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Although I’m not a big one for New Year’s resolutions, I did make a promise to myself to up my commitment to Oh Word and increase my frequency of posting in ‘08. Of course, given Rafi’s recent unveiling of future plans for the site it seems like my days of venting hip hop geekery upon you at this particular corner of the wild and treacherous internet are now numbered: that’ll teach me for breaking with tradition and actually setting myself some goals at the turn of the year.
Anyways, what better way to celebrate the end of an era at Oh Word than by celebrating the greatest hip hop album of all time? What follows is a breakdown of all the key samples that went into the making of Illmatic, beat by beat. It’s not entirely exhaustive, but all the key grooves and some drum breaks are included in the following deconstructions. And yes, you’re right, this took a while…
Given that this post is intended to purely deconstruct the samples used in the making of Illmatic, this brief note on ‘The Genesis’ is really just for the sake of pedantic completism. If you didn’t already know, which I assume you do, ‘The Genesis’ is comprised of Nas’s first appearance on wax with the Main Source crew on the classic posse cut ‘Live At The BBQ’ and excerpts from the equally classic and genre-defining film Wild Style. With Grand Wizard Theodore’s ‘Subway Theme’ reverberating throughout what seems like the whole of the borough of Queens, Nas takes the opportunity to remind us that, “niggaz don’t listen man, representin’, it’s Illmatic.” It’s on…
The first of the three Premo produced cuts, ‘NY State Of Mind’ is the darkest and most chilling of his contributions to the album, aptly setting the grimy yet melodic tone that permeates the LP. The harrowing high-pitched guitar notes that open up the track are lifted from Donald Byrd’s ‘Flight Time’ from his 1972 release on Blue Note, Black Byrd. This is of course just one small instance of Byrd’s work finding a home in a hip hop context, and his legacy as an artist still burns brightly in part due to the amount of sample fodder he provided for a wide range of legendary producers over the last two decades or so. It’s only a small touch in ‘NY State Of Mind’, but it’s a detail that complements the vibe of the track perfectly.
The more prominent groove of piano notes is taken from the 1.08 mark of Joe Chambers’s song ‘Mind Rain’ from his Double Exposure LP. I know very little about Chambers as an artist, but from brief research on the net it seems that he played a prominent role in the mid-’60s Blue Note releases as well as playing backup to many of the more prominent figures in jazz of the day and beyond. It’s a fantastic discovery on Premo’s part, an almost perfect one bar sample that is rounded off by the flurry of two higher notes at the end of the bar.
Throw in some heavy drums and it’s done: one of the greatest openers, if not the greatest opener, of any album in the history of the genre.
Life’s A Bitch
The Gap Band – Yearning For Your Love
‘Life’s A Bitch’ has always stood as an anomaly for me on Illmatic. Not only is it the sole track that features a guest MC spot, it is also by far the smoothest beat to be found anywhere on the album. This is of course in no small part a result of the sample source, lifted by L.E.S. from The Gap Band’s rather self-explanatory titled Gap Band III (although I believe that there may have been two albums that preceded this numbered series during the band’s formative years). The LP spawned several hits as the group began making steady progress into the charts, including ‘Yearning For Your Love’ which peaked at #60 on the Billboard Hot 100 in June of ’81 and forms the backbone of Nas and AZ’s classic collaboration.
The sample doesn’t take much spotting as it’s essentially a two bar loop with a little EQ tweaking, found after the intro to the track at the 0.22 mark. L.E.S. doesn’t leave it completely alone though, placing a few extra kick drums into the groove and layering over a more prominent rimshot/snare hit for that extra dose of flava. Beyond that there really isn’t much to it, although ‘Life’s A Bitch’ is special for one final reason, as it’s the only example of live instrumentation to be found on the album. The trumpet solo that brings the cut to a close is in fact played by Nas’s father Olu Dara (born Charles Jones III), and it provides a beautifully wistful end to a track that feels drenched in the dying rays of a crimson sunset over the city.
The World Is Yours
Ahmad Jamal – I Love Music
I can’t remember exactly where I sourced this titbit of information, but apparently when Premier listened to Pete Rock’s lone contribution to Illmatic, he went back to the lab, scrapped what he already had and started over. Whether this is true or not is open to debate, but it is a pleasingly romantic vision of the creative process that went into the construction of the album and a tale that confirms what you already know: ‘The World Is Yours’ is one of the Chocolate Boy Wonder’s finest moments on wax.
Rock sources his pianos from Ahmad Jamal’s ‘I Love Music’, the second song from his heavily-mined LP The Awakening. It’s a deft act of chopping from Mt. Vernon’s Finest, jacking a sequence from the 5.00 mark and subtly rearranging it to create the loop that forms the backbone of one of my favourite cuts from the album. ‘I Love Music’ is of note for those interested in Premier’s digging habits as well, as it also provides the sample for Jeru’s exceptional ‘Me Or The Papes’ from his sophomore outing Wrath Of The Math.
Although I’m not sure where Pete Rock sourced the drums for ‘The World Is Yours’, there’s one detail to the programming that I feel compelled to point out. The cowbell hits that are laid over each snare and immediately follow on the eighth of a bar are an incredibly subtle touch, but their inclusion is masterful: attention to detail is undoubtedly where it’s at.
Average White Band’s impact on hip hop culture is significant, with a handful of extremely significant breaks that have at times transcended the genre and made it into the popular consciousness via artists such as Janet Jackson, TLC and Color Me Badd. In the case of ‘Halftime’, it’s ‘Schoolboy Crush’ that receives the sample treatment at the hands of Large Pro, and it’s those inimitable sleigh bells that help give the cut its undeniable swagger. Check the vocal at 4.25 as well to complete the picture: you’ll know it when you hear it.
For the horns Extra P gets his fingers dusty on a copy of Gary Byrd’s ‘Soul Travellin’ Pt. I’, an artist whose presence on the internet is extremely limited (and as such, so is my knowledge). You only have to listen to the first few seconds of the track to feel in familiar territory, although there’s some nice reverb on display here from Large Pro, effectively playing on the first couple of notes from the slammin’ horn track to be found in the original song. From what I can garner, Byrd eventually went on to form the group named Gary Byrd & The G.B. Experience who released a few records on Motown in the ‘80s, but that’s about all I can tell you. Brother of Donald? Who knows: speak ya clout and drop some knowledge on my ignorant ass.
The final element to note in Large Pro’s composition is the filtered bass line lifted from the Japanese version of the Hair OST. ‘Dead End’ was originally cut from the run and only added at a later date, hence its inclusion on the Japanese edition and its omission from versions released elsewhere. Extra P’s innovation is astonishing here, completely transforming the break that occurs at the 0.14 mark, and I particularly like the fact that small traces of the vocal manage to endure, giving the groove a sense of space that is truly remarkable given its otherwise simplistic aesthetic.
Although ‘N.Y. State Of Mind’ is probably the more highly revered cut, and ‘Represent’ demonstrates the more innovative use of a sample, ‘Memory Lane’ ranks as my favourite Premier production on the album. Backed by the ubiquitous Lee Dorsey drum break, there is a brilliance to this song that allows it to peep its head over the shoulders of the other giants on the LP. Those _drums_…
For the main groove Premo grabs a chunk of Reuben Wilson’s ‘We’re In Love’ from his 1971 album Set Us Free, the final chapter in his Blue Note odyssey that saw him release five albums in the space of three years. The two bars in question drop at the 0.20 mark, a fantastic break comprised of Wilson’s Hammond organ, guitar, vocals and percussion, and although Preem slows the groove down a little, this is essentially a straight loop with absolutely no fiddling. The adage ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ has rarely seemed as pertinent, and it is the sheer bangin’ simplicity of ‘Memory Lane’ that makes it so incredibly captivating. Man, they just don’t make ‘em like they used to…
What I really dig about the Abstract’s production style on ‘One Love’ is that he resists the temptation to chop up samples too heavily, thereby keeping the sound fluid and warm. This cut is a case in point, with Tip jacking the first 23 seconds of the Heath Brothers’ ‘Smilin’ Billy Suite Part II’ from their 1975 release Marchin’ On and doing very little with it beyond the addition of drums and volume changes as the sample is introduced. This introductory section really is masterful, with Mtume Heath’s percussion part from the original source gradually building into the mix before its complete introduction after the initial eight bar sequence which brings with it the unveiling of double bass and piano tracks. From here on in there really are very few changes, the different musical elements of the track creating a mystical and hypnotic platform for Nas’s musings that simply doesn’t require too much fiddling around with. No extra loop at the chorus, no bridge section, only a handful of breakdowns: it’s a veritable lesson in measured, instinctive and thoroughly considered hip hop production techniques.
For the drum track Tip turns to Parliament’s song ‘Come In Out The Rain’ from their first official LP entitled Osmium, released on Invictus in 1970. The break crops up right at the beginning of the track, and although The Abstract’s skilfully executed chops disguise the original sample source, there’s no mistaking the kicks and snares that form the bangin’ percussion that drives ‘One Love’. Of course, Parliament themselves need little introduction in hip hop circles given that George Clinton’s legendary group are rightfully regarded amongst the godfathers of funk and have acted as a sample source for a list of acts that reads like a who’s who of golden era hip hop, particularly for artists based on the West Coast. Crazy hair and breaks: it’s a legacy made in heaven.
One Time 4 Your Mind
Jimmy Gordon – Walter L
Although the liner notes of Illmatic state Gary Burton’s ‘Walter L’ as the principle sample source contained within ‘One Time For Your Mind,’ things ain’t quite that straightforward. It transpires that it is Jimmy Gordon’s version of the ‘Walter L’ song that finds its way into Large Pro’s composition, a straight one bar loop jacked from the section beginning at the 0.20 mark made up of guitar and ascending bass notes. In real terms it is the simplest beat that Extra P contributes to the album, with both ‘Halftime’ and ‘It Ain’t Hard To Tell’ both featuring a wider range of sample sources and more complex production techniques.
However, trying to find out the origins of the Jimmy Gordon song is challenging to say the least (particularly when you are limited to internet-based research). With no listing on Discogs or any mention on Wikipedia, the song seems to have been swallowed somewhat by the sands of time. The chief contender appears to be Jim Gordon, a prolific session drummer who recorded for a myriad of artists during the ‘60s and ‘70s before being incarcerated for bludgeoning and stabbing his mother to death (I think it’s fair to say the man may have experienced some ‘issues’). As the rights to the song clearly belong to Gary Burton, I would think that it’s safe to assume that the version that gets jacked for ‘One Time 4 Your Mind’ was recorded after 1966, and the vibe of the Gordon track is certainly in keeping with this timeframe. This is further consolidated by the fact that he did also appear in the Scorsese directed documentary The Last Waltz playing the sax as part of The Band, and was also the drummer for The Incredible Bongo Band on their Bongo Rock LP, the home of the legendary ‘Apache’. These various pieces of evidence suggest that it is a cover performed by Gordon, although there is no information available that confirms a release date or in fact the existence of his version of ‘Walter L’, so a definitive answer eludes me.
Whatever the case may be, I opened a can of worms with this one. Just goes to show that there are still holes in the substantial knowledge base that is the world wide web…
Lee Erwin – Thief Of Baghdad
(Shouts to Scholar @ Souled On for the hook up)
‘Represent’ is the result of undoubtedly the most innovative piece of crate diggin’ on display on Illmatic. Whilst the majority of hip hop jams are comprised of small chunks of funk, soul and jazz from the ‘60s and ‘70s, Premier eschews this trend for something completely different on the album’s penultimate track. Thief Of Baghdad is a silent film that starred Douglas Fairbanks and featured a soundtrack composed by organist Lee Erwin that was released in 1924. That’s right: 1924. If ever you needed the beat diggin’ capabilities of DJ Premier confirmed, this would surely be the break to do it with.
The original song is a haunting piece of music that sounds almost oriental in places, and its filmic nature is clear from the high drama of the opening section. However, when this is stripped away at the 0.55 mark, a remarkably familiar beast emerges. What amazes me about this sample is how well it works in its new context, and its not only a demonstration of Preem’s sophisticated musical ear, but also of the organic and time-bending nature of hip hop itself. I think there’s something incredibly beautiful about the way in which this song gels together seemingly disparate elements: an organ from 1924; drums that draw their influence from the funk and soul of the ‘60s and ‘70s; the words of a young kid from Queensbridge from the ‘90s. I’m guessing that you feel the same way.
And so it is that we arrive at the album closer and one of my personal favourites from Illmatic. ‘It Ain’t Hard To Tell’ seems to be a song that splits opinion somewhat, and although it was arguably a strange choice for a 12’’ release, I don’t really see how anybody can overlook the sumptuous nature of the production to be found on the final chapter of the LP. There are actually more samples involved in the composition than I present to you here, but these are the most easily identifiable and obvious a part of ‘It Ain’t Hard To Tell’.
‘Human Nature’ needs little introduction. One of Michael Jackson’s finest ever slow grooves, the guitars and synths of the opening couple of bars make up the loop for the main verse sections, but Large Pro takes the time to fuck with Jackson’s vocals as well for the intro and chorus sections of ‘It Ain’t Hard To Tell’, taking four descending notes from the final section of ‘Human Nature’ that arrive around the 3.29 mark. From here there are several more layers to account for, the most prominent of which comes from Kool & The Gang’s heavily used ‘N.T.’ song, found on their relatively sought after album Live At P.J.’s. The sax loop is lifted from a section of the track that feels almost like a veritable journey through a sample odyssey, such was the popularity of the break amongst proprietors of that good ol’ boom bap, although the section in question here can be found at the 3.11 mark.
Other than that it’s just the drums, and these can be found on Stanley Clarke’s ‘Slow Dance’ from his 1978 album Modern Man. In some ways it surprises me that this break hasn’t seen a little more use, as its clear kick and snare pattern seems tailor made for hip hop production, but to my knowledge it never seemed to gain particular favour with the producing elite during the early to mid ‘90s. Go figure…
Hope you enjoyed this level of nostalgic indulgence: I know I did. After all, who wouldn’t grab the chance to revel in the joys of Illmatic? If you wouldn’t, the only question that remains is simple: what the hell are you doing here?
Check more Dan Love at his blog From Da Bricks.