I’m certainly showing my age here in just focusing on ’90s dudes – I’m sure there are more contemporary cats I could highlight (the late Nujabes always seems to come up, for example) but for me, when I think “piano loops,” these three have their fair share, to say the least. For example, to me, the undisputed king of piano loops has been DJ Premier. I wouldn’t necessarily go as far to say that it’s his “signature sound” – Primo’s drum chops might be closer to that – but when you peer through his discography, what really stands out is how many different ways he could flip the keys. A “Primo only” mix would probably fill 2-3 volumes so I tried to go a bit off the beaten path and left off some of the more “obvious” selections: “BYS,” “NY State of Mind,” “Return of the Crooklyn Dodgers,” “Me and the Papes,” “D. Original,” “A Million and One” for example (ok, I take it back, maybe piano loops ARE Primo’s signature sound).
Gang Starr: Jazz Music
From No More Mr. Nice Guy (Wild Pitch, 1989)
“Jazz Music” tends to get overlooked in favor of “Jazz Thing” and arguably, the latter is a better version of the same basic theme. But at least with “Jazz Music,” you could get a sense of where Preem’s head was at in terms of creating a particular, melancholy vibe that would be such a strong part of his future catalog. This, in particular, is built off of Ramsey Lewis’ “Les Fleur” (off his ’68 Maiden Voage LP, not the later LP named Les Fleur), a loop that others like Black Sheep and L.A. Jay would also pick up on later.
Gang Starr: 92 Interlude
From Daily Operation (Chrysalis, 1992)
Just one bar but cotdamn, what a great ear to pluck out this bit from Aretha’s “Young Gifted and Black”. Both MC Lyte and Heavy D messed with this track back in the day but I never felt like it was given suitable due.
Arrested Development: Ease My Mind (Remix)
From “Ease My Mind” test-pressing 12″ (Chrysalis, 1994)
Not sure what ultimately killed this 12″ remix from coming out – could be sample clearance? – but I always loved how a simple piano loop could feed through so much energy.
Gang Starr: F.A.L.A.
From Hard to Earn (Chrysalis, 1994)
This one got buried near the end of the album but man, I just love the sense of tension captured here. I can’t quite say if it’s atonal but there is a certain dissonant quality here that seems in line with a shift in Primo’s piano loops of the era. Jeru’s “D. Original” is probably the best example but you can hear Preem deliberately throwing in “off notes” as a way to catch your attention and make the tracks sound even grimier. (You can find a similar example from Premier’s early production history w/ Lord Finesse).
From Reasonable Doubt (Roc-a-Fella/Priority, 1996)
M.O.P.: Firing Squad
From Firing Squad (Relativity, 1996)
Jeru: Me, Not the Paper
From “Me Or the Papes” 12″ (Payday, 1997)
These three from arguably the deepest era of Primo’s piano samplings, when you could turn to practically any Premier project and find at least one incredible piano track (“Up Against the Wall,” which I mentioned in the original post, would be such an example). There’s so much nuance to how he’s working these loops in – a real sense of feel and density. “D’Evils” has long been one of my favorite cuts off of Jay-Z’s debut (itself with all kinds of great piano beats including “Dead Presidents,” and “Brooklyn’s Finest”) and just a phenomenal use of a early Allen Toussaint 7″. Meanwhile, “Firing Squad” is the oft-forgotten title track from M.O.P.’s LP of the same name (the same one that also gave us Big Jaz’s “World Famous” beat, an all-star piano track). And while “Me or the Papes” often stands in as one of Primo’s great piano songs, don’t forget the remix, aka “Me, No the Paper” which shows that Preem could flip two different piano pieces for the same song (“The Bullshit,” featured on the same 12″, is yet another piano-based beauty).
Gang Starr feat. Ghetto Child: Werdz From a Ghetto Child
From The Ownerz (Virgin, 2003)
Short but incredibly sweet. Takes you back to kind of bang-on-the-keys feel of something like “B.Y.S.”