Like any good beat freak, the very first thing I did when I heard the news that legendary rapper and Gang Starr member Guru had died last week was throw Jazzmatazz Vol. 1 on the stereo. Well, actually it was the second thing I did — in all honesty, the first thing I did was watch the THX 1138-themed video for Gang Starr's "You Know My Steez" and shed a single, solitary tear for one of the most innovative artists of hip-hop's golden age. And even though every two moments of unequivocal lyrical genius were offset by an epic lyrical clunker— "Lemonade was a popular drink and it still is"? Huh? — Guru's real lasting impact is that he brought the world Jazzmatazz, uniting hip-hop aesthetics with the visceral experience of live performance. The descendents and beneficiaries of this innovation are staging a full-fledged takeover at this weekend's Illumination festival at Limelight.
It might seem like a stretch to connect a rap legend like Guru to an electronic upstart like Illumination headliner Derek Vincent Smith — aka Pretty Lights — but one listen to Jazzmatazz back-to-back with Smith's latest, Making Up a Changing Mind, and it becomes evident that these are two ends of the same space-funk continuum. Back in 1993, Guru was taking the bold step to bring soul-stirring, live instrumentation to the sample-based world of hip-hop. In 2010, Pretty Lights is working to take sample-based music out of the studio and turn it into a genuine, soul-stirring live music experience. And in both cases they succeed wildly.
Jazzmatazz's "experimental fusion of hip-hop and live jazz," as Guru states on "Introduction," might not seem like a big deal in a day and age when The Roots' ?uestlove is filling the role of our generation's Doc Severinsen, but 17 years ago it was downright mind-blowing. And another 17 years down the road, we'll surely be amazed that every electronic artist didn't follow Smith's lead and drag along a massive (yet increasingly affordable) light show or incorporate live drumming. We can hope (fingers crossed) that future generations of boom-bap enthusiasts will realize the live show is the key, and that all your studio wizardry means nothing if it doesn't move the crowd.
Hell, Smith has rearranged his recording and releasing schedule — he's dropping three digital EPs this year instead of one traditional album — so that he can keep his sets fresh for the crowds that have made him an increasingly hot commodity on the live circuit. He's practically doubled the number of shows he plays annually since releasing 2009's Passing by Behind Your Eyes, and if you talk to him it's pretty evident why — Smith is all about his audience and keeping them as amped as possible. (Nashville indie-rockers take note: This is why crowds are opting for anything but your show. A little more audience participation and a little less artistic self-indulgence and you might be able to woo folks back from the Strictly Dubsteps and Coach vs. Kases of the world.)
If you were at the Pretty Lights show back in October at Exit/In, then you know how well the performance philosophy has worked out: The kids go apeshit, singing along with every sample and losing their minds with every big-beat bass drop. October's show had almost as many people hanging out on the sidewalk after being denied entry as inside the actual club. The energy and excitement surrounding that show was rare for a town as jaded and stodgy as Nashville can be, and Illumination should be even more amped — Smith was responsible for overseeing the artists on the undercard, so expect an onslaught of awesome from the word "go."
From the wobble-bass skronk-step of Ana Sia to the lyrical wizardry of the Gift of Gab, on down to the locals like Kidsmeal, Truly Grimey and This Is Art — who spent the last show standing on the sidewalk staging a pseudo-protest/boombox concert for those in line — the roster for Illumination follows the Pretty Lights lead with a score of engaging live performers. The future of music, despite changes in taste and technology, is about doing it live, and the folks who do it best are the ones who are going to be doing it for a long time — not unlike an MC whose stage name stood for Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal, who built a bridge between jazz and hip-hop and laid the foundation for future generations to build bridges of their own.
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