There are a multitude of classic, well-known hip-hop tracks that have sampled from the Blue Note Records catalog. Numerous examples can be found in the music of A Tribe Called Quest, Madlib’s Blue Note Remix project, Shades of Blue, and countless others.
The term blue note is defined as “a minor interval where a major would be expected, used especially in jazz.” Having said that, consider the following sample list to be the “blue notes” of Blue Note, so to speak. This is a list of several Blue Note samples that were either used in an atypical manner, or were found on lesser-known tracks by largely popular artists.
8. “N.Y. State of Mind” – Nas (Illmatic, 1994)
- sample: “Flight Time” – Donald Byrd (Black Byrd, 1973)
Illmatic is often regarded as the greatest hip-hop album of all time, and its opening track “N.Y. State of Mind” sets the mood for the whole album with ruthless boom bap production by DJ Premier (side note: “The Genesis,” the literal opening track, is more of a brief introduction – not a full-fledged track – so I have always considered “N.Y.” to be the opening track).
One might initially assume that the main piano line is the Blue Note sample in question. Further investigation, however, shows that the featured sample (Joe Chambers’ “Mind Rain”) was actually released under the Muse label. Primo borrowed from the Blue Note catalog in a much more inconspicuous way. Hear the dinging sound at the beginning, doing a bossa nova clave rhythm? That was sampled from Donald Byrd’s “Flight Time” from the 1973 Blue Note release Black Byrd.
7. “Coming of Age” – Jay-Z ft. Memphis Bleek (Reasonable Doubt, 1996)
- sample: “Inside You” – Eddie Henderson (Heritage, 1976)
Jay-Z vaulted onto the scene in 1996 with his debut album Reasonable Doubt, released under the self-run imprint Roc-A-Fella Records. “Coming of Age,” featuring Jay’s young protégé Memphis Bleek, can be found near the end of the album, amidst a row of tracks that were overshadowed by more popular cuts like “Dead Presidents” and “Can’t Knock the Hustle.” This track was Bleek’s first commercially recorded appearance.
The track sampled Blue Note artist Eddie Henderson’s “Inside You,” from the 1976 album Heritage.
6. “Think About It” – Jean Grae (Jeanius, 2008)
- sample: “Think About Me” – Marlena Shaw (Just a Matter of Time, 1976)
Despite facing numerous delays, Jeanius finally was commercially released by Talib Kweli’s Blacksmith label in 2008. The album had already become somewhat of an underground classic due to heavy bootlegging and filesharing prior to the release. It was praised for Jean’s edgy, virtuosic rhymes, heavy-hitting production from 9th Wonder, and liner notes filled with amusing Grae and Wonder-based re-creations of classic hip-hop album covers.
9th Wonder sampled “Think About Me” from singer Marlena Shaw’s final Blue Note album, Just a Matter of Time. Funk Brothers bassist Bob Babbitt worked as a sideman on the track.
5. “Contact Blitt” – KMD (Bl_ck B_st_rds, 2001)
- sample: “Mr. Kenyatta” – Lee Morgan (Search for the New Land, 1964)
KMD’s story is a tragic one. America’s favorite supervillain MF DOOM originally rhymed under the alias Zev Love X, and formed KMD along with his brother, DJ Subroc. Onyx the Birthstone Kid rounded out the trio for the group’s successful 1991 debut, Mr. Hood. KMD was gearing up to release its second politically charged album, Bl_ck B_st_rds, when Subroc was struck by a car and killed while crossing the Long Island Expressway. Zev was devastated by the loss of his brother, and retreated into solitude, emerging as MF DOOM several years later. Elektra dropped KMD from the label, dooming (no pun intended) Bl_ck B_st_ards to a state of limbo.
The album was finally released in 2001 with Sub Verse Music. “Contact Blitt,” a lesser-known Zev production, sampled Lee Morgan’s “Mr. Kenyatta,” from the ’64 Blue Note record Search for the New Land.
4. “All Souled Out” – Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth (All Souled Out EP, 1991)
- sample: “Turtle Walk” – Lou Donaldson (Hot Dog, 1969)
Before they reached widespread fame with 1992’s Mecca and the Soul Brother, Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth released an EP entitled All Souled Out. The title track samples from saxophonist Lou Donaldson’s “Turtle Walk,” on the 1969 release Hot Dog. Many of Donaldson’s records from that period were extensively sampled, mainly for the abundance of drum breaks present.
3. “Don’t Understand” – Kendrick Lamar (XXL Freshman Class Mixtape, 2011)
- sample: “Maybe Tomorrow” – Grant Green (Visions, 1971)
Everyone has been jumping on the Kendrick Lamar bandwagon recently, and they have good reason to. The Compton-born MC has effortlessly combined artistry with mainstream appeal, and his major label debut has turned the heads of just about every major player in the hip-hop industry.
“Don’t Understand,” a cut featured on the 2011 installment of XXL’s annual Freshman Class mixtape, pulls from Grant Green’s “Maybe Tomorrow.”
2. “Hip Hop vs. Rap” – KRS-One (Sound of Da Police Single, 1993)
- sample: “The Bird” – Jimmy McGriff (Groove Grease, 1971)
“Rap is something you do. Hip-hop is something you live.”
KRS-One breaks hip-hop music down to the basics, and takes your mind on a journey through the genre– in the form of shout-outs to some of hip-hop’s most recognizable punchlines and hooks. The track was a B-side to 1993’s “Sound of Da Police” single.
The sample is from popular organist Jimmy McGriff’s “The Bird” on the 1971 Blue Note release Groove Grease.
1. “Youthful Expression” – A Tribe Called Quest (People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, 1990)
- sample: “Inner City Blues” – Reuben Wilson (The Sweet Life, 1974)
As I previously stated, A Tribe Called Quest (mainly Q-Tip) borrowed so much material from the Blue Note catalog that I almost decided not to include them on this list, simply because choices like “Award Tour” (Milt Jackson’s “Olinga”) and “Electric Relaxation” (Ronnie Foster’s “Mystic Brew”) would be quite typical.
Buried deep in their debut album, however, is a heavy boom bap cut called “Youthful Expression.” It samples Reuben Wilson’s cover of the Marvin Gaye classic “Inner City Blues” that was released on Blue Note in 1974.
Words by Cale Hawkins (@calehawkins)
*Be sure to check out Spotify’s Blue Note App to discover more great samples!