'Gospejazzical' Pioneer to Moderate Panel with Hip-Hop Icons

Dr. John Paul McGee, Berklee’s assistant chair of piano, will guide a discussion with a group that includes Cheryl “Salt” James of Salt-N-Pepa about the influence of jazz and R&B on early hip-hop.

August 16, 2023

Dr. John Paul McGee, assistant chair of Berklee's Piano Department, is a notable authority on the relationship between music and spirituality. A native of Baltimore, where he grew up playing piano for his local church, he would later pursue doctoral work that pioneered a new genre dubbed “gospejazzical,” a distinctive sonic blend of gospel, jazz, and classical music. He's shared stages with the likes of Patti LaBelle, Najee, Yolanda Adams, Donnie McClurkin, and VaShawn Mitchell, and was also invited to perform at Stevie Wonder's annual House of Toys benefit concert in Los Angeles.

McGee will moderate a panel on hip-hop's origins at the Guild of Music Supervisors State of Music in Media conference on August 19 at the Los Angeles Film School in Hollywood. The panel—which includes Cheryl "Salt" James of Salt-N-Pepa, producer Amani "Burt Blackarach" Smith, professor and composer Jae Deal, and rapper King Tee—will explore how jazz and R&B shaped hip-hop's electric sound in the ’70s. While not a hip-hop history expert, McGee sees connections between Afro-centric music like gospel and R&B and the community strength in hip-hop. His distinct perspective will explore these intersections in early hip-hop, adding an intriguing layer to the genre's 50th-anniversary celebration. In the following interview, edited for clarity and length, we talk to McGee about his role in the panel.

The upcoming panel will explore the origins of hip hop and its connection to other forms of music like jazz and R&B. How do you think hip-hop relates to those other genres and how does it fit into the larger story of music history and Afro-centric culture?

Unlike other forms of Afro-centric music, hip-hop is one of the only forms of Black music that was not birthed out of a religious tradition. But that said, hip-hop does not stand on its own from all the other forms of Black music that exist. Hip-hop, by and large, was birthed as a social consciousness music, an art form that would address societal ills, particularly in the African American community. At its core, hip-hop is really about communicating the heart, the condition, the nature of times—and that’s not really new. When you look at the negro spirituals for example, they were coded texts . . . messages hidden within songs used to communicate ideas about freedom and the soul and the brutal reality of slavery. There was a time when R&B music addressed the conditions of the time as well. Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” comes to mind—he was asking, “Why are we killing each other? Why are so many people dying?”

I see hip-hop in a very similar way in terms of speaking to the current context and a vision of the future. In fact, when we look at some of the more popular early hip-hop artists, such as Salt from Salt-N-Pepa and MC Hammer, they have a very deep religious undergirding. You have people who come from the church and came to this social consciousness music. This is part of the reason I’m advocating for people to see the innate sacred spirituality of hip-hop as an ancestral retention that connects those who engage with it to uniquely African modes of communication and expression.

How did you get involved with the Guild of Music Supervisors conference?

I have a song called “Manifest” that I wrote with another international gospel artist Jonathan Nelson about 20 years ago. It’s essentially an affirmation of purpose and destiny, with a message of “God made you exactly as you were meant to be.” This song has had such a tremendous shelf life. Several people have recorded it through the years. Jonathan Nelson called me a few months ago and said I’d be contacted by music supervisor Dr. LaMarcus Miller because the song had been licensed for an upcoming Disney series called Choir. Dr. Miller and I became friends, and eventually he asked me if I would like to participate in this panel on the origins of hip-hop. He was very interested in my perspective as an active performer and a scholar of various forms of Black music and what I could bring to the discussion. I would have never imagined in three million years that I’d be on a panel with King Tee and Salt from Salt-N-Pepa and in the presence of all these hip-hop icons, but I’m excited to be able to guide the conversation!

As someone that doesn’t have an extensive background in hip-hop, what is your approach to moderating a discussion with big names on a public stage?

One of my goals is to direct the conversation into an understanding of the sacred and spiritual nature of hip-hop, even though it was not born out of the church, and how that relates to the spiritual elements of jazz, R&B, and other Afro-centric forms of music. I want to help bridge gaps, strengthen communities and connections within these Black contexts, and to lift up the spiritual nature and musical connections of hip-hop to other Black art forms so that it is not necessarily seen as something that is an outlier.

In doing research for the event, what has stood out to you as you review five decades of hip-hop music?

I’m drinking from the fire hose right now! I’m listening [to everyone] from Grandmaster Flash to Salt-N-Pepa to Heavy D to Biggie to Tupac to Jay-Z and Kanye to Nas to Queen Latifah to Lil’ Kim to Cardi B. . . . I’m listening to some of everybody, and I’m also listening to some of the gospel artists that have been influenced by hip-hop, like Kirk Franklin and others. Because it’s 50 years of material, I haven’t been able to pick a specific artist or era to dig my teeth into as much as I’m trying to immerse myself in the art form as a whole.

What do you think has made hip-hop so ubiquitous and successful 50 years after it first began?

If we go back to the continent of Africa, particular tribes would use drums as an instrument to speak, not necessarily as a part of a performative art. Inherently, we are rhythmic people. At our very foundation, this notion of rhythm—of beat, of speech—resonates not just with people of color but with the whole world. When any type of speech is relevant, it draws people in. I think people who don’t necessarily have a musical appreciation do have an appreciation of language because language is something that is common to us all. Beat helps us internalize language, which is why when we teach our children their ABCs, we teach it to them in a song . . . where rhythmically we break it up into bite-sized pieces. I think hip-hop has had and continues to have success because it taps into something that is common to us all: rhythm, language, and the human experience. Throughout the gamut of hip-hop, a person of any color or background can find themselves as part of a community. They’re able to connect with hip-hop in a different way than they’re able to connect with just the purely musical elements of a song.

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