Dan Love, the man behind Oh Word’s epic de-construction of Illmatic, returns with a sequel worthy of hoverboards and Gray’s Sports Alamanac. A tip of the tilted brim to Hip-Hop is Read, for aiding and abetting the sample collection. For a full Zip of samples, click here.
Despite a plethora of highly acclaimed and commercially successful albums over a nearly two-decade career, there’s little doubt that for fans of that New York boom-bap, Jay-Z’s solo debut, Reasonable Doubt, remains his creative zenith. With his newly constructed Mafioso persona devastatingly realised throughout, Jay-Z’s lyrical prowess requires little elaboration–but what about the beats? With a stellar line-up including DJ Premier, Ski, Clark Kent, and others, the music warrants as much attention as Jigga’s rhymes, and yet continues to lurk in the hefty shadow of his lyrical genius.
To rectify this imbalance, here lies a detailed analysis of all fourteen cuts found on Reasonable Doubt, with an explicit focus on sample sources and production techniques. For the diggers out there, all necessary information is included to find the known original breaks, so prepare to get those fingers dusty. My advice? Throw on your copy of the LP, kick back, and appreciate some of the finest slabs of mid-‘90s production ever committed to wax. Like you needed an excuse…
“Can’t Knock The Hustle” feat. Mary J. Blige
With the gravely timbre of a Mafioso high roller, “Can’t Knock The Hustle” thrusts Jay-Z’s crime boss persona into the spotlight, as he muses on the benefits of shopping sprees, expensive clothes and sippin’ on fine wines–while brashly reminding the competition of his supremacy. Surprisingly, Reasonable Doubt’s third single, was only its second most commercially successful, despite a Mary J. Blige hook loaded with crossover appeal.
Honed by a small group of Puffy’s Hitmen production team–with member Knowbody at the helm–“Can’t Knock The Hustle” features a relatively smooth loop punctuated by a restrained but punchy drum track. Taken from Marcus Miller’s “Much Too Much,” off his debut solo outing, Suddenly (Warner, 1983), “Can’t Knock the Hustle’s” bass line figures prominently, as the application of a low pass filter over a two-bar loop illuminates the groove, and provides the track with its sonic depth. Indeed, it’s little surprise that Miller’s proficiency with the electric bass earned him work with legends such as Miles Davis and Eric Clapton over a four-decade career With synth strings added during the chorus, the production is understated but meticulously executed–a quality that encapsulates the entirety of Reasonable Doubt’s sonics.
“Politics As Usual”
The first of four Ski-produced cuts, “Politics As Usual” stands in stark contrast to his other darker and grittier contributions. This is, of course, due to The Stylistics’ “Hurry Up This Way Again,” an enjoyable slice of early ‘80s pop-tinged soul that made waves on the Billboard R&B charts, despite coming from an album that found the group at a commercial nadir.
By no means the most highly revered of Ski’s RD work, it’s his most technically complex. Numerous elements from the Stylistics’ original find their way into the composition, sped up to accommodate the necessary increase in tempo, but deftly chopped and rearranged to significantly alter the source material. Listen to the end of the song, with its sweeping string riff, single guitar note, and seamlessly incorporated vocals, bolstered by sparsely distributed kicks, and crispy but subtle snare hits. For people still sleeping on Ski, “Politics As Usual” is reason enough to jolt your eyes open.
“Brooklyn’s Finest” feat. Notorious B.I.G.
On “Brooklyn’s Finest,” the borough’s lyrical giants go to war, with DJ Clark Kent placed with the thankless task of crafting a beat epic enough to match the clash of the titans. Lacing the pair with rowdiest of his three RD contributions, Kent admirably meets the task, creating the perfect platform for Jigga and Bigga to rip through verses with a pace and finesse justifiying their spots as two of the greatest to ever do it.
A rousing funk jam from The Ohio Players, “Ecstasy,” doesn’t really find its feet until a minute or so in, when the Players tear into an instantly recognisable piano riff. Clark doesn’t chop up the groove much, merely rearranging a five or six-bar passage–but he does it with a subtlety that maintains the essence of the Ohio Players’ intent. The resulting beat is filled with a sense of animation and sheer brawn; as such it perfectly encapsulates the energy of the two lyrical legends who inbue it with inimitable style and grandeur.
‘Dead Presidents II’
The first RD single might not have soared commercially, but it remains an undoubtedly captivating and beautiful piece of production–one comprised entirely of the three key characteristics of beat-making of the era: a chopped up loop, a filtered bass line, and pounding drums. With Nas’ line from “The World Of Yours,” providing a thematic framework for Jay’s verses, “Dead Presidents II” is one of the LP’s standout tracks.
Finding his inspiration in Lonnie Liston Smith’s ‘A Garden Of Peace’, a relatively sombre track from Dreams Of Tomorrow (Doctor Jazz, 1979), Ski retains the haunting vibe of the source material, but speeds it up and chops to sit seamlessly over the fierce drums. With the use of a low pass filter to bring out the bass frequencies in the main groove,”‘Dead Presidents II” is lesson in the value of beat-making simplicity, and evidence that success lies in concept and execution as much as ingenuity. You can find the man himself taking you through the composition process on YouTube: enlightenment is a mere mouse click away.
“Feelin’ It” feat. Mecca
Think of “Feelin’ It” as an analogue to “Dead Presidents,” with both Ski-laced gems incorporating brooding piano samples into a classic hip hop production aesthetic. Originally cropping up on a Camp Lo demo, when Jay and Dame Dash heard the beat they were understandably enamored, and demanded that “Feelin’ It” find its way onto Reasonable Doubt.
Of the pair, “Feelin’ It” employs more overt simplicity, jacking an unadorned loop from Ahmad Jamal’s, ‘”Pastures,” for Jay to wax philosophic about Cristal keeping him wet like “Baywatch.” Though the piano is the sample’s chief instrumental component, both the rattling percussion and Jamil Nasser’s bass find their way into Ski’s slope, providing a crucial additional layer of texture. His trademark punchy drums and filtered bass groove finish off the fourth and final single. Though it only achieved moderate success on the Billboard Hot 100, “Feelin’ It” stands as firm evidence for Ski’s inclusion on any list of era-defining, mid-90s, NYC producers.
Taken from “Poor Boy Got To Move”/”Go Back Home” 7” (Alon, 1965)
The first of three DJ Premier contributions, those who’ve studied the real Chris Martin know his binary talents: not only did his ferocious digging uncover otherwise undiscovered gems, but he’s also able to flip samples in a singular manner–always complex, instantly recognisable, and eminently gratifying. “D’Evils” is no exception, a piano-based burner that utilitizes Snoop and Prodigy on a scratched chorus hook–an essential element of Preem’s style.
The sample is culled from “Go Back Home” (Alon, 1965). the B-side to Allen Toussaint’s “Poor Boy Got To Move.” Though Toussaint never have achieved massive notoriety as a solo artist, his contribution to popular music is incalculable–writing and arranging for many of the key New Orleans R&B artists of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, including The Meters, Dr John, and Lee Dorsey. ” A stellar example of his solo work, “Go Back Home” summons a moody ambience that feels distinctly anachronistic–a quality that Premier capitalizes on, filtering out some of the bass frequencies to isolate the piano notes for the main groove of “D’Evils.” The drum track is consistent with Preem’s adamantine aesthetic: hard core snare hits reflecting the dark atmosphere of the cut. Premier and Jay-Z: what more can you ask for? Toyota?
From Bamboo (EMI, 1980)
The fourth and final Ski beat, “22 Two’s” stands apart through its creation of a live atmosphere, serving as an mid-point interlude. Conceived as an impromptu freestyle by Jay on “Mad Wednesdays,” it’s ironically not the introduction that imbues it with its organicism, but rather the beat itself, with its spot-on approximation of live instrumentation. Jay’s use of the seminal hook from “Can I Kick It?” transports the listener to a dingy, smoke-laden basement Brooklyn, like nothing else on Reasonable Doubt.
Ski’s crate-digging shines here, with a relatively obscure loop taken from John ‘Kaizan’ Neptune. Unlikely sample fodder, Neptune’s fame was derived from his mastery of the shakuhachi, a Japanese bamboo flute, which he incorporated it into non-traditional contexts like jazz. Nabbed from Bamboo (EMI, 1980), the track itself is tough to locate, but if you dig hard enough, reissues are available. Truthfully, it’s one of Ski’s least skillful performances, yet his insatiable desire for originality shines through–as ‘22 Two’s’, completes the picture of a producer who has honed and perfected his craft.
‘Can I Live’
Queens-raised, Irv Gotti, undeniably impacted mainstream audiences via his work with DMX, Ja Rule and Ashanti, but few of his beats ever matched the epic scope of “Can I Live.” Undoubtedly the technically simplest beat on Reasonable Doubt, there’s no denying its brute force.
No stranger to being re-appropriated into a hip hop context, Isaac Hayes had been repeatedly sampled prior to “Can I Live.” But few Hayes cuts were as mineral rich as his cover of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David composition “Look Of Love,” with everyone from Gotti to Snoop to Smif-N-Wessun strip-mining sections from the track and re-animating them. Splicing together discrete sequences from Hayes’ original and re-molding them into a new into a new form with all instruments intact–there’s nothing particularly innovative about “Can I Live”–but it certainly feels alive.
‘Ain’t No Nigga’
From Has Arrived (Soul International, 1976)
The relationship between Jay-Z and Big Jaz extends well beyond this contribution on Reasonable Doubt. The mentor to a young Sean Carter in the late ‘80s, Jaz released the classic, “The Originators” in 1989, providing Jay with his first taste of the spotlight seven years prior to seeing a full-length release.
Featuring Foxy Brown and earning prominent product placement on the surprisingly solid, Nutty Professor SDTK, “Ain’t No Nigga’ was the most commercially successful single from RD, charting at 50 on the Billboard Hot 100 and topping the Hot Dance Music/Maxi-Singles Sales. Thanks to a shared sample source from The Whole Darn Family’s “Seven Minutes of Funk,” comparisons with EPMD’s ‘It’s My Thing’ are obvious. Incorporating two distinct two-bar sequences from the source material, Big Jaz’s manipulations are limited, but given the song’s stripped down aesthetic, too much fiddling would have destroyed the addictively funky groove. With an interpolation of the Four Tops’ “Ain’t No Woman (Like The One I Got)” inspiring the hook, “Ain’t No Nigga,” attests to the clean and simple aesthetic that threads much of Reasonable Doubt.
“Friend Or Foe”
From Vinyl single (Astroscope 1973)
Another semi-interlude, “Friend Or Foe’s” only shortcoming stems from its brevity–just a minute and a half, it’s vintage high-impact, rewind-this-tape, Premo. Out of his three contributions, “Friend Or Foe” is the most quintessentially Premier, complete with grave-faced groove and body-rocking drums. The booming horns come care of Wood, Brass & Steel’s Hey What’s That You Say,” a cover of the legendary Skull Snaps’ song, “It’s A New Day,” whose drum break is amongst the most widely used in sample history.
Jacking the first few bars and looping them for Jay, horns and wah-wah guitar glide together over a meticulously constructed drum track, with interesting flourishes on the hi-hats, and carefully distributed triplets and open hits that create the beat’s jaunty bounce.
“Coming Of Age”
Though, nowadays, Clark Kent is probably known for his Air Force 1 obsession as much as his production mastery, “Coming Of Age” undeniably proves that the man should be as highly regarded as his more oft-praised peers. Beautifully structured and highly atmospheric, “Coming is Age,” is completely disparate from the champagne and caviar crunch of “Brooklyn’s Finest,” delineating his ability to craft works variegated in both texture and tone.
Re-configuring his copy of Eddie Henderson’s Heritage (Blue Note, 1976) Clark utilizes a pair of two-bar sections from “Inside You.” “Coming Of Age” doesn’t feature much sample-chopping, with its core piano and synth parts remaining intact, but the production’s finesse is revealed in small flourishes–the reverb applied to the snare hits during the verse sections, the spare but expertly built opening four bars that precede the main beat drop. For Clark Kent, it’s all in the details. Maybe that explains the sneaker obsession.
From: Stop & Go (Dakar, 1973)
The last Clark Kent contribution, the production technique on “Cashmere Thoughts” is unsurprisingly similar to the others–a mixture of loops and chopped sequences forming the foundation of the groove, with minute details coloring it with depth.
While Hamilton Bohannon ultimately embraced disco, “Save Their Souls,” finds him in ice-cold funk mode, with grit replacing glitz and glamour. Kent loops a meager four bar section near the beginning, incorporating the distinctive guitar track plus some interesting percussion. In the verses, a refined chopping ensures that the texture remains varied and momentum perpetual. Ultimately, it’s these subtle shifts in the beat that make “Cashmere Thoughts” so compelling, and Superman out of Clark Kent.
“Bring It On”
Sample source unknown.
Well known for his orchestral inclinations, “Bring It On” allows DJ Premier to indulge his symphonic and cinematic side. More noirish in tone than his other RD contributions, the medley of strings and sax stabs produces a sumptuously rich and incredibly spacious soundscape.
Several Premier samples remain an enigma and “Bring It On” is on that list, as source information remains highly elusive. Unlisted in the liner notes, it’s likely that it’s extremely obscure , although the sample vibe would indicate that it’s lifted from a soundtrack or classical composition. In this information age, it seems impossible that Premier’s kept things so close to the vest, but it’s assuring to know that the furtive nature of diggers can still be, at least, somewhat preserved.
“Regrets’” efficacy stems from not only Jay-Z’s musings on the nature of regret, but also from the wistful nature of the beat. Produced by little-known Peter Panic, an affiliate of Clark Kent’s Superman Productions outfit (read the liner notes, dunny), the plush Rolls-Royce ride of ‘Regrets’ belies Peter Panic’s legacy as a footnote in hip hop history.
The sample is lifted from a collaboration between Hubert Laws and Earl Klugh for the How To Beat The High Cost Of Living SDTK (Columbia, 1980). Though both were significant players in the CTI back catalogue and frequently collaborated with the legendary Bob James, the song is by no means their best work, verging dangerously towards corniness. It’s quasi-elevator music, yet its opening is marvelously atmospheric, with organ, triangle hits and Klugh’s guitar screaming out to be sampled. Panic’s success with ‘Regrets’ lies in how he combines these elements with a well-defined drum track, striking an equilibrium with the other components of the groove.
It’s trite but not entirely wrong to reflect back on seminal works like Reasonable Doubt, and offer a hoary, “they just don’t make them like they used to’” diatribe. But it’s certain that hip hop won’t see another album exactly like this, especially in terms of production–thanks to the continual legal and fiscal restraints shackling producers.
But one shouldn’t dwell on that, but instead remember that for all the (rightful) praise heaped on Jay-Z’s vocals, its classic status would be dubious were it not for for the outstanding work of his producers. The perfect marriage of beats and rhymes, contemporary artists would be well-served to note how this symettry can yield something as timeless as Reasonable Doubt.