At face value, “jam bands” and hip-hop seem to have very little in common. “Jam” music is characteristically free-form and instrumentally-oriented, and discussions regarding which acts fall under the “jam band” umbrella are rarely straight forward. Hip-hop has clearly defined “pillars” (rapping, DJing, breakdancing, and graffiti) and tends to be more lyrically-oriented. Live jam band shows tend to focus on breaking from the mold of recorded tracks, while hip-hop shows tend to highlight the songs themselves. Jam bands use improvisation as a vehicle to launch your mind into orbit, to another place and time, while hip-hop uses improvisation—freestyling—as a means to focus your attention on the lyrics and wordplay and bring you into their world. Upon a more in-depth examination, however, the hip-hop and jam bands are more alike—and more connected—than many may think, on both a musical and cultural level.

For the purpose of clarity, we must first define the term, “jam band”, as many use it as an umbrella term to describe a variety of bands with vastly different sounds. While Google defines “jam band” as “a rock band that plays music characterized by long improvisational passages,” Wikipedia describes it as a movement and collection of bands and musicians who have followed in the footsteps of the Dead and the Allman Brothers by performing concerts consisting of improvisational musical passages, regardless of genre. Bands like PhishWidespread Panic, The String Cheese Incidentmoe.SouliveLeftover SalmonBlues Traveler, Yonder Mountain String Band, and Galactic, despite their musical differences, would all fall under this broader, more accurate jam band umbrella.

Without diminishing the impact that hip-hop, in particular, has had on historically and presently marginalized minority communities, this writer has noticed several similarities between hip-hop and jam band culture that bring the two together in ways that few could have imagined.

Culturally, while both have seemingly developed a semblance of a “mainstream” following over recent years—admittedly, hip-hop more so than jam bands—the two genres are alike in having created counterculture movements during their inception. While the term “counterculture” quickly evokes thoughts of the Grateful Dead and the psychedelic ’60s, hip-hop similarly took shape and was fostered by its own new cultural lane in the ’70s, ’80s, and beyond.

As Becky Blanchard noted in her paper, The Social Significance of Rap & Hip-Hop Culture, published by Stanford University, “Rap has developed as a form of resistance to the subjugation of working-class African-Americans in urban centers. Though it may be seen primarily as a form of entertainment, rap has the powerful potential to address social, economic, and political issues and acts as a unifying voice for its audience.”

Whether directly or indirectly, jam bands have also continued to tackle social, economic, and political issues as well, be it through the music, lyrics, public statements, or the surrounding community rooted in freedom from judgment, love, a strong sense of community, and open-mindedness—something that’s far too scarce in society at large today.

In an article for the MEIEA JournalCasey Lowdermilk explained, “This spirit of being open-minded and willing to experience new things is not only an approach to music, it also translates into a philosophy of life for some fans and helps to explain the attraction of the community. This community is critical to the development of the innovative business practices of jam bands.”

Then, there’s the musicality.

As Blanchard continued in her paper, “Hip-hop music originated from a combination of traditionally African-American forms of music—including jazz, soul, gospel, and reggae.” Over the years, many hip-hop artists have produced funk and even rock ‘n’ roll-inspired tracks, such as Grandmaster Flash’s “Tear The Roof Off” and Run DMC’s “King Of Rock”. As the genre has evolved into the 21st century, these influences have only grown, as seen via high-profile samples like Kanye West‘s use of James Brown’s “Funky President” on “New God Flow” and King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man” on “Power”. Even underground hip-hop artists have collaborated with rock acts, such as when Tech N9ne worked with Chino Moreno and Stephen Carpenter from the Deftones on his 2011 track, “If I could”.

Of course, jam bands are also inextricably linked with jazz, funk, blues, rock ‘n’ roll, soul, reggae, and everything in between. For starters, the links between jam bands and jazz are undeniable and have only grown throughout the years. One could argue that jazz is the most significant influence on jam music, as both genres share the same defining characteristic, improvisation.

In Phil Lesh’s book Searching For Sound: My Life WIth The Grateful Dead, the bassist described the impact famous jazz musician Miles Davis had on himself and the rest of band when the trumpeter opened up for them at the Fillmore West in San Fransisco, CA in April 1970:

As I listened, leaning over the amps with my jaw hanging agape, trying to comprehend the forces that Miles was unleashing onstage, I was thinking, “What’s the use? How can we possibly play after this? We should just go home and try to digest this unbelievable sh!t.” This was our first encounter with Miles’ new direction. ‘Bitches Brew’ had only just been released, but I know I hadn’t yet heard any of it… In some ways, it was similar to what we were trying to do in our free jamming, but ever so much more dense with ideas, and seemingly controlled with an iron first, even at its most alarmingly intense moments. Of us all, only Jerry [Garcia] had the nerve to go back and meet Miles, with whom he struck up a warm conversation. Miles was surprised and delighted to know that we knew and loved his music.

Related: Grateful Dead Retrospective: A Look Back At Phil Lesh’s Birthday Shows Over The Years [Audio]

In Miles: The Autobiography, the jazz icon touched on that meeting of musical minds as well, clearly illustrating the impact jazz had on the pioneers of jam music:

Jerry Garcia, their guitar player, and I hit it off great, talking about music—what they liked and what I liked—and I think we all learned something, grew some. Jerry Garcia loved jazz, and I found out that he loved my music and had been listening to it for a long time. He loved other jazz musicians, too, like Ornette Coleman and Bill Evans.

The commonalities jam music and hip-hop don’t just stop at jazz, either. In an interview with JazzTimesDeep Banana Blackout guitarist Fuzz explained that while funk, soul, and hip-hop had influenced his band’s sound, it nonetheless remains jazz:

It seems to me that jazz was always about individual expression. So to perform it or try to recreate how the original guy had done it seems to be taking away from the original concept. I mean, you’re supposed to take this music and do it your way, right? How can you make this part of your personal expression? Well for me, the thing that I’ve been really feeling for a long time now is definitely funk and soul music. So I’m combining funk, soul and hip hop with the jazz and even a little bit of rock psychedelia. Today there’s no hard and fast rules about making a jazz record. Maybe back in the day some people had a little bit of a snobby attitude about it. Not today.

With all of that said, the relationship between jam music and hip-hop doesn’t stop at the influences they share. While relatively rare, the two genres have crossed paths at various notable points over the years, culminating in some memorable moments in music history. Let’s take a look at some of those moments below.

Phil Lesh & Friends & Talib Kweli

Back in 2018, New York City saw one of the most memorable jam band/hip-hop crossovers of all time when Harlem’s Apollo Theater hosted a historic performance billed as Don’t Tell Me This Country Ain’t Got No Heart: A Benefit for Voter Participation. Phil Lesh and his Terrapin Family Band anchored the HeadCount benefit along with special guests Eric Krasno (guitar), Nicki Bluhm (vocals), Robert Randolph (pedal steel), and the Harlem Gospel Choir.

The significance of this event went beyond the 2018 mid-term elections. As the Live For Live Music Editor-in-Chief Andrew O’Brien explained in his coverage of the performance,

The Apollo Theater opened in Manhattan’s historically African-American Harlem neighborhood more than a century ago. Ever since, the venue has been a pillar of black culture in the city, giving countless world-class performers a stage and serving as a point of pride for the oft-oppressed community it represents.

Throughout the second half of the Apollo’s hundred-plus year lifespan, the Grateful Dead also established themselves as an influential cultural institution—though in a largely separate social space. The Grateful Dead fanbase—and the extended jam band scene that eventually followed in its wake—has always been predominantly white. The “why” behind that notion is another complicated conversation for another day, but going into the benefit, the facts remained: No iteration of the Grateful Dead—nor any of its individual members—had ever played Harlem’s entertainment Mecca, and The Grateful Dead could not have been farther from the zeitgeist of contemporary urban culture.

On that day, however, Phil Lesh invited rapper, entrepreneur, and activist Talib Kweli to the stage for a performance that will live on in hip-hop and jam music lore. The video begins with the band playing the Robert Hunter/Jerry Garcia, Grateful Dead classic, “Shakedown Street”, before segueing to Kweli’s “Get By” from his 2002 release, Quality. Watch the unforgettable moment below.

Phil Lesh & Friends Ft. Talib Kweli – “Shakedown Street”> “Get By” – 9/7/18

[Video: Relix]

String Cheese Incident & GZA

Halloween in 2015 saw one of the best jam/hip-hop crossovers when String Cheese Incident invited Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA to host the band’s “Ghoul Train” spectacle at Suwannee Hulaween Music Festival in Live Oak, FL.

Hosting as Don Cornelius, the iconic show host and creator of Soul Train, GZA took the band and special guests, the Antibalas horns, Sheryl Renee, and Leonard Julien, through an hour-long set of funk and soul classics like “Brick House”, “Car Wash”, “I Want To Take You Higher”, and “Dance To The Music”. The performance marked a high-point in jam/hip-hop collaborations as a premier jam band enlisted one of the biggest rappers alive for a crossover for the ages. Watch the entire set below.

String Cheese Incident Ft. GZA, Antibalas Horns, Sheryl Renee, Leonard Julien – 10/31/15 [Full Show]

[Video: TheSoberGoat]

Soulive, Talib Kweli, & Darryl “DMC” McDaniels

Soulive has bridged the gap between hip-hop and jam for years. The instrumental funk/jazz trio, comprised of Eric Krasno and brothers Neal and Alan Evans, has worked with many hip-hop acts in the past, both as a group and in different projects. During a 2018 interview with Live For Live Music, Krasno described his deeply rooted love for the genre.

“The first records that I bought as a kid were The Beastie Boys’ License to Ill and Run DMC’s Raising Hell, so that was always a thing for me. My parents had really great taste in music and so did my brother, but that was like my music, the one thing that was my era,” he said. Kraz continued, “Early on with Soulive, we linked up with Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek and the Rawkus Records people. There’s a guy named DJ Spinna, and through him, I met a lot of other artists.”

He went on to describe meeting G-Unit and producing “My Gun Go Off” for 50-Cent‘s Curtis album with longtime friend, producer, and acclaimed drummer, Adam Deitch.

“Back in those days—I guess they still do this, though—they would record like 50 songs, and we would just hope that one we made would make it on the album. With Talib Kweli, I worked with him a lot closer, like in the studio, helping him mix things, add instrumentation, and bring other musicians in. He had always been someone that really wants to work with musicians and be apart of the process,” he elaborated.

That relationship with Kweli didn’t just manifest itself in the studio. During Soulive’s Bowlive 5 at the Brooklyn Bowl in New York on March 20th, 2014, Kweli and Darryl “DMC” McDaniels joined Soulive on stage for a performance of the Run D.M.C. classic, “Peter Piper”. During that show, Soulive and Kweli also treated fans to a rendition of “State of Grace”, from the rapper’s 2013 release, Gravitas. Watch both of those performances below.

Soulive ft. Talib Kweli & DMC – “Peter Piper” – 3/20/14

[Video: Barry2theB]

Soulive ft. Talib Kweli – “State of Grace” – 3/20/14

[Video: Barry2theB]

Galactic & Chali 2na

Out of all the bands in the “jam scene,” Galactic might have the most experience in working with hip-hop artists. The group has worked with several rappers throughout its 26-year career, including Boots RileyGift of GabDendemann, and Chali 2na.

The latter, Chali 2na, hao s been known to add rhymes to the mix with various acts in the “jam” sphere. This past January on Jam Cruise 18, in addition to his own billed sets with longtime friend, DJ, and fellow Jurassic 5 veteran Cut Chemist, Chali 2na hopped onstage with OG Garage A Trois (featuring Skerik, Stanton Moore, Charlie Hunter, and Mike Dillon), Galactic, and more to add a layer of hip-hop sensibilities to the jam-heavy event.

His relationship with bands like this dates back more than a decade, In 2007, he even recorded a song with Galactic, titled “Think Back”. The group recently performed this song with 2na at The Capitol Theatre on February 7th, 2020. Watch it below.

Galactic ft. Chali 2na – “Think Back” – 2/7/20

[Video: Stanton Moore]

Below, check out a few jam band/hip-hop crossover honorable mentions.

Phish ft. Jay-Z – “99 Problems” – 6/18/04

[Video: Adam Brandeis]

Umphrey’s McGee ft. Lupe Fiasco – “The Show Goes On” – 5/15/15

[Video: Live For Live Music]

Dumpstaphunk ft. Chali 2na – “Jam 2” – 4/22/16

[Video: Live For Live Music]

The Killa 4 Dilla (Pt. 1) – New Orleans, LA – 4/30/16

[Video: FunkItBlog]

The Killa 4 Dilla (Pt. 2) – New Orleans, LA – 4/30/16

[Video: FunkItBlog]