The Riff
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The Riff

Miles Davis Had Too Much Soul: Revisiting Doo Bop

Miles Davis’ first posthumous album was an genre-shifting bolt of lighting, proving that jazz didn’t have to be so stuck up after all.

Three things happened in 1992 that were important to hip-hop. Well, there were more than that, but for the purposes of my argument we’ll say there were three. The most important thing to happen was the release of Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth’s Mecca and the Soul Brother, which coincidentally dropped 28 years ago today. The 16-track album, which has since become a staple in the foundation of New York hip-hop, arguably featured the greatest rap tribute song of all time, if not the single best use of hip-hop sampling: “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y).”

This was important because of the other important thing that was happening in rap. While Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth poured one out for the homies on one coast, the other coast was burning. The Los Angeles Riots set the city ablaze in April 1992, which partially represented the incendiary burst of everything N.W.A., 2Pac, and MC Eiht had been rapping about for a few years.

(There’s another important thing that happened: Chicago rapper Common, then known as Common Sense, dropped his debut album, Can I Borrow a Dollar? But that’s important because Common realized his humorous, pop culture-centric brand of rapping wasn’t the best use of his talent. Thankfully, he pulled a full 180 two years later when he dropped the aptly titled Resurrection.)

But the third important thing is important because it really wasn’t at the time. On June 30, 1992, Miles Davis released his final studio album, and first posthumous one, titled Doo Bop. Produced by Easy Mo Bee, critics hated it, one of whom called Davis’ trumpet work on the project, “rhythmic banality that was never remotely discernible in Miles’s pre-electric playing.”

As revered as Davis is today, reception of Doo Bop was par for the course at the time. Davis had always been an innovator, steering jazz sharply away from its bluesy origins and towards a melting pot of influences and styles. The same man who was panned for his efforts on Doo Bop was also chastised for Bitches Brew, the 1970 album that mashed up jazz horns with electric instruments that played closer to a funky rock album than anything Davis played on Kind of Blue.

While his entire career can be romanticized now, Davis had a penchant for earning praise, only to creatively bounce to the left. His insatiable work ethic meant trying new things — and recording them for the world to judge — was an important heuristic in his process.

Doo Bop was part of that work ethic. Unlike his previous projects, which thrived on emotion and classic jazz melodies, Doo Bop plays closer to a cinematic soundtrack. It’s nine tracks are one part frenetic improvisation, not unlike the New York traffic patterns Davis saw from his apartment window, and one part tightly wound beat loops.

Easy Mo Bee’s synthetic production, which spurns live drums in favor of repetitious digital replicas, is a playground for sampling. On the title track, EMB flips a sample of Gang Starr’s “DJ Premier in Deep Concentration,” which was in turn a flip of Kool and the Gang’s “Summer Madness.” Similarly, he takes the synthetic whines of ESG’s “UFO” and builds a steady backdrop for Davis to fade in and out of his own musings.

Each song bridges the gap between hip-hop and jazz, genres that, while linked through a history of black empowerment, are critically at odds. Jazz was collared shirts; hip-hop was baggy jeans. Jazz was midnight clubs; hip-hop was midnight street corners. Still, both genres, by way of sampling, gave props to their forefathers. “Duke Booty,” is Davis’ tribute to legendary hip-hop producer Duke Bootee. Bootee was the engineer behind “The Message” another candidate for most important hip-hop song ever, and one that, like Davis, helped transform the hip-hop landscape from block parties to politics.

Though EMB offers a few (lackluster) bars throughout the track list, Davis is the real MC here. He takes steady production and turns the finished track into an animated creature. It’s a unique take on sampling, Davis’ lively trumpet breathing life into EMB’s beats in the same way modern day artists like Flying Lotus or Madlib layer track on top of track to build new sounds.

This month marks the 28th anniversary of Doo Bop. In that span, hip-hop has seen countless artists adopt Davis’ trend-bending style, taking a nascent genre and injecting it into places — music festivals, mainstream movies, political rallies — no one would have guessed it could go. Miles Davis had too much soul. We’re lucky we didn’t stifle it.

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