Something a bit different for today, as suggested by my good friend and fellow hip hop lover James, whose own top 10 list you can check out here.
Basically, there are a lot of different sounds that are often sampled to make hip-hop beats, but some of the most common are piano beats. Why this is I’m not sure, but the diverse sound of the piano can give rise to some menacing sounds, some chilled ones and some absolutely banging beats. This top 10 list is slightly atypical but hopefully contains all of the above.
A decent track off an otherwise average album. The MC’s are competent but unremarkable; however, it’s the two piano samples on this track that make it stand out. Both are eerie and unsettling, making the malevolent theme of Halloween not just a title but a full on musical and lyrical experience.
It doesn’t quite trump the original version of this song but it adds a completely different spin to it. This piano sample is jazzy and laid back which completely contrasts the complex, political lyrics of Mos Def. I’m still not sold on whether the lyrical and musical pairing works, but I love the sample too much to care.
This piano sample from Galt McDermott’s Coffee Cold is probably better known in the Handsome Boy Modelling School song The Truth, although I excluded that from this list as it’s more trip-hop than hip hop. Also, while The Truth used this sample in its purest form, producer DJ Premier cuts the crap out of it, turning it from a chilled mood piece to a beat with the impact of a meteor. The MC – Smiley – delivers a stupendous lyrical performance before the track subsides at a criminally short run time of 1:11. I’ve never heard of this rapper outside of this one track, I don’t know anything else he’s done, but his work on this track deserves to be legendary, as does the insanely good beat. What a shame it’s not longer.
When Wu-Tang exploded on the scene in ’93, it was songs like this one that set them apart from the current hip hop scene. Clan In Da Front is a perfect distillation of their essence, with a very minimal and fat drumbeat driven by this bizarre, jarring piano sample courtesy of Thelonious Monk. The incredible sparseness of this beat allows GZA to rip it up lyrically. A classic beat and a classic song.
Another tragically short offering. I don’t know where the piano sample came from but it’s one of the most beautiful ones I’ve ever heard: sweet, innocent and care-free, much like the young Charizma on this track as he raps about taking a girl out in a presumed romantic encounter. What makes the track all the more poignant is that Charizma was murdered before this track was even released. But Peanut Butter Wolf, the producer, did a marvelous job with the production and did his friend and collaborator a great service with this wondrous piece of music.
This is a terrific sample: we’re getting into classic territory here. One of the most perfect pairings of music and lyrics ever. As Scarface raps about growing up and all the fun he had on his block in Houston, Texas, this wondrous piano beat, at once sadly nostalgic and optimistic, serves as a magnificent counterpoint. I guarantee it’ll be stuck in your head all day when you hear it.
This beat always makes me think of Wu-Tang because it’s so sinister. Deep, resonant, sparse piano notes, with that long sustain just keeping you in suspense. The programmed drums only enhance the feeling of tension and unease as rappers Prodigy and Havoc weave their tale about the dangers of the ghetto. One of hip hop’s all-time classic tunes and with one of the eeriest samples out there.
DJ Premier strikes again. Digging up this obscure sample from an old jazz record by Young-Holt Unlimited, he lays it down with no alterations: it’s a gem as it is. A few stark chords punctuate the airways, followed by the soundings of a few solitary chimes. It fits in perfectly with the reincarnated Crooklyn Dodgers, resulting in a track with a perfect harmony as the mournful piano underlies the 3 rappers’ tragic tales of senseless violence, drug users and racial tension. You could almost argue the piano represents the funerary songs of the individuals lost to these appalling acts, and the chimes represent the funeral bells. Almost.
I don’t think anyone who’s familiar with their hip hop will dispute this one. For starters, it’s hands down one of the most acclaimed songs in hip-hop. Clan members Raekwon and Inspectah Deck deliver astonishing verses of their childhood growing up in Staten Island and their experiences of doing drugs, flaunting weapons and ultimately serving time in prison, ultimately concluding that hard work is the key to success in life and breaking free of these troubles. But that piano sample! Uplifting, fluttering, soulful and majestic, it would be stupid not to mention this among the best samples ever; piano or otherwise.
There wasn’t even a hint of doubt from me as I thought about this list: as soon as James mentioned it to me, I instantly knew this song would be number one. I don’t particularly like Public Enemy: the album that this song is taken from It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back is hugely acclaimed but I just don’t get it. This song, however, stands out like a tarantula on a madeira cake. A 6-minute continuous narrative of the (black) MC’s imprisonment for refusing military service and defiant escape, it’s a vicious tirade against the government, racism, institutionalism, supposed free will etc. In 1988 there was nothing else like this on the radio. Musically, it’s just as remarkable: the shrill, piercing piano sample (courtesy of Isaac Hayes) sounds desperately unmelodious and harsh, being a harsh reminder of the vicious lyrics. But for 6-minutes it continues relentlessly; aside from the preamble before the beat kicks in, this sample isn’t even dropped for a single bar for the entire song. The kind of insistence and urgency in this song is unparalleled in hip-hop, and piano samples such as this one come around very rarely. All hail!
Words – Adam.