“What’s the difference between me and you?” the three MCs from the T.Dot Bangerz Brass band ask, performing a bombastic cypher of Dr. Dre’s “What’s the Difference.” The difference between these three rappers and most modern hip-hop artists is that they’re backed by a full brass band complete with trumpets, saxophones, trombone, drums and even a sousaphone.
The Bangerz Brass have been forging this unique mix of brass band music and hip-hop for two years now, coming up busking on the streets of Toronto. They’re just one example of the crossover between jazz and hip-hop; recently, artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Tyler the Creator, Lizzo, Kamasi Washington, to name a few, have been pulling influences from jazz, soul and funk into the mainstream pop consciousness.
To the uninitiated, jazz and hip-hop might seem like an odd combination. They’re two completely different sounds, originating from opposite sides of the last century.
“People say hip-hop is jazz. And in some ways, yeah,” says Donny Milwalkee, a former member and one of the original founders of the Bangerz Brass.
“Honestly, I don’t find that there’s a similarity between the two, I find them super different — completely different aesthetics and performance styles. They’re as similar as jazz and Cuban music, which is a super-common kind of fusion. But they work together so well. I think it’s more about the intersection than a similarity.”
Along with running a non-profit organization for accessible music education, Milwalkee now runs two bands of his own: the Dirty B-Sides, a hard hitting hip-hop band, and Game.Set.Trap., a band that does jazz arrangements of modern hip-hop and R&B favourites. He’s a busy guy, but when he’s behind the kit it’s effortless.
“The biggest similarity in good stuff? Attitude.” Milwalkee says.
“So much of jazz was coming out of the civil-rights movement. Hip-hop was really the continuation of that.”
Milwalkee explains that jazz served as a tool of expression for Black Americans, as a way to escape and channel their frustration into something creative and beautiful.
“And it’s the same thing with hip-hop,” Milwalkee said. “Hip-hop is just a little bit more brash and a little in-your-face, and you can have political messages that are blatant that everyone can get.”
Max Forster, trumpet player and general manager of the Bangerz Brass, shares similar sentiments.
“There’s an element in [brass band] music of joy, of putting things out to the world and of expressing yourself as loudly as you’d like and as brightly as you want.” Forster says.
“We try to incorporate this spirit of brass-band playing, of expression, and of taking up space and transforming a space into something else, and combine it with the hip-hop mentality of, like, ‘This is my expression of my experience.’”
The Bangerz certainly know about taking up space: They performed at the TD Mainstage on Bloor Street at the TD Toronto Jazz Festival on Sunday, June 23, and could be heard busting out their boisterous sound from two blocks away.
Their performance served as a precursor to an event later that evening. Presented by Canadian rapper Shad, the event was centred around the crossover between jazz and hip-hop and featured performances from producer Elaquent, singer Melanie Charles, Oddisee and Good Compny, and of course Shad.
Elaquent acted as DJ for the night, providing music in between the other artists’ sets. His music was a series of varied jazz samples pulled from all over and stitched together into hip-hop beats. In moments the sound was reminiscent of one of those 24/7 lo-fi hip-hop YouTube channels, but rather than being a backing track for reading and relaxing, Elaquent’s music encourages you to get up and dance.
While Elaquent’s sound could be described as hip-hop that draws from jazz, the next performer, Melanie Charles, was the reverse: jazz that’s influenced by hip-hop. Charles incorporates staples of hip-hop style such as samples and loops into her music. She weaves in powerful, soulful singing on top, dancing flute melodies and complicated upright bass and drum parts from her bandmates. It’s all part of the experimental and exploratory spirit that encapsulates the character of jazz.
Next on the docket that evening was Oddisee and Good Compny, a hip-hop outfit from Washington. The sound of this group was somewhere in the middle, with old-school boom-bap beats coming from the kit, modern intricate flows from rapper Oddisee, samples from an MPC and band members jumping around and turning the stage into a dance party. With all this going on, though, the band still populated their sound with jazzy chord progressions, reharmonizations and swing grooves.
It’s artists like these that are helping to connect jazz and hip hop, and the crossover is helping expose people to music they might not have been familiar with before.
“I didn’t grow up with hip-hop,” Forster says. “That’s been a really big eye-opening experience in Bangerz for me, learning from the MCs who grew up with this music and have been making this music their entire lives.”
Likewise, Matt Somber, one of the group’s rappers, had very little experience with jazz or brass band music before joining the Bangerz, and that’s shown him that there’s a lot to learn.
“It’s about finding the right vibe to connect with people,” Somber said. “If we’re not out here connecting, what’s the point in playing?”
Milwalkee gives the example of using 808 sequences and modern drum patterns with a classic swing ride as a way that his music bridges the gap between both sounds to connect with the audience.
“People today, I don’t know how much they connect with, like, a Charleston. When you hear a Charleston it’s kind of corny,” Milwalkee says. “For our generation, for people who’ve never heard jazz music, the 808 is like our Charleston.
“Young people already know they like it, so it’s not a shock. But the older audiences, they come right up to us right after because they’re blown away that now they like hip-hop.”
The Bangerz Brass do similar things. They’re mostly a hip-hop band — Forster says they don’t even really think of it as jazz — but they incorporate such elements of jazz as improvisation, changing backgrounds on the fly or trading solos between MCs and instrumentalists in the same way that jazz soloists do but in a manner that’s also reminiscent of the back-and-forth of old-school hip hop cyphers.
“It’s not just the one vibe, it’s a bunch of different styles,” Somber says. “Different people in the band come from all over, so it’s a bunch of different styles connecting in one.”
Adds Milwalkee: “For anyone really into Black music, for those people, [jazz and hip-hop are] literally married.”