Alphabet Soup Spelled Out Jazz and Hip-Hop Fusion in the ’90s

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Alphabet Soup, composed of five musicians and an MC, pose in front of a marquee with their band name on it.
Alphabet Soup’s blend of acid jazz and hip-hop took them to big stages, including the legendary Monterey Jazz Festival. (Dan Burger)

Editor’s note: This story is part of That’s My Word, KQED’s year-long exploration of Bay Area hip-hop history.


C Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza doesn’t figure prominently into the advent of the Bay Area’s hip-hop scene. But it was the initial proving ground for Alphabet Soup, one of the first groups to build live instrumental performances around a rapper.

In the first half of the ’90s, the Bay Area nurtured a burgeoning acid jazz scene, a creative cauldron fueled by vinylphiles rediscovering 1960s organ-driven jazz funk. One of its key players, Alphabet Soup, ushered hip-hop into realms where it had never before tread including the legendary Monterey Jazz Festival.

Launched in 1991 by saxophonist Kenny Brooks, pianist Dred Scott, rapper Chris Burger and drummer Jay Lane, the group was at the center of the Bay Area’s roiling ’90s scene, even winning best urban contemporary album at the BAMMIE (Bay Area Music) Awards for their 1995 debut, Layin’ Low In The Cut.

A collage-like image with a photo of a man eating soup at a diner counter superimposed over a photo of a radio.
The cover of Alphabet Soup’s ‘Layin’ Low in the Cut.’ (Courtesy of the artists)

The initial spark ignited on the Cal campus in 1991. “Kenny and I would play drum-sax duets at Sproul,” says Scott, whose drum work never threatened to overshadow his far more formidable skills as a pianist and keyboardist. “He was living in the rectory of a church on Durant Avenue where his mom was a minister. We’d hang there and smoke weed. Sometimes go down and play outside BART, but Sproul was our main spot, and one day this guy came by and said, ‘I’m friends with this rapper and we’re having a party. Would you guys like to play beats?’”


That guy was budding Berkeley impresario Gary Jones, who played an essential role in the formation and rise of Alphabet Soup. The group began to coalesce at a West Oakland gathering that brought Scott and Brooks together with Chris Burger, an omnivorously creative musician who’d been a track star at Berkeley High.

Rather than shedding influences as he rolled along in life, Burger added new sounds to his love of Jimi Hendrix and his infatuation with heavy metal. He’d caught the hip-hop bug seeing Run DMC on the 1984 Fresh Fest Tour at the Oakland Coliseum, and with his literary bent, he took to writing and honing his own rap verses.

The youngest of 10 kids with an older brother in and out of jail, Burger saw music as a path to avoid trouble. He started a rap group called Death Court at Berkeley High, “but my identity was a runner,” he says. “Thinking beats and rhythm helped me when I was running. It was really about pouring energy into rhythm.”

Burger’s manic intensity made that first encounter with Scott and Brooks potent, and the group’s early gigs brought bassist Arlington Houston and drummer Jay Lane into the Alphabet Soup pot. Scott soon realized his love of P-Funk drummer Jerome “Bigfoot” Brailey wasn’t what the situation called for, and Brooks supplied Scott with mixtapes to get him up to speed on hip-hop. As the group cohered, it rapidly established its innovative jazz and hip-hop-meets-East-Bay-grease sound on the burgeoning Mission District club scene.

Alphabet Soup wasn’t the only hip-hop group drawing on live jazz; A Tribe Called Quest set the standard for sampling jazz and deploying Ron Carter’s live bass with 1991’s The Low End Theory. But when Alphabet Soup shared bills with Us3, the British rap group known for sampling classic hard bop Blue Note tracks, they weren’t impressed. “We were like, you don’t have a band, you suck,” Scott says. “About that time, The Roots started to be known in Philly. They’d come out west and we’d get on bills with them, and that was cool.”


t was a heady time in San Francisco for a multiplicity of acts who reconfigured old and new idioms of Black American music. With labels like Ubiquity and its reissue-driven imprint Luv N’ Haight putting out tracks and albums, the overlapping groove scenes gained national traction.

In the Bay Area, the Mo’Fessionals earned an avid following by blending hip-hop, funk and R&B (featuring Chris Burger’s raps). But the 13-piece horn-driven combo made a bigger impression on the punk and new wave scene than in jazz and hip-hop.

Vocalist Lavay Smith and Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers turned Café du Nord into a jump blues joint, while guitarist Charlie Hunter brought low-down funk to the Elbo Room. Pianist Graham Connah turned Bruno’s into a protean jazz workshop with an array of ensembles, while vocalist Paula West started her rise to national prominence. Drummer Josh Jones brought a vivifying jolt of Afro-Cuban beats to the Up & Down Club on Folsom Street, which became ground zero for many of the era’s most exciting acts.

Two 1995 compilation albums released by Mammoth Records, Up & Down Club Sessions Vol. 1 & 2, captured this creative frisson with tracks by Alphabet Soup, Charlie Hunter, Kenny Brooks, Will Bernard, Josh Jones, Scheherazade Stone’s Hueman Flavor and the Eddie Marshall Hip-Hop Jazz Band, a group led by the veteran jazz drummer who’d played in the influential fusion band the Fourth Way a quarter century earlier (and served as unofficial house drummer at the 1970s North Beach jazz mecca Keystone Korner). Several members of the San Francisco 49ers frequented the club, which cross-pollinated its audiences as well as its musicians.

“I always thought that the hip-hop element turned that generation on to the jazz element,” says J.J. Morgan, who owned and ran the Up & Down Club from when it opened in 1992 until he sold it in 1997. “The hip-hop element made it the cool thing. With Alphabet Soup, the rapper didn’t come on until the second or third set. The first set was instrumental, so these 20-something kids are basically listening to this high-energy jazz. It was seven nights a week, but when you’re in it you don’t realize it’s special.”

As Alphabet Soup’s personnel evolved through the ’90s, Burger often shared MC duties with Michael Blake, a laconic rapper with a Snoop Dogg-like drawl that often became indecipherable. “We called him Captain Cryptic, and he made for a good contrast with Chris,” who combined trenchant commentary and brilliant wordplay, says Scott.

“He was electrifying, and you could understand every fucking word,” he continues. “Didn’t matter the PA or the monitor. He connected with people, every single song, with some erudite, funny rapping. If you’ve got something to say, this is a good art form. When other rappers would come up, we’d tell them do not do that cliched shit. Do not tell people to put their hands in the air like they just don’t care.”

While Alphabet Soup maintained a steady core of players for several years, everyone maintained other bands and projects. The Soup’s drum seat saw some heavy hitters. Deszon Claiborne took care of business much of the time, but Mike Clark, who made funk history with Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters band, filled in several nights, as did Journey’s Steve Smith and even Meters legend Zigaboo Modeliste. (“Not a great fit,” Scott says. “It got pretty swampy.”)

A dynamic performance photo featuring two rappers jamming out with a jazz band.
From left to right: Rapper C.B. (short sleeve button-up shirt), rapper Lexxx Luthor (A’s hat), 6 string bass player Troy Lampkin (behind), and saxophonist Kenny Brooks (right, front) perform with Alphabet Soup at Bruno’s in San Francisco in 2007. ( Photo By Liz Hafalia/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)


im Jackson was just two years into his three-decade tenure running the Monterey Jazz Festival when he started to hear about Alphabet Soup and San Francisco’s acid jazz scene. The festival had become depressingly predictable when he came on board in 1991, and by adding more stages Jackson significantly expanded the sounds heard on the fairgrounds. Raising eyebrows among longtime festivalgoers, he booked Alphabet Soup for an opening set on the outdoor Garden Stage in 1993.

“I don’t remember how I first heard about Alphabet Soup, but I did my best to stay in tune with what was happening,” Jackson says. “I think the festival has always looked to what was going on in San Francisco and the whole Bay Area, and Alphabet Soup was doing something new.”

He didn’t get many complaints about the set, (“People knew the festival needed to be updated,” Jackson says), which turned the oak-shaded outdoor venue into an afternoon party. But it didn’t usher in a new era either.

While hip-hop is now a major part of other jazz festivals, such as Blue Note, it hasn’t become a regular presence on the Monterey County Fairgrounds, though countless artists who came of age after the 1970s have presented music inspired by rap and hip-hop beats. Oakland-based Puerto Rican MC Rico Pabón has performed with John Santos’s Latin jazz group, and Common headlined in 2017.

As for Alphabet Soup, the group never did break through, and largely stopped performing after the turn of the century. “My sense was nobody knew what the fuck we were doing,” Scott says. “Jay Lane thought it was because we were a mixed band. And we were a pretty hard-partying band, but that’s never stopped certain bands for blowing up. Eventually it’ll catch up with you, but not from breaking big.”

So where are they now? Jay Lane just finished the final tour with Dead & Company, playing tandem drums with Mickey Hart.

Dred Scott is a supremely versatile New York pianist and keyboardist. Chris Burger continues to work as a rapper and songwriter via his project Luv Phenomena, and serves as technology program manager at an affordable housing organization. Kenny Brooks is a New York City saxophonist who spent years touring with Bob Weir’s Ratdog, and J.J. Morgan owns and runs Moody’s Bistro Bar & Beats in Truckee, and he still looks back on those years as a remarkable era.

“At the time it seemed like Alphabet Soup was going to blow up and become a success story, become a famous band,” he says. “There were a of couple bands you felt that about, that would have Charlie Hunter success. And of all the groups, Alphabet Soup live was the special part.”


The Monterey Jazz Festival takes place Sept. 22-24, with Herbie Hancock, Thundercat and more.