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Dilla Day meets Take Five: Classic tracks sampled by the trailblazing hip-hop producer

Ahmad Jamal
Remy Gabalda
/
AFP/Getty Images
Ahmad Jamal, perusing the contents of his wallet (perhaps to tally royalty payments from "Swahililand").

The publication of Dilla Time inspired a recent episode of Jazz United, all about the legacy of game-changing producer J Dilla. Now we're handing the mic to some WBGO colleagues, for an installment of Take Five focused on the jazz and throwback soul cuts that Dilla sampled to create new classics of hip-hop and R&B.

George Duke, "Vulcan Mind Probe"

My first experience with "Jay Dee" aka J. Dilla's production style(s) came from his work with A Tribe Called Quest. He produced records on their albums that I was convinced were handled by its lead producer, Q-Tip. He was able to mimic Tip's production style to perfection. But it is his work on Common's “Thelonius” that cemented my fandom. Obviously, I love the beat. The interesting part about the piano sample in this record is that it is not overtly obvious to the untrained ear. The song title would cause you to believe he sampled Monk, but Dilla uses George Duke's "Vulcan Mind Probe" instead: an otherwise energetic jazzy-funk tune on Duke's The 1976 Solo Keyboard Album. Dilla slows down the sample and tweaks its pitch to provide the backdrop for a delicious set of soulful drums — and one of the best beats in Common's discography. (Stevan Smith)

Ahmad Jamal, "Swahililand"

Growing up in the '90s, I attended a magnet elementary school for the performing arts in Washington, D.C. We often had popular artists come and perform during school assemblies, which is how I first encountered De La Soul. It will forever be etched in my memory, the moment when Posdnuos, Trugoy, and Maseo bum-rushed the stage, seeming larger than life. They performed some of their most popular songs, including "Stakes is High." I remember nodding my head to its haunting rhythmic theme. It wasn't until years later that my love of jazz grew, and I began to delve into liner notes, discovering that J Dilla had masterfully sampled Ahmad Jamal's "Swahililand" for the track. Dilla was truly an audiophile, seamlessly infusing his love of jazz into every production. I credit him for amplifying my love of jazz, turning me into even more of an investigator of this music. (Keanna Faircloth)

Bobby Caldwell, "Open Your Eyes"

Bobby Caldwell's "Open Your Eyes" is a song that draws you in from the first note, as his voice was truly one of a kind. It's written so that you find yourself effortlessly humming and singing along while your head sways, and you wonder: "Does it get better than this?" And in walks a musical genius who says, "Actually, it does." J Dilla took "Open Your Eyes" and kept it the same all while changing it completely, when he used it for Common's "The Light." Listen to the end result and you'll find yourself tongue-tied, because Dilla flipped the original so that the sequence of lyrics is out of order — but almost makes more sense in the sample. Did I confuse you? See, that's the magic of Dilla. He takes music and turns it into magic, so much so that it's sometimes hard to put into words. Thankfully, we have the music. (Nicole Sweeney)

Fabulous Souls, "Take Me"

Nestled towards the end of Erykah Badu's 2010 album New Amerykah, Part Two (Return of the Ankh) is "Love," a track produced by friend and collaborator J Dilla. For this beat, Dilla chops up a song by the short-lived Indianapolis funk band Fabulous Souls. He takes the first four bars of "Take Me," lowers the pitch a few semitones and decreases the tempo. Like the best producers, his ears are tuned to the isolated moments with stripped-down layers.The less busy the sample, the more room for the vocal. Dilla's beat for "Love" relies on Lance Sennet's plucky guitar and Jeffrey Speights' organ. Dilla's additions: trademark siren sound effects, and the high-tuned snare contrasting with the sparse, low-end-heavy overdrive bass. If "Take Me" is a rump shake, then "Love" is a head nod. (Alex Ariff)

Gap Mangione, "Diana in the Autumn Wind"

Pianist Gap Mangione's 1968 debut solo album Diana in the Autumn Wind is a prodigious effort. The 19-piece ensemble on this recording includes such players as Joe Farrell, Jerome Richardson, Frank Wess — and in their first appearances on LP, bassist Tony Levin and drummer Steve Gadd. The title track, written by Gap's brother Chuck Mangione, provides just the right amount of seasoning for a simmering rhythm section. And 37 seconds into the song, the recipe for the perfect Dilla flip emerges; it would go on to form the basis of Slum Village's "Fall in Love." (Greg Bryant)