Without Wayne Shorter’s Weather Report, Jazz Rap Wouldn’t Be What It Is
Weather Report, the jazz fusion group co-founded by the brilliant Wayne Shorter, is integral to the rap subgenre known as jazz rap.
Few musicians have left Earth with resumés that match Wayne Shorter’s. Armed first with a tenor, then a soprano saxophone, Wayne Shorter stuck his flag in at least three distinctive eras of jazz music. In 1959 he debuted in The Jazz Messengers, the hard bop outfit led by legendary drummer Art Blakey. By his exit in 1964, he was the group’s primary composer. Immediately afterward, he joined Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams in Miles Davis’ “Second Great Quintet,” whose restless innovations mixed bop first with free jazz and then rock, to change the entire course of jazz in the mid-to-late ‘60s. From there, Shorter co-founded Weather Report, a group of virtuosos united in their vision of “fusion”: a comingling of jazz with other popular genres of the day like rock, funk and R&B.
In many ways, the Weather Report band was a culmination for its members. Like Shorter, keyboardist Joe Zawinul, bassist Miroslav Vitouš, and drummer Don Alias were veteran sidemen who’d appeared on a whole host of groundbreaking jazz albums in the ‘60s (and sometimes even alongside each other). Over the course of 16 years, the band’s lineup would shift drastically, with Shorter and Zawinul the only original members left at the time of their 1986 breakup. But again and again, they’d realize the dream of boundaryless jazz. As Shorter told the late, great critic Greg Tate in 1985, “The word ‘jazz’ to me means ‘No Category.’ It’s an intangible word.”
Shorter, along with other Weather Report members, all enjoyed healthy careers outside of the group. But together, they created something that resonated far beyond their lifespan as a band. The most tangible evidence of Weather Report’s lasting influence beyond jazz clubs and conservatories can be found in hip-hop.
A Tribe Called Quest makes “Butter” out of “Young and Fine”
Just as Shorter’s saxophone technique evolved as he helped carve out new frontiers of jazz, so did producers’ sampling habits as hip-hop progressed from its infancy to adolescence. What began as break-extending flips of disco records soon found a guiding light in the gritter drumming of ‘60s and ‘70s funk. But once the ‘90s hit and George Michael and Sublime had found their way to James Brown’s “Funky Drummer,” up-and-coming producers began to seek gems in different sections of record stores. Groups like Gang Starr, A Tribe Called Quest, The Pharcyde, Organized Konfusion, and Souls of Mischief began dipping their toes into jazz grooves, which led all of them (at one point or another) to Weather Report.
Because it opens with a Q-Tip verse that compares hip-hop to bebop, includes a song called “Jazz (We’ve Got),” and even features Shorter’s old bandmate Ron Carter guesting on a track, A Tribe Called Quest’s 1991 album The Low End Theory is generally regarded as ground zero for so-called “jazz rap,” a subgenre defined by rap songs that sample jazz. The group’s 1990 debut, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, had weaved in samples of Grover Washington Jr., Donald Byrd, Cannonball Adderley, and even Weather Report (albeit mostly crowd noise and stage banter). But ATCQ went further into the groove on their sophomore album, not just trying on jazz as a trendy outfit but going so far as to embody some of its ethos. On the smooth, aptly named “Butter,” they grab a more substantial chunk of Weather Report’s music, namely Zawinul’s sultry keyboard intro from 1978’s “Young And Fine.” Like most of Weather Report’s material it’s an instrumental track, but its title is right in line with Phife Dawg’s tales of scoping out honeys during his senior year at Garvey High.
DJ Premier borrows the last seconds of Wayne Shorter solo for a Gang Starr cut
Perhaps Weather Report’s biggest fan in all of hip-hop though is DJ Premier. He listed the band’s definitive album, Heavy Weather, in his 2015 list of jazz albums every hip-hop head needs to know, and sampled them regularly throughout the ‘90s.
“For me, when I dig, I look at the producer, I look at the label, I look at who played the instruments,” he said in a 2014 interview. “I read all of that stuff. If someone is great, I’ll follow everything they do. There’s no way they can hit something great one time and not do it again.”
Tales of Preemo’s indelible ear are well-worn at this point, but how about this crate-digging slam dunk. On Gang Starr’s 1994 track “Speak Ya Clout,” he pulls about two seconds from the very end of an eight-minute long Weather Report cut, and makes that the basis of the track’s entire first half. “Cucumber Slumber,” the Weather Report song in question, concludes with a fiery Shorter solo, the very last note of which is treated with an effect that causes the final squawk to rattle and trail off. Pitching it up and looping it behind guest Jeru the Damaja’s opening verse, Preemo turns it into an ominous klaxon.
An iconic rap track takes a stroll on “125th Street Congress”
But by far the most iconic Weather Report sample comes from 1973’s “125th Street Congress.” The lengthy song has got a consistent groove throughout, but around five minutes in everything drops out except for the bass and drums. Along with the chicken scratch guitar of Jimi Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced?” and the organ stabs of Quincy Jones’ “Summer in the City,” this break forms the backbone of The Pharcyde’s iconic 1992 track “Passin’ Me By.” The way producer J-Swift weaves all three together could itself be considered a continuation of fusion’s vision: psychedelic rock, urbane smooth jazz, and the loose, jammy Weather Report rhythm section all coming together under one roof.
Zawinul, credited as the sole songwriter on “125th Street Congress,” is on record multiple times saying “I invented the beat of hip-hop” or things to that effect. That’s patently ridiculous — the genre was 15 years-old by the time J-Swift touched that break — and it more than likely stems from the keyboardist’s frustration at the lack of royalties he’d received from Weather Report samples. But leaving aside bruised egos, Weather Report’s impact on a crucial subgenre of rap is carved in stone. Include Diamond D, MF DOOM, Lootpack, Count Bass D, Smif-N-Wessun, Freestyle Fellowship, Big L, Kool G Rap, and Flying Lotus to the aforementioned bevvy of artists who’ve sampled the band’s material, and you’ve got a veritable who’s-who of jazz rap.
To his credit, Shorter never publicly decreed his importance to hip-hop history like Zawinul did. To be fair, the most famous Weather Report samples do not feature his playing. But no matter whose conflicting report of the band’s formation you believe, Shorter was there from day one until the wheels fell off. He guided the band through every incarnation, just as he guided jazz through many decades of transformation. Introducing their interview in 1985, Greg Tate wrote: “Wayne Shorter has had an abiding impact on the evolution of modern music since his emergence as a primo saxophonist and composer in the late ﬁfties.” Nearly 40 years later, the evidence is clearer than ever.
Patrick Lyons is a freelance music writer whose work has appeared in Pitchfork, Stereogum, The Ringer, GQ, and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter @p_lyons_