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).

Jay-Z: D’Evils
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.”


Jay Electronica: My World
From Victory mixtape (2010)

DJs Furious Style and Dub’s Victory mixtape of all Jay Electronica joints has stayed in steady rotation since the beginning of the year and one song that I keep coming back to is his tribute to Nas, “My World.” I’m not sure who produced this (prob Jay himself?) but I like how he revisits Ahmad Jamal to create a beat similar-to-but-not-a-duplicate of “The World Is Yours.” And soaking in that vibe made me nostalgic for all the good piano-based beats

To be sure, I’m hardly the first to feel that flavor and while I’m generally not a fan of reinventing the wheel I doubt anyone’s going to raise a fuss over revisiting a few classics.

Since I could literally come up with a hundred songs, I tried to limit myself based on a few ground rules. 1) Acoustic piano, no Rhodes or Wurlitzer or synths. 2) No producer twice (believe me, I could – and still might – just devote posts to the “best of” Primo/Pete Rock/Evidence. 3) I tried not to repeat the same source musician but I don’t know all the sources here and frankly, I got no problem showing Ahmad Jamal more love. I also split the following into two different categories based on the feel of the piano loops – melancholy and lively. Personally, I’m more of a fan of the former (at least these days; call it a consequence of getting older) but I’m not mad at some jaunty piano to keep your heels a’clickin’.

Dilated People: Pay Attention
From Expansion Team (Capitol, 2001)

Hands-down, my favorite DJ Babu-produced track and one of the best things on Expansion Team. I don’t know I never bothered to figure out where this loop was originally from (it’s an Ahmad Jamal sample, natch) but once I finally did, I was even more impressed by the chop job – he’s basically creating a new melody and arrangement out of different snippets from the source material. An exceptionally well-crafted piece of production.

All Natural feat. Lone Catalysts: Renaissance
From Second Nature (All Natural, 2001)

Yup, another Ahmad Jamal loop, this one taken from The Awakening (aka the most sampled piano album in hip-hop history?). Props to J. Rawls, another master of the piano sample, who really picked up on the potential of the source material, using two different parts to construct the track. Lovely collabo here too, between All Natural and Lone Catalysts – this has long been a personal favorite of mine.

Camp Lo: Sparkle
From Uptown Saturday Night (Profile, 1997)

Based on the album credits, it seems as if this isn’t technically a sample but an interpolation of a Cal Tjader tune which makes sense since I never was able to find the original piano loop from the source. Pete Levin’s supposed to be on the keys here and along with Bill Ware on the vibes, the two do a beautiful job of recreating the smooth charm of Tjader’s original.

Group Home: Up Against the Wall (Getaway Car Mix)
From Livin’ Proof (Payday, 1995)

One thing I’ve always enjoyed about DJ Premier as a producer is his willingness to revisit old source material and find multiple uses for them. In this case, the same Young Holt Unlimited album yielded both one of the all-time melancholy piano beat classics (awkward phrase, I know) – “Return of the Crooklyn Dodgers” – but Preem also mined it to craft this moody wonder.

Common: Maintaining
From Resurrection (Relativity, 1994)

Speaking of being so nice, they flipped it twice, No ID took two different parts of MJQ’s “But Not For Me” and turned them into “In My Own World” and “Maintaining” – quite impressive given how different each song feels. Com Sense, No ID and MJQ keep the party live indeed.

Kool G Rap and DJ Polo: On the Run (Untouchable Mix)
From the “On the Run” 12″ (Cold Chillin’, 1992)

This one goes beyond “lively” and straight to “jackammer to your melon.” This is one of the best songs of Kool G Rap’s career and while the original Sir Jinx version was strong enough on its own, the Trackmasters’ remix took things to the next level by using one of the best damn piano funk songs ever recorded, Ray Bryant’s “Up Above the Rock.”

Billy the Kidd (Defari): Say It Twice
From Saloon Music (ABB, 2000)

For a while in the late ’90s/early ’00s, Evidence was digging deep into all kinds of piano loops but he really nailed it on this one for Defari, recording under his Billy the Kidd nom de plume.