standards with perhaps one of the most brash Rap groups of all time, the infamous Wu-Tang Clan, for an entire project?
Round about a decade ago, Gerald Watson II and 2-Tone Jones met upon a recommendation from a mutual friend at tastemaker ‘zine Frank151 when Jones moved from his native Charlotte, NC to the nation’s capital city, where he would find Watson already thick on the scene hosting a variety of art and music parties. In fact, Watson began curating a series of album cover artwork shows themed after favorite artists, eras, genres and labels, each one with a corresponding mixtape to sonically illustrate each show’s theme. “The Classics,” as this one particular series was called, found a good chunk of DJ 2-Tone Jones’ record collection lining the walls of this bar-turned-art gallery, where he also took up residence as the series’ house DJ.
Why the Wu, over any other popular Rap or Hip Hop artists?
Art imitates Art:
While curating this album cover art show series, Watson stumbled across some unofficial graphic design work of one his favorite visual artists, Logan Walters. Walters had re-designed, for his own musing, several Wu-Tang album covers in the distinct style of those of the prestigious Jazz imprint, Blue Note Records. Having always wanted a reason to work with Walters on a project, Watson found himself in the throes of just that shortly after interviewing Walters about his inspiration for these rare Wu covers. Soon Watson and Jones were embarking on the task of creating their next mixtape… this time comprised entirely of original edits and mixes Jones created from Jazz samples and Wu-Tang acapellas. Logan waiting patiently on the sidelines, commission to (of course) design the album cover for Shaolin Jazz, once completed.
Originally intended to accompany its album cover artwork show, the Shaolin Jazz soundtrack revealed itself to be a much more complex undertaking than Jones had anticipated, especially after perfecting the first track, “Astral C.R.E.A.M.” and wanting to take serious time out to develop these tracks and do both all of these Jazz greats as well as the game-changing Wu-Tang Clan their just due, he decided to continue working on the project well passed its corresponding art show. Six months and 18,000 downloads later, here we sit.
+ Peep some of the artwork that inspired the Shaolin Jazz project here.
So how did 2-Tone go about choosing which Jazz samples to pair with which Wu lyrics?
Tone says that, first of all, he really wanted to engage both hard-core Wu heads that knew all their joints as well as allow newbies to get acclimated to the 9-member Staten Island, NYC power group, perhaps even snag a few Jazz cats into the loop.
Now, we all know that Jazz samples used in Hip Hop beat-making is nothing new under the sun, but an entire album of Clan bars laced over new Jazz edits and remixes? Not sure that particular combination has been tackled. Watson and Jones simply wanted to make the inherent, yet commonly overlooked, connections between Jazz and Hip Hop more evident or accessible to a broader audience.
In this way, Jones decided to use mostly ’60s and ’70s era Jazz tunes to sample from, he says mainly because that period involves music that is easier rhythmically to pair with the rigid vocals of the Wu’s “Shaolin” New York Island, than say the big band swing of Jazz’s earlier phase or even more contemporary “free” Jazz stylings.
Yet, 2-Tone also wanted to cover a range of Jazz artists to illustrate even more interconnectedness between often separated genres, such as on the project’s second track, “Scalpel” which features two seemingly different musical styles with lush samples from Ethiopia’s Mulatu Astatki (also recently re-imagined by modern composer Miguel Atwood-Ferguson and the good folks over at Mochilla – the crew responsible for the famed live orchestral J Dilla project, Suite for Ma Dukes) blended carefully with sounds from Jamaica’s Reggae/Dancehall DJ, Super Cat.
As for which Wu acapellas were selected? Well, Jones laughs, he was at the mercy of a single file of Wu-Tang vocals he was able to get his hands on… which, to much entertainment, contained quite a few odd, rare and often explicit out-takes, intros, interludes and monologues. True, this album is not for virgin ears. The 37th Chamber is most definitely not a library of all popular Wu lyrics.
So what does the Clan think about all this?
Anytime we’re dealing with heavily-sampled Hip Hop, the next question to undoubtedly pop up is: are you worried about copyright infringement? What do the original artists or their estates have to say?
Watson and Jones assure that the Shaolin Jazz project is NOT for sale, it is explicitly for free listening only, and that there is enough usually to save one from most legal drama.
As for whether or not they’ve received feedback from the Clan, they haven’t gotten any direct or specific thoughts from the Shaolin 9, although they have confirmations that a few of the members, such as Raekwon and RZA, had indeed at least received copies. In fact, a post about the project showed up on Wu-Tang’s official blog site not long ago. Guess they don’t think it’s too bad.
No word yet from the Jazz camp on these joints. Maybe this stop in New Orleans will yield a few comments from some Jazz folks.
Are they nervous coming to the Birthplace of Jazz to present what may be perceived by many as a mash-up?
Naw, the duo even cites the roots of New Orleans deeply embedded in this project right in the liner notes by giving the two most popular definitions of Jazz; “1) American classical music. and 2) Music originating in New Orleans around the beginning of the 20th century and subsequently developing through various increasingly complex styles generally marked by intricate, propulsive rhythms , polyphonic ensemble playing, and improvisatory, virtuosic solos.”
They could not be more excited to present this project in New Orleans for the first time, given Jazz’s roots in the city’s heritage.
But what about New Orleans Hip Hop, what is New Orleans Hip Hop going to think about this project? If your next project was to pair New Orleans Jazz and Roots music with New Orleans Hip Hop, which artists would you want to chop up?
Jones says of course some Juvenile, probably some Curren$y, maybe even some Weezy – that might be fun. But for sure some of that old, old Mannie Fresh stuff and definitely getting his hands on some Mia X would be amazing.
Given that New Orleans is already running through Shaolin Jazz, The 37th Chamber with some Wynton Marsalis breaks, Jones notes that he’d actually really like to delve into some Second Line [Brass] music – would love to work with some Soul Rebels, and then some Jelly Roll Morton.
Yes, this trip should definitely prove interesting for these guys.
Will the 65-year-old Jazz die-hard suddenly appreciate Rap, even the Wu-Tang Clan, after listening to Shaolin Jazz? Only time will tell, but so far, 18,000+ people are giving it a spin.
I’m really enjoying “Chameleon 500″ and “Killa Tape / Astral CREAM”, but…
Download your copy for FREE here.
The 37th Chamber: Shaolin Jazz Exclusive Listening Party
Thursday, February 2 /// 10pm
@ Dragons Den – 435 Esplanade Ave.
RSVP Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Click here for more details.