Image via Mel D. Cole for Westside Gunn/ Columbia Records for Tyler, The Creator/ Stones Throw
Chris Robinson‘s Twitter handle has been saved on a harddrive coated with a ferromagnetic material to outlive humanity as it floats through time and space.
The bass clarinet is a weird instrument. It’s odd-sized, it’s awkward to hold. And unless you are a member of Björk’s bass clarinet army, it’s impossible to look cool playing it. The instrument is like a bari sax with a thyroid issue that can’t shake a sinus infection. I play the bari sax, and the “big licorice” (compared to the regular clarinet, aka licorice stick) is just different enough where I never wanted to get into it. In the wrong hands (like mine) it’s a factory of squawks, dry heaves, thin death rattles, and yowling cat sex noises. (Although for the right crowd, those are features, not bugs.) But the bass clarinet can sound rich, lush, and add a heap of bottom end with a certain sort of edge and bite that is not easily replicated.
After hearing the first track from Tyler the Creator’s Call Me If You Get Lost last year—which sets a pretty damn high bar for bass clarinet in any genre—I thought it worked so well that I assumed that bass clarinet was easily found in hip hop and that I just hadn’t been hearing it. I wanted to track down every bass clarinet sample I could find. After coming up pretty empty, pretty quickly I gave up. I listened to producers who I thought for sure would have used the bass clarinet. I pulled my batch of Mello Music Group CDs off my shelves and heard producers use just about everything but bass clarinet. I was shocked when I didn’t hear even a single cartoonish episode of bass clarinet buffoonery in Dangerdoom. I went into previously untouched corners of Spotify. Saxes in hip hop, ubiquitous (current favorite: the dry, brittle alto sax at the end of Mach-Hommy’s “Wooden Nickels”). Trumpets and whole brass sections, yes. Flutes, occasionally. Even a wheezy, kinked-up oboe, not unheard of. But bass clarinet? Hardly.
This lacuna shouldn’t be a surprise though, the list of top shelf jazz bass clarinetists is in the mid to high single digits, so producers who go straight for the Blue Note, Riverside, Verve, and adjacent catalogs won’t find much to work with. The instrument isn’t used much in soul and R&B, so the chance of it showing up in Pete Rock inspired boom bap is slim. Perhaps there’s a snippet in one of the vintage radio show samples that L’Orange uses, but even then, it would be fleeting and not a central element to the track.
Fast forward to a month or two ago and I noticed for the first time—despite hearing the track many many times—that Dilla foregrounded a sinuous bass clarinet from a Gap Mangione sample for Slum Village’s “Fall in Love.” Having now found two solid examples I was convinced I could find enough to make the most ridiculous pitch of my life: “bass clarinet boom bap,” or something, which Mr. Weiss enthusiastically gave the thumbs up. (Someone better check on Jeff, for real.)
– Is there a bass clarinet?
– Is it not shit?
– Is it somewhat foundational to the track?
– Is it hip hop? (Sorry Björk. This last criteria is also what prevented including André 3000’s jazz-oriented seventeen-minute instrumental opus “Look Ma No Hands,” on which he more than capably plays the bass clarinet. There’s a lot worse out there on record from full-time jazzers.)
So after a deep dive, I found a grab-bag of eleven tracks featuring the big licorice’s luscious low-end frequencies. I can’t claim these are all the best—more just that they exist and the producers take advantage of the instrument in various ways. Many tracks on the list are brilliant; a couple are marginal. Some songs that ended up not making the cut aren’t even good—a kid who got an MPD with free Ableton for Christmas could probably recreate one or two of those beats in an hour. But as the following will show, the case for more bass clarinet in hip hop is strong.
10. Quelle Chris – “Junkyard Dogs”
Quelle Chris’s instrumental album Lullabies for the Broken Brain has a “as seen through a cracked and chipped looking glass” vibe. Details can be hazy, signifiers float freely, voices are heard but sometimes not fully made out. Much of the album seems to exist under a thin shroud that filters out much we might have expected to hear. There’s a wayward trombone and later a twitchy, over caffeinated oboe. The bass clarinet on “Junkyard Dogs” is unlike every other example on this list. Its angular, off-balance melody is nominally the focus of the brief track, which finds itself coming in and out of an indeterminate crowd of people talking. Children playing? Workers at the water cooler? Where Benny Maupin, Eric Dolphy, Phil Bodner, and Marcus Strickland mined the instrument’s beefy, rich low register, here the instrument stays in its throat tone region. This middle range of the horn comes with an airy, thin, and almost fragile sound that can be eerie and haunting, making it a perfect fit for the album.
Put the bass clarinet on “Junkyard Dogs” next to Tyler the Creator and Westside Gunn’s sample of Phil Bodner and it doesn’t even seem possible that it’s the same instrument. But therein lies the bass clarinet’s beauty: it’s flexible and versatile; it can stab you in the gut while it whispers in your ear. One moment it carries the wrath of a storm cloud and the next it disappears into an unassuming ensemble, enriching and diversifying it in ways that may not be immediately perceivable. It’s also a bastion of unchecked absurdity. For all these reasons and more, the bass clarinet deserves a bigger home in hip hop, if it would only be invited in.
9. Armand Hammer – “Indian Summer”
Over the track’s two minutes and forty seconds I swear I hear The Alchemist occasionally dropping in a plaintive note or two of Bennie Maupin’s from Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew. I might be wrong, but whatever it is, those strokes of color are like when Bob Ross makes a last-second decision to put in a couple extra wisps of cloud that end up really making the painting.
8. Boogie Down Productions feat. Freddie Foxxx – “Ruff Ruff”
Another gem from Bennie Maupin, sampled from “If You’ve Got It, You’ll Get It,” from The Headhunters’ Survival of the Fittest. This Funkadelic-esque riff is more like something the higher horse powered bari sax would usually play, but Maupin rips his clarinet to shreds. The brilliance of “Ruff Ruff” is that Maupin’s sample is the bass line, which switches from bass clarinet to electric bass. But Maupin never stays away for long, as the track moves back from electric bass to bass clarinet to remind you where the driving bass line came from. Paying homage to Maupin while moving into the future.
7. Dynospectrum – “Decompression Chamber”
Like Citizen Kane, Dynospectrum lifted Maupin from Mwandishi’s “Ostinato – Suite for Angela.” But where Citizen Kane used Maupin’s ostinato as the basis for the beat, Dynospectrum grabbed a short reverb-laden bass clarinet cry as an effect to drop in between verses. Put this in the honorable mention category. If offered the choice of a sound effect to pepper a beat with, I’d rather take the random dolphin chirps on Riff Raff’s “Aquaberry Dolphin” featuring Mac Miller — but that’s just me.
6. Citizen Kane – “Reality N’ Facts”
Aside from Dolphy, the name that comes to mind as the most likely fertile source of bass clarinet in hip hop is Bennie Maupin. Much of this stems from his time playing with Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, and The Headhunters. His sound is all over some of jazz’s finest Grade A choice fusion cuts. “Reality N’ Facts” is from “Ostinato – Suite for Angela,” from Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi. The sample is a short but catchy excerpt of the original tune’s bassline ostinato that Maupin and others play for over 10 minutes. The production is as straightforward as it gets: grab the repeating bass clarinet pattern and put it under the vocals for three minutes. Workmanlike, but not particularly inspiring.
5. D.V. alias Khryst, Siba Giba, David Pe, Samy Deluxe, Restsam, Raptile – “The World Ain’t Ready”
I know more about particle physics than I do about this multilingual cosmopolitan conglomeration of rappers. But I am intimately familiar with the throaty, angular, and flighty bass clarinet sound of Eric Dolphy. “The World Ain’t Ready” is built on a chopped sample from Dolphy’s cover of the jazz standard “On Green Dolphin Street” from his 1960 album Outward Bound. Dolphy’s somewhat loping rhythmic phrase becomes a stabbing, grounding element that bobs and weaves with the drums. It gives the track a nice pogo stick bounce, ample forward motion, and a unique sonic character. I was frustrated that I couldn’t find more songs that sample Dolphy’s bass clarinet, although his alto is more often sampled. There must be more beyond this track. But really, somebody flip “Hat and Beard” already.
4. Madlib/MF DOOM – “All Caps”
Listen really hard. The bass clarinet is here. You’re going to have to trust me. I had two music PhDs listen to the track just to confirm what I was hearing. One of the beautiful things about the bass clarinet is that, just like the bassoon, when it blends in an ensemble, it BLENDS. Its presence gives the music a richness and fullness without sticking out—which is one reason why it widely shows up in classical music.
3. th1rt3en/Pharoahe Monch – “Cult 45”
One of the great things about the bass clarinet is its ability to sound sinister. Contemporary jazz saxophonist Marcus Strickland—who usually plays tenor and soprano—grabs the bass clarinet for “Cult 45” and channels its sinister side to support Monch’s exposition of the evil of Trump and his MAGA crowd. Strickland’s first appearance—don’t blink—is a moment of monkey strangulation, but the business starts 30 seconds in with a simple repeated nine note melody that weaves in and out of the snapping drums. Strickland runs down the track’s spine like the Continental Divide. *Thanks to Ryan Heinlein for pointing me to “Cult 45.”
2. Slum Village – “Fall in Love”
J Dilla sampling Gap Mangione’s “Diana in the Autumn Wind.” He isolated a fleeting baroque filigree bass clarinet that was a little buried in the mix, cleaned it up, and gave it a bit more presence on “Fall In Love.” Once you hear it you can’t unhear it.
1B. Westside Gunn – “Michael Irvin”
“Michael Irvin” is also based on Cobham’s “Siesta,” and while the beat on this track and “Sir Baudelaire” aren’t that different (there’s perhaps a little added wobbly frequency modulation here), Bodner’s bass clarinet takes on a different character purely by the new environment it finds itself in. In the company of Westside Gunn asking who else cooks half a brick in an air fryer with the sounds of vocalized pop pop pop gunplay in the background, Bodner becomes a predator—a shark patrolling the shallows on the lookout for an easy meal.
1A. Tyler, The Creator – “Sir Baudelaire”
@kgoodie_ on Twitter: “Not gonna lie when I first heard the bass clarinet start playing in Sir Baudelaire I almost cried that’s my instrument.”
The world of Tyler Baudelaire is nothing if not opulent. Dude’s passport is thick from hitting up Geneva and the French Open. His car doors lift open. The hotel concierge knows at first glance he’s a connoisseur. “Sir Baudelaire” is based on “Siesta” from Billy Cobham’s 1976 album Life & Times. The simple bass clarinet melody is played by Phil Bodner, whose resume is a who’s who of top tier and middling swing bands. Bodner’s bass clarinet tone is luxe, making it a perfect match for Sir Baudelaire’s lifestyle. It sounds like spreading caviar on a fancy cracker, or whatever it is people do with caviar. I don’t know, I’m from Idaho. To me it’s like an excessively thick layer of Nutella spread over bread my wife just pulled out of the oven. Indulgent and excessive.