Guru & Solar: Bass Head Jazz

posted February 19, 2008 12:00:00 AM CST | 12 comments

Almost five years ago, when Gang Starr opted to close the book on a working relationship, Hip Hop fans had a lot to say. Those conversations, some of which are still ongoing, tended to be validating of the producer who helped birth the sounds of Biggie, Jay-Z and Nas than the emcee who largely kept his work as an in-house commodity.

Within that trend, perhaps many had all-too-quickly overlooked Jazzmatazz, a four-part franchise that had revived, reconsidered and recreated the careers of Jazz legends like Roy Ayers, Donald Byrd and Lonnie Liston Smith. These releases were not only audio textbooks in the mid-to-late '90s, but they sold well, backed by Chrysalis/EMI, and spawning three years of extensive touring.

Despite the early resistance in Volume 4, the recent mixtape Back To The Future garnered rave reviews. With assistance from everyone from Common to Mr. Lif, the mixtape that feels like an album is continuing that education at a time when skeptics argue we need it most. Joined by his musical companion Solar, the two scoff at the Grammy Awards Nomination Committee, the major labels and the term Smooth Jazz. 7 Grand has withstood its first four years, see how the Brooklyn imprint intends to go forward. The Back To The Future mixtape is getting some strong reviews, which perhaps comes as a surprise to some. How is this reaction affirming what youre doing?
Its very rewarding. We started 7 Grand in 2004 with the premise of doing just that: stimulating Hip Hop, creating balance and bringing interest and love back to the whole east coast/New York scene and so forth. In that respect, its very, very rewarding. The mixtape is a raw companion to Jazzmatazz 4, and Solar brilliantly came up with the concept, and its setting out to do exactly as we set it out to do.
Solar: Even out of the miles of idiots can come a genius thought. The idiots, in this case, are the major labels. When we were shopping Jazzmatazz to them and of course Jazzmatazz was always a major label franchise for the first three episodes, when we shopped part four, the responses were moronic at best. This is too much for the kids to buy. Its too musical, too intelligent! I dont need to go any further. So I walked away thinking theyre wrong, completely, cause I know that the young heads are not that stupid out there. I think its foolish when anybody especially men of power, are gonna count out a whole generation as stupid. I couldnt believe that. It stuck with me. Weve invigorated the franchise. Part four had to be at a musically higher stature. I had to do that. I thought we would have had a Grammy-worthy album there, and Im very disappointed with the Grammys not nominating us. We worked hard and endeavored hard to make that album, but the mix CD was fun. Hard, bangin beats. It really just flowed.

DX: As far as the reactions you got from the majors at the time of Volume 4, was positioning this release against EMIs release of Jazzmatazzs Greatest Hits a way of getting them back, by riding their marketing budget?
Actually, its just the opposite. They were very spiteful to Guru. [Guru laughs] They were being very mean and arrogant. They didnt even let Guru pick the songs on that. We had to find out through the grapevine that it was coming out. They gave us no advances. They acted very hostile towards us, and its a puzzling situation considering how much money hes made for them. Its really a statement to how evil these people have become.

DX: From intros to interludes throughout the Jazzmatazz franchise, anyone can get an education on the correlation between Hip Hop and Jazz. In terms of culture and lifestyle, how are these cultures the same?
It went from being an underground thing in its inception and then it became popular, more mainstream, and then it got embraced more overseas both Jazz and Hip Hop have gone through that. Overseas, they embraced the organic-ness and the pureness of each culture, whether it be Jazz or Hip Hop, and held it down till the U.S. got back to it. I would say thats a similarity.
S: I accessed some DVDs and archival footage of the Jazz culture. Unlike Guru, I didnt really come from any real [Jazz] upbringing; the streets brought me up. Im not that much unlike 50 Cent in some ways, we just took different paths in life to where we got. So I accessed those DVDs, and I was listening to a [John] Coltrane record, and I heard a bass part [mimics the sounds] and it sounded like [Chics] Good Times [mimics]. Niles Rodgers from Chic was basically listening to what these cats where doing, and just took a heavy electronic, Fender bass and a heavy Disco drum beat and transferred it. Then I started listening to Steely Dan and Earth Wind & Fire, and I said, This is all Jazz. Its just been reformatted, reinvented and refused.

In their culture, [race] was good. In Hip Hop, I was a part of that. They saw us on the train with boom-boxes and our sneakers off, and people were afraid of us. We knew what profiling was before it was even called profiling. Within Hip Hop culture though, we accepted the white kids with open arms; they were welcome to come to our parties and experience what we were doing. Equally, interracial dating and sex and so on this is the same thing you see in Jazz.

DX: Jazz in the 60s was hardcore, it was dense, it was hard to digest. In the 70s, fusion was welcomed and there was a more conventional approach to music. Youve worked with Jazz artists from both eras on Jazzmatazz. Do you think this progression parallels whats happened with Hip Hop going from the 90s to today?
Hmm. Thats a very good point very good. I would say yes. There is a correlation. There are so many correlations between Hip Hop and Jazz, even in the cadences of beats and so forth, you can hear Hip Hop rhythms in the beats and so forth; its bananas. Each evolution of each artform and each genre relates to the times that were livin in. it relates to whats going on commercially, in the mainstream, and then artists who go against the grain. Most of the artists that Ive worked with in Jazzmatazz, they started out as pure Jazz, but then they all ventured into fusion. From Ramsey Lewis to Roy Ayers and Donald Byrd and Herbie Hancock, Isaac Hayes and so forth, they were into fusion. Herbie and Ramsey started messin with the synthesizer.

DX: How do you both feel about the term or the genre Smooth Jazz?
I see Smooth Jazz as a [synonym] for Modern Jazz. I listen to the Smooth Jazz station a lot of times coming back from the airport, 101. Youll hear Alicia Keys and Earth Wind & Fire in there.
G: Spiro Gyra.
S: George Benson. This is something that were looking to work into our repertoire. Weve looked at getting ["Living Legend"], the David Sanborn track onto there. We just havent had time to work radio.
G: [We want] to be the first Hip Hop artist in that format.
S: I think Smooth Jazz is the future. It keeps it lighter in the sense, but at the same time, its still recognized as Jazz.

DX: You mentioned an interesting point about being shunned by the Grammys. Queen Latifah has evolved from emcee to Jazz and Soul vocalist, and shes gotten the support from the Grammys. You guys have not. Do you think theres a reason for that, perhaps the cursing on the records?
If youre gonna nominate a crackhead [Amy Winehouse].
S: Or if youre gonna nominate Kanye. I just dont see it. Quite honestly, I think this is another example of America looking foolish to the rest of the world. Were getting ready to go on tour to London to Moscow to Greece, I think theyre looking at this and rubbing their fingers, Shame on America. They love Guru. They love this concept. They love this intelligent music, and America turns its back on it?
G: The Timebomb is a whole new extension. On all four volumes, theres never been any cursing. Not by design, it just came out like that. Thats even more brilliant. Its almost like theyre trying to ask like it doesnt exist.
S: If this is what it means these days, to give awards to a crackhead who cant even perform onstage without doing coke, but Guru and Solar cant get an award, then its a wake-up for America. And we are good Americans, so dont get it twisted. The people are our Grammy. Youre our Grammy.

DX: What are your record collections like and how are they organized?
I have a have a huge vinyl collection that encompasses records all the way back to the 20s, 30s. I just did some record shopping. I just bought the soundtrack to Guys & Dolls, Aliens, Blazing Saddles. I just love recorded music. My record collection is of everything. My musical taste runs the gambit. I dont have it organized. [Laughs] Its a nightmare to have to dig through the crates for the vinyl. Limewire is how I organize it.
His basement is full. I dont have a lot of vinyl; I used to. Over the yearssome of its with my parents, out there in Cape Cod, and the rest of it has been dispersed. I have a lot of CDs, and so forth. As far as the vinyl, Solars got tons.

DX: Its old news now maybe, but as a guy from Boston, youre still such a New Yorker. How did you look at The Super Bowl?
I had to root for the Giants. Im here now; Im an honorary New Yorker. Something in my gut told me in my gut that they were gonna make history. I also felt like the Patriots had won enough. Fall back for a minute. [Laughs] Thirdly, I had to root for my man Michael Strahan. They dragged him through the mud for that 15 million dollar [alimony suit] here in New York; its good to see him get em back.

DX: Lastly, Jazzmatazz has been time capsules on CDs and vinyl. Have there been performances to go along with the Jazz artists for these releases?
Yeah. Extensively. The first Jazzmatazz Tour, I had Donald Byrd from 93 to 95, all over the world. I toured also with Lonnie Liston Smith. It was bananas, yo. Donald Byrd with his hat to the back, with some Timbs on. Roy Ayers, Herbie Hancock and Angie Stone all toured with me. We toured in 2007 with the 7 Grand Band, who Solar has assembled, of the top musicians from all over the world.
S: Hand-picked from Africa to America to Canada to the U.K. Its just hard for us now, and I need to get this point out. Its an independent record, and we do need the support. We need the fans to buy physical copies, to download legally to keep this thing going. As an independent label, to try and keep a full band going, its almost impossible. We love that element, wed just like to get to a better financial state to do it.

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