Top 5 Ahmad Jamal hip-hop samples

OPINION: With the passing of legendary pianist Ahmad Jamal on Sunday, theGrio examines five hip-hop classics that superbly sampled his brilliant work.

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

Ahmad Jamal, the legendary and inventive pianist, passed away on Sunday at age 92. He was a virtuoso as an instrumentalist and composer, producing songs that lent themselves to genres well beyond jazz.

Jamal was one of the most unique and versatile pianists in music history, playing and writing melodious songs that fit well on pop radio — not unlike Ramsey Lewis. And, like Herbie Hancock, he was known for being adventurous and expansive.

Ahmad Jamal performing on the piano in 1998. (Photo by National Jazz Archive/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

With so many extraordinary attributes, Jamal crafted recordings that ranged from wistful to mysterious, often rendering other compositions from different genres into mind-bending instrumental suites.

Hip-hop producers adopted this practice in the late 1980s and ’90s, when beatmakers were mining so-called jazz records for inspiration. They followed Jamal’s lead of transforming someone else’s composition into something with a new perspective by doing so with his works.

This resulted in some of the most important songs in hip-hop. Here are the Top Five.

“Soliloquy of Chaos” – Gang Starr (1992)

(From left) Rapper Guru (Keith Edward Elam) and DJ Premier (Christopher Edward Martin) of Gang Starr pose for photos in July 1998 in front of their tour bus outside of the International Amphitheatre in Chicago. (Photo: Raymond Boyd/Getty Images)

Jamal was an expert at taking pop and R&B songs and turning them into sweeping odysseys. He did so on his 1974 album, “Jamalca,” covering Foster Sylvers’ debut hit, “Misdemeanor.” He added soaring strings to his version without sacrificing the original recording’s funk. DJ Premier harnessed one of the wind-like string segments for Gang Starr’s “Soliloquy of Chaos” for its 1992 album, “Daily Operation.” 

“Feelin’ It” – Jay-Z (1996)

Jay-Z is among the numerous hip-hop artists who turned to Ahmad Jamal for inspiration. (Photo: Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images)

In 1974, Jamal released the album, “Jamal Plays Jamal,” which would become fertile ground for hip-hop producers. One song from the album, “Pastures,” has a calming, ethereal atmosphere that is as soothing as it is challenging. It’s earlier in the song that producer Ski Beatz found a two-bar chord progression bookending a sweet, brief piano arpeggio that became the foundation of Jay-Z’s “Feelin’ It,” a standout from his classic 1996 debut, “Reasonable Doubt.”

“They Say” – Common featuring John Legend and Kanye West (2005)

Common performs during the 43rd Annual BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival – Club Quarantine Live: D-Nice with Special Guests on Sept. 16, 2021 at Prospect Park Bandshell in Brooklyn, New York. (Photo: Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

The opening track on “Jamalca” is a cover of The Spinners’ “Ghetto Child.” By the mid-70s, Jamal was utilizing the Fender Rhodes as much as an acoustic piano, giving an extra-terrestrial sound sheen to his songs. Kanye West was impressed by the song’s opening, in which Jamal feverishly plays the Rhodes, and extracted it for Common’s “They Say” for his 2005 classic, “Be.” 

“The World is Yours” – Nas (1994)

Nas’ “The World is Yours” borrows from Ahmad Jamal. (Photo: Live Nation)

One of his most beloved albums was 1970’s “The Awakening.” It features two of his compositions, including the title track, but his interpretation of other composers made this LP from The Ahmad Jamal Trio soar. “I Love Music” features Jamal playing a piano solo for nearly four minutes before the bass and drums enter. Producer extraordinaire Pete Rock keyed into three passages from this latter part of the song to craft “The World Is Yours” for Nas. The song became the biggest hit from 1994’s “Illmatic,” considered possibly the greatest rap album ever released.

“Stakes is High” – De La Soul (1996)

(L-R) Trugoy, Posdnous and Maseo (De La Soul) on Sept. 12, 1993 outside of the Apollo Theater in New York City. (Photo by David Corio, courtesy ofSME)

Jamal’s compositions were also more imaginative and explosive than their source material. The final piece on “Jamal Plays Jamal” is “Swahililand,” a nine-minute mini-suite with more than enough sections to keep listeners’ attention. On it, Jamal switches between acoustic piano and Fender Rhodes with strings, brass and ferocious congas, making for a brooding, mysterious experience. J Dilla used the song’s climactic progression for De La Soul’s classic, “Stake is High,” the prophetic title track of its 1996 album. 

Matthew Allen is an entertainment writer of music and culture for theGrio. He is an award-winning music journalist, TV producer and director based in Brooklyn, NY. He’s interviewed the likes of Quincy Jones, Jill Scott, Smokey Robinson and more for publications such as Ebony, Jet, The Root, Village Voice, Wax Poetics, Revive Music, Okayplayer, and Soulhead. His video work can be seen on PBS/All Arts, Brooklyn Free Speech TV and BRIC TV.

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