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Take Five: Unorthodox Sample Sources (Bob James Edition)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on February 3, 2007

A representative sample of the latest wonders rocking The Good Dr.ís world.

Not the sort of guy you’d expect to have much to contribute to the worlds of hip-hop and dance music. Bob James was a jazz fusion musician (also described by AMG as “Jazz-Pop,” “Crossover Jazz” and “Smooth Jazz”) who sold a whole lot of records in the late 70s and early 80s, and had a bunch of songs that can probably still be heard on smooth jazz stations today, though his only composition that would be immediately familiar to mainstream audiences is “Angela,” which was unforgettably used as the flute-heavy theme to classic late-70s/early-80s sitcom Taxi.

However, James lives on as possibly the best kept secret of producers and DJs, one of the most frequent sources of beats for hip-hop and dance music, a more-or-less consistently popular sample choice for over 20 years. Really, James ranks only below such heavy hitters as James Brown, P-Funk, the Isley Brothers and The Meters when it comes to the sheer number of songs that have used his smooth grooves as their backbones. You can get something close to a complete list here, but here are five of the best examples of James tunes that have found eternal life in hip-hop and dance:

Take Me to the Mardi Gras“: This is probably the most famous and frequently used of James’ samples. Despite the rest of the song being fairly weak, cheesy and unmemorable, there’s definitely no stopping that (cowbell? xylophone? triangle?)-laden intro groove, and it’s not hard to see why it became such a hip-hop staple. Famously used by Run-D.M.C. for their Raising Hell track “Peter Piper,” LL Cool J’s “Rock the Bells” and Mantronix’s “King of the Beats,” as well as more recently, the outro to Missy Elliot’s “Work It“.

Sign Of the Times: Nothing to do with the Prince song, unfortunately. Once again, not the most interesting of songs (though definitely funkier than “Mardi Gras”), but oh man, that intro. The whistle hook was later used for De La Soul is Dead album track “Keeping the Faith,” but was far more famously recycled as the whistle hook to one of the biggest and best hip-hop songs of the 90s, Warren G. and Nate Dogg’s “Regulate“.

You’re as Right as Rain“: This one’s a lot more subtle than the first two–in fact, I’m not even totally convinced it’s a direct sample. Still, at the very least, it’s a quotation, and even moreso, it seems like Royksopp’s 2001 chill-out dance gem “Eple” is just heavily influenced by James’ work in general. The song’s tone, from the impossibly high-pitched keyboards to the breezy guitars and laid back groove all scream James, and Royksopp’s work always has that hint of smooth jazz to it that makes it entirely believable that if James’ 70s fans were around today, “Eple” is the sort of thing they’d be grooving to.

Nautilus: The first sample to be taken from Nautilus is exceedingly obvious–anyone who’s ever heard Ghostface’s 1996 high-octane classic “Daytona 500” is sure to spot the song’s raging guitar hook in James’ song almost instantly. The second sample (well, the second sample I noticed, anyways, I’m sure the song has dozens) is harder to spot but just as recognizable, and a much more impressive lift–recognize that mysterious sounding flute and string bit around 2:30 into the song? How about now?

“Westchester Lady”: Proving James’ transmutability across genres, here the synth riff and bass line to “Westchester Lady” is lifted for one of the best-remembered drum n bass tracks of the 90s, Adam F.’s “Circles“. Supposedly there’s also a sample of this somewhere in Massive Attack’s “Unfinished Sympathy,” but though the hook is definitely a “Mardi Gras” quotation, I don’t hear it (you could argue that the Nelle Hooper Remix takes the bassline, I suppose).

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2 Responses to “Take Five: Unorthodox Sample Sources (Bob James Edition)”

  1. Joe said

    10 seconds into “Sign Of The Times,” there’s a “boiiing” sound that sounds a lot like one that shows up in “Bentley’s Gonna Sort You Out!” by Bentley Rhythm Ace. Or maybe that’s just a really common sound effect.

  2. Andrew Unterberger said

    I love that sound effect.

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