Now that got your attention! It’s not entirely irrelevant, I swear…
Arriving at SXSW on Wednesday, the day before the start of Berklee’s events – read more and watch videos here – I hit the convention center to catch a few panels before the craziness started. Looking through the SXSW Directory – which was about as thick as a mid-sized-city’s yellow pages (but who uses one of those anymore…) – I saw that two Berklee alumni were on an upcoming panel, so I headed over.
The Intersection of Jazz and Hip Hop was moderated by Berklee alumnus Brian “Raydar” Ellis ‘05, now an instructor of turntablism, and included alumna Meghan Stabile ‘06, founder of the Revive Music Group and online music journal the Revivalist. The other panelists were producer Erin Davis, son of Miles Davis; Vincent Wilburn Jr., CEO of Nefdrum Productions (and nephew of Miles Davis); Andre Torres, editor of influential music magazine Wax Poetics; and noted turntablist DJ Logic.
I didn’t see the whole panel, but much of it focused on Miles Davis’s enduring influence on jazz, hip-hop, and pop music in general. Ellis opened up with
a few questions to the panelists: The intersection of jazz and hip hop, what does that mean? Where did it come from? How did Miles influence it and inspire you?
Miles’s son Erin threw up his hands as if to say, “Isn’t it obvious?” He elaborated, “He took me on the road with him at 15 and I said, ‘this is it…I’m lucky, I know what I want to do with my life now.’” Wilburn added that the impression Miles left with him was to go for it. Push, push, push. Don’t settle. Torres agreed and echoed the idea that pushing boundaries was important to Miles. “He defined what my idea of jazz was, and he redefined again and again, by continually pushing it forward.”
Said Stabile, “What inspired me was how much Miles music has influenced the younger generation of jazz musicians.” Stabile later explained why she founded the Revive Music Group. “I wasn’t exposed to jazz growing up; it was just MTV and what you hear on the radio. That’s why I went to Berklee. I wanted more than that.” When she got to Berklee, she was blown away by the musicianship, but disappointed that jazz wasn’t on the radio the way it was when it was contemporary popular music. “I wanted to find a way to expose it, to bring jazz to the forefront of people’s minds.”
The first Revive show was a marriage of jazz and hip-hop with people Stabile knew at Berklee – including Ellis, who she counts as a major inspiration. Instead of the hip-hop group being backed by their DJ, she arranged for a jazz band to play. “Now we’re doing shows with Nicholas Payton and Talib Kweli, and had the honor of doing a show with Guru and Roy Hargrove,” said Stabile. “I had the idea back at Berklee, I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to do a show with Guru and Roy Hargrove?’ Then two years later, I was in a position to do it.”
Ellis continued the discussion, proposing that Miles was the prototype for the modern pop star. By constantly re-inventing himself and creating so many different types of music, he was the model for artists like Lady Gaga and Madonna. Asked to comment on why Miles did this, Davis said, “I think he probably got tired of playing the same thing. People like Madonna and U2 have long careers because they change what they do. A lot of hip-hop is about collaborations and cross-pollination. Jazz has always been like that too.”
Said Wilburn of recent Grammy adversaries Esperanza Spalding and Justin Bieber, “Esperanza and Bieber should make a record together.” Once the laughter died down, he continued, “I’m serious! Esperanza’s contribution to music is as important as Bieber. I don’t call her a jazz musician, it’s just music. She just happens to play bass.” I would argue her contribution to music (not pop culture) is much more significant than Bieber’s…
Getting back to hip-hop, Ellis said when he tells people that he teaches turntable lab at Berklee, many are still surprised to hear that turntable is being taught as an instrument. Before he could even ask for comment, DJ Logic jumped in shaking his head, “Turntable is most definitely an instrument. It’s like the blues, no one knew the washboard was an instrument until people started using it that way.”
Berklee faculty and alumni made their mark on other panels around SXSW, including Assistant Professor Allen Bargfrede, on Creativity, Commerce, and Policy: A Conversation; Sonicbids founder Panos Panay ’94 moderated How Brands Are using Emerging Music to Reach Consumers; and Semi-Precious Weapons singer Justin Tranter ’01, on What Would Gaga Do?