Exploring The Foundations, Vol. 1: Bossa Nova

Welcome to the first post in a series intended to explore hip-hop’s musical roots. Although not an expert musicologist by any means, my aim with this series is to demonstrate how hip-hop’s uniqueness lies in its ability to incorporate a limitless variety of sounds and styles. This idea is critical, I think, because it is precisely this property which separates hip-hop from the genres that preceded it. Indeed, with the invention of beat mixing, and later sampling, hip-hop producers discovered a method for making music that transcends the limits posed by traditional instrumentation. For example, a rock band (composed of, say, two guitar players and a drummer) is forever limited to making music based on the sounds of two guitars and a drum set. A hip-hop producer, on the other hand, is restrained only by her imagination, and in a single day might make one beat based on a jazz sample, a second on a rock sample and a third on a sample lifted from an Armenian folk record.

For more of my ramblings on this topic, check out some of our earlier posts.

Anyways, for the inaugural post in this series I’m tackling bossa nova, an underrated but extremely influential genre indigenous to Brazil. Developed in the late 1950s, bossa nova (“new way” in Portuguese) was initially considered “music of the Brazilian middle and upper classes” for both its lyrical content and the socio-economic status of its composers. For example, “The Girl From Ipanema” – perhaps the genre’s most recognizable tune – is “nothing more than … [a] description of a woman walking down towards the beach, the sweet way in which she moves and how beautiful she is.” Despite this (or perhaps because of this), the music resonated among young Brazilians, many of whom who were weary of the melancholic, ‘working class’ music that was popular at the time. According to Nils Jacobson, bossa nova “was like a fresh breeze off the shore.”

Musically, the genre has been described as a less percussive, more harmonically complex derivative of samba. Bossa nova songs generally feature pulsating, understated rhythms played on classical guitar and jazz inflected vocal or instrumental melodies influenced by early American pop music (many of the genre’s originators were members of Rio de Janiero’s Frank Sinatra fan club) and late ’50s cool bop. Although not considered essential, drums and percussion have been used effectively on several bossa nova recordings to enhance the genre’s already palpable groove (check out Mas Que Nada for evidence of bossa nova’s capacity for ass-shaking).

By the early 1960s bossa nova was in the ascendancy, its usurpation of samba as Brazil’s national music nearly complete. In 1962, bossa nova was introduced to American audiences by Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd on their album Jazz Samba. The album’s popularity caused a “bossa nova craze” in the United States, and led Stan Getz to collaborate with Brazilian guitarist Joao Gilberto and his wife Astrud Gilberto on 1964’s Getz/Gilberto. An absolute classic, the album won the 1964 Grammy for Best Album and is among the best selling jazz records of all time. Getz understood bossa nova, and the soft tones of his saxophone blend perfectly with Gilberto’s subdued strumming and Antonio Jobim’s gentle, care-free lyrics.

Unfortunately, the nascent bossa nova movement was unable to sustain its integrity in the face of such rapid and widespread popularity. Lured by “opportunity, money, freedom, or escape,” the genre’s innovators dispersed, and bossa nova’s creative impetus quickly dissipated.

In terms of its impact, Bossa nova’s legacy on popular music has been lasting. Joao Gilberto’s daughter Bebel, for example, has combined bossa nova with electronica and nu-jazz to much acclaim. Indeed, her 2000 album Tanto Tampo sold over a million copies and she has received numerous international awards for her unique brand of music. Check out “Bring Back The Love” and “Cade Voce?” from her most recent album Momento:

Bebel Gilberto – Bring Back The Love (Momento, 2007)

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Bebel Gilberto – Cade Voce? (Momento, 2007)

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Among hip-hop producers bossa nova is appreciated to varying degrees. Some have sampled it with great success while others seem completely indifferent to its possibilities.

Notably, two years ago the Black Eyed Peas collaborated with Sergio Mendez on a remake of Mas Que Nada:

And last year Mochilla released a documentary called Brasilintime about a group of American djs who travelled to Brazil to perform with some legendary samba and bossa nova drummers. I haven’t seen it, but apparently it’s quite good. Here’s the trailer:

Perhaps the best use of bossa nova by a producer to date has been J Dilla’s appropriation of Stan Getz’ “Saudade Vem Correndo” for The Pharcyde’s “Runnin.'” Dilla uses Getz’ jazzy interpretation of the bossa nova groove to create a laid back template for The Pharcyde’s off-kilter, alternative raps. The results are compelling and “Runnin'” remains among The Pharcyde’s most popular tracks. Have a listen:

Stan Getz – Suadade Vem Correndo (Jazz Samba Encore!, 1963)

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The Pharcyde – Runnin’ (Labcabincalifornia, 1995)

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Also, check out this tribute to Dilla and “Runnin'” at the premiere of Brasilintime

Bossa nova, whether in its original form or as interpreted by Stan Getz and other American jazz musicians, remains a fertile ground for sampling. Its warm, exuberant vibe and mid-tempo groove are well suited to beat-making and pair well with the bohemian aesthetic of jazz rap/underground groups like The Pharcyde, A Tribe Called Quest, Slum Village, Little Brother etc. If anything, I suspect we’ll be hearing more bossa nova samples as producers scramble to unearth new sources of loops and hip-hop continues its inexorable spread across the world.

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