Top 5: The five best Ahmad Jamal samples in hip-hop
(Credit: Michele Careddu)


Top 5: The five best Ahmad Jamal samples in hip-hop

Hip-hop is a genre that was built on the sampling and interpolation of other records. Whether it was funk or soul, ingenious producers grabbed it, flipped it and made it work for a new generation looking to express themselves. Sampling in its early days within hip-hop meant young African-Americans sampling classic artists. From Nile Rogers to George Clinton, it usually stayed within the realms of blues, funk and soul. However, slowly but surely, beatmakers began experimenting and widening their search for samples.

In the spirit of progression, legends abandoned the unwritten rule that they could only sample music from their own demographic. As such, the culture began to grow and evolve sonically. Various producers have certain tendencies and particular preferences concerning sample selection. Rick Rubin is known for his effortless integration of rock samples. On the other hand, Timbaland is renowned for his exceptional repurposing of old Arabic music. However, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as collectives such as A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul emerged, the selection of avant-garde Jazz music became increasingly popular. One of the most esteemed producers from this school was the late Detroit producer J Dilla. One incredible instrumentalist who had many of his songs sampled by beatmakers is the legendary Jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal.

Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Jamal was immersed in Jazz as a teen, heavily influenced by artists such as Earl Hines, Billy Strayhorn, Mary Lou Williams, and Erroll Garner. After graduating high school in 1948, Jamal delved into the world of live performance. He toured alongside several different outfits and brushed shoulders with a vast array of instrumentalists before he achieved fame. Moving from Pittsburgh, Jamal relocated to Chicago and began exploring the jazz scene of the Midwest. Alongside instrumentalists from Chicago, he formed the Three Strings, which came to be known as the Ahmad Jamal Trio. The group secured an extended residency at the city’s legendary Blue Note Jazz Club. However, he would become a star after a one-time performance at The Embers Jazz Club in New York, where record executive John Hammond saw the band. They would eventually sign with Okeh Records.

Jamal released an unfathomable amount of music with the Ahmad Jamal Trio, including The Piano Scene of Ahmad Jamal and The Ahmad Jamal Trio. As a result of his outstanding talent and ingenuity, Jamal was appointed as a ‘National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Jazz Master’ and even received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy award. In this article, we are going to see how his music has impacted hip-hop as we list the five best Ahmad Jamal samples in hip-hop.

Top 5: The five best Ahmad Jamal samples in hip-hop

5. Nas – ‘The World Is Yours’

Although the legendary Queenbridge lyricist Nas was known for his work alongside Texas producer DJ Premier in the 1990s, ‘The World Is Yours’ was produced by the East Coast icon Pete Rock. For this Illmatic single, the esteemed New York beatmaker made use of the instrumental ‘I Love Music’, performed by The Ahmad Jamal Trio. 

The sampled record was released in 1970 and was the second song on the A-side of The Ahmad Jamal Trio’s album, The Awakening. Recorded at the Plaza Sound Studios in New York, Jamal was accompanied by the blues bassist Jamil Nasser and jazz drummer Frank Grant. Samples from The Awakening album also appear in Common’s music and has had a significant impact on hip-hop culture and production.

4. Gang Starr – ‘Soliloquy Of Chaos’

The legendary duo Gang Starr comprised of the late rapper Guru and DJ Premier, made use of many Ahmad Jamal samples for their 1992 album Daily Operation, one of which was ‘Misdemeanor.’ The avant-garde instrumental appeared on Jamal’s 1974 album, Jamalca. For ‘Soliloquy Of Chaos’, DJ Premier also utilised ‘Billy Cobham’s 1973 single ‘Stratus’ and EPMD’s 1988 track ‘Strictly Business.’

Jamal’s piece was a Jazz interpretation of Foster Sylver’s 1973 track of the same name. Sylver’s ‘Misdemeanour’ was sampled by Dr Dre in 1989 for the bass line of ‘It’s Funky Enough’ by The D.O.C. Although the Compton producer sampled Jamal’s music for the aforementioned track, he is renowned for his ingenious use of George Clinton samples and had a proclivity for sampling P-funk music.

3. Gang Starr – ‘The Illest Brother’

Produced by the late rapper Guru in conjunction with the legendary Texas producer DJ Premier, ‘Illest Brother’ akin to Common’s ‘They Say’ makes use of Ahmad Jamal’s mid-tempo piece ‘Ghetto Child.’ Originally released in 1974, the Jazz instrumental appeared on the pianist’s album Jamalca and is a cover of a 1973 track of the same name by The Spinners. The original was composed by Thom Bell and Linda Creed.

However, for this 1992 track which appeared on the duo’s third album Daily Operation, Premier (real name Christopher Martin) used the sample in a completely different way to Kanye in 2005. Moreover, a further seven samples were integrated into the track, including, ‘Funky Drummer’ by James Brown and ‘When Your Woman Leaves You’ by Richard Pryor.

2. Common – ‘They Say’ ft John Legend

Produced by Kanye West for Common’s 2005 album, Be, ‘They Say’ heavily features Ahmad Jamal’s mid-tempo piece ‘Ghetto Child.’ Released in 1974, the instrumental appeared on the pianist’s album Jamalca and is a spellbinding cover of a 1973 track of the same name.

‘They Say’ features vocals from John Legend and samples another two tracks, including the 1977 single ‘Papa T’ by Stanley Turrentine and ‘What They Do’ by The Roots. Be was executively produced by Kanye West and included additional J Dilla production. The 2005 album was the follow-up to his 2002 album, Electric Circus, which wasn’t well received.

1. De La Soul – ‘Stake Is High’

This track from De La Soul was the lead single of their 1996 album of the same name, Stakes Is High. Produced by the legendary Detroit beatmaker J Dilla, ‘Stakes Is High’ utilises the sweet piano bed of Jamal’s 1974 single ‘Swahiliand.’ This 1970s instrumental Jazz piece featured a B-side of the pianist’s 1974 project, Jamal Plays Jamal, released on 20th Century Records. 

Inspired by Dilla’s ingenious use of the record, ‘Swahililand’ has been utilised by other producers such as for The Game’s 2006 track ‘Compton’ and Willie B for the 2012 Ab-Soul single, ‘Showin Love.’ De La Soul’s 1996 version was one of J Dilla’s first commercially released productions. It didn’t debut on the Billboard Hot 100 but debuted at number 55 on the Uk Singles Chart.