Seven decades. Seven songs.
At long last, some Prince!
1920’s-50’s: "Street of Dreams" by Sarah Vaughan (1955)
Sarah Vaughan possessed one of the greatest voices to ever grace recording tape, and she was never scared to show it off. On this cut from one of her earlier albums After Hours, her voice glides over Percy Faith's masterful arrangement. The "street of dreams" she sings of sounds like some type of utopia, an escape from the world we have to live in.
Sonically, the song is an escape as well. For three minutes life sounds like all the hope and romance that the movies sell, and who would provide a better soundtrack than Sarah Vaughan?
1960’s: "Ready Or Not Here I Come" by The Delfonics (1969)
Over the years, there are some songs that have become sampling standards, repeatedly reinterpreted by hip-hop producers. James Brown's "Funky Drummer" qualifies, as well as "Think (About It)" by Lyn Collins, but those tracks are mostly lifted for their drum breaks. "Ready or Not" is different, as it's been used for its commanding intro. The deep brass riff grounds the tracks with staccato strings playing overhead, and those two or three bars of music has been a well for producers for years.
Timbaland used it in Missy Elliott's "Sock It 2 Me", and again on an Usher remix. Of course, The Fugees utilized the song's melody for their own version of "Ready Or Not", and Three Six Mafia created their classic "Who Run It" with the track. As of late, "Who Run It" has become a challenge, with rappers trying to burn down the classic instrumental. G Herbo's remix which features Lil Uzi still stands out as the best of the freestyles, with Herbo and Uzi both losing their minds over the beat.
1970’s: "The Void" by The Raincoats (1979)
The Raincoats were part of the British post-punk movement, and about as DIY as you can get. While recording their debut album, three of their four members were squatting, essential homeless. Regardless of all that the group's self-titled album received a fair amount of coverage, as the group's sound was incredibly jarring and unconventional. Kurt Cobain ranked the album as his 20th favorite of all time, further immortalizing the polarizing work.
"The Void" is a dreary tune that starts with somber strings and a lurking bass line. When the verse starts, the bass starts to make all sorts of leaps that a conventional player might call...ill advised. The vocals are just as rough around the edges, and it often sounds like the players are slipping in and out of time with each other. However that all adds to the song's appeal, and stays true to the DIY culture the band came up in. It may not be the most polished recording but it's as raw and real as it gets.
1980’s: "Mountains" by Prince & The Revolution (1986)
Under The Cherry Moon was Prince's second movie, just two years off of the absolutely iconic Purple Rain. While it's clear that Purple Rain is the better movie, I'm not so sure that Parade (Cherry Moon's soundtrack) is the lesser soundtrack. While searching for the inspiration to make Voodoo, D'Angelo and Questlove (along with the rest of the band) would play through Parade and There's a Riot Goin' On. "Mountains" was the album's second single, following the smash that was "Kiss", and holds up incredibly well.
The drum pattern sets a strong rhythmic backing, while the guitars and horns fill up the spaces that the static beat creates. The chorus is less of Prince himself and more like a mini Revolution choir, harmonizing beautifully. The standout moment is the beautiful horn break that serves to transition to the song's fade out, one of the highlights in an album clearly more jazz-influenced than Prince's earlier work.
If you only know Prince for Purple Rain, check out Parade. His second soundtrack might be his best.
1990’s: "Where I’m From" by Digable Planets (1993)
The definition of a classic, Digable Planets made a classic with Reachin' (A New Refutation Of Time And Space) in '93. Representing for all the weird kids, "Where I'm From" tears down the idea of black youth being a monolith. Butterfly details reading Marx while Doodlebug insists they still speak in "ghetto tongue". The duality of black kids is often something underexplored, with minorities expected to fit in predetermined categories, but "Where I'm From" celebrates everything we can be.
Ladybug's inclusion on the song and in the group was some much-needed representation for black women in the hip-hop movement, which is good for the movement as a whole. Digable Planets are still one of the most celebrated rap groups of all time, for good reason. If nothing else, the sweet sample in this song just makes you feel good, a testament to the 90's and the original jazz rap era as a whole.
2000’s: "Something In The Way of Things" by The Roots (2002)
Following a commercial and critical peak is always important, so The Root's follow-up to Things Fall Apart was a crucial release. Phrenology was a wonderful return to form for the group. "Something In The Way Of Things" rounds out the album with a poem by the masterful writer and activist Amiri Baraka. The piece is a long and winding offering about the commodification of black culture and the state of everyday life, and Baraka's incisive words are the perfect foil to the instrumental.
If Things Fall Apart was jazz rap then this Phrenology cut is cosmic jazz rap, with a propulsive groove session that contain a guitar solo that emulates James Blood Ulmer as much as the reverse tape loops that Questlove first experimented with on Voodoo. A hallmark of great albums, the final track seems to summarize much of what occurs over the length of the project, and The Roots cap off Phrenology in extraordinary fashion.
2010's: "Knot" by Arca (2013)
Arca's maverick sound has helped him to carve a clear niche in the electronic music game, and his production can be heard behind artists like Kanye West, FKA Twigs, and Björk. With such an impressive client list, it's easy to forget how brightly he shines on his own. "&&&&&" is his debut mixtape and "Knot" is the opening track, so it's clear he's not pulling any punches.
"Knot" is harsh, with a peircing melody that relentlessly rips through the track. The drum pattern is languid, a distorted backbone to the unorthodox song. The experimental track churns along, leaving conventional electronic music behind. As always, Arca sounds ahead of the curve. In 2018 nothing's changed, and the track remains one of his best.