Sample School: Dr. Lonnie Smith

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The amazing thing about so much of modern music, from hip-hop and out beyond, is that you’re never really listening to just one album or just one track, you’re skimming the surface of musical history. Most hip-hop artists are as much archivists as they are musicians and if you look a little deeper you’ll find a mind-boggling back-catalog of genius staring back at you. Spend more than a few minutes on WhoSampled.com and you’ll quickly become entranced, digging out track after track to find out which 70s funk hooks, film score overtures and Malcolm X quotes built the flesh around the skeleton of the beat. The purpose of this feature is to give you an insight into a particular band or artist who helped to shape that world, an artist you’ve likely been listening to for years without even realising it.

Dr. Lonnie Smith

It takes a very particular sort of person to assign themselves as ‘Doctor’ without any kind of qualification to justify it, or wear a turban and style their facial hair like a Sikh purely for aesthetic reasons, rather than religious ones. Dr. Lonnie Smith didn’t start referring to himself as such until some time around the late 70s, although it wasn’t until 1993 that any release actually used it. He is, by all rights, an eccentric, energetic individual, but he is also a brilliant, pioneering jazz and funk musician, owing to his mastery of the hammond organ. His entire musical career kicked off when he was one day invited into the back room of a music store he frequented every day and gifted with a brand new Hammond B-3.

He released his first album in 1967 with George Benson (having been a founding member of the George Benson Quartet) and went on to release dozens of albums, working with an incredible compliment of prominent players like Idris Muhammed, Dave Hubbard, Lee Morgan and Melvin Sparks. From 1968 to 1970 he was signed to Blue Note, which remains today one of the greatest jazz labels of all time. In a live context he’s logged time with Etta James, Ron Carter, Dizzy Gillepsie and many, many others. His style has taken on many different shapes over the years, blending generic touchstones into music that can shift from mellow to blistering in a heartbeat.

Whilst last week’s subject, Bob James, might be one of the most well known figures in sample culture, Smith has a less fervent reputation, with one particular track (played, but not composed by him) being far more well known than anything else. The fact remains though that a huge contingent of 90s hip-hop samplers coveted the hammond sound and it helped shape the signature flavour of many of the early groups who came up around that time, especially on the east coast. So, without further adieu.

People Sure Act Funny – Turning Point – 1969
Appears in Steady Bootleggin’ by Brand Nubian

The prime cut from Smith’s second album with Blue Note, the overall release was less revered perhaps than 1968’s Think!, which makes it an interesting counterpoint to the track it’s most recognisably sampled in. Brand Nubian hammered their way onto the scene in 1991, but when it came time to release their second album Grand Puba left the group to do his own thing, taking DJ Alamo with him. Lord Jamar and Sadat X enlisted DJ Sincere to fill the void but the album still got a more frosty reception. Regardless, the steady, chilled stylings of the sample track fit perfectly around the severe tongue lashing Lord Jamar directs at the eponymous bootleggers on the album’s standout track.

 

In The Beginning – Finger-lickin’ Good – 1966
Appears in Figaro by Madvillain

While the four subsequent releases were by far his most successful, Smith’s debut album remains one of his most interesting, and innovative. Most of the tracks clock in at under 4 minutes and feature strange, dissonant tones and funkier elements largely unseen in other 60s jazz offerings. In the Beginning is a fascinating track, sounding like something from an early Jerry Goldsmith or Michel Legrand film score, there’s a tinglingly ominous vibe to it not present in any of Smith’s other work. It’s that kind of disparity that would naturally appeal to someone like Madlib, one of the greatest samplers of all time, and he chose to use it on what remains easily one of the greatest hip-hop albums ever produced, if not one of the best albums of all time, if you ask me. The track was also used for D12’s 2000 breakout single ‘Shit on You’.

 

Spinning Wheel – Drives – 1970
Appears in Can I Kick It? by A Tribe Called Quest

The other tracks listed above are wonderful, insular little packets of jazz history, sampled in one or two tracks, but Spinning Wheel actually helped form the backbone of hip-hop production for a huge segment of the 90s golden era. The track itself comes from Smith’s most revered, successful release, the pinnacle of his Blue Note tenure. It’s a gorgeous reworking of a track originally recorded by Blood, Sweat & Tears in 1968, featuring a standout saxophone solo from Dave Hubbard. Most famously it was used in one of the earliest tracks to propel A Tribe Called Quest into prominence. Can I Kick It uses multiple beat and melodic elements, but the quintessentially hip-hop drum track (played originally by Joe Dukes, an ever-present partner in crime to Brother Jack McDuff) has been sampled by damn near every prominent East Coast hip-hop group you care to name. Wu-Tang Clan, Eric Sermon, Grand Puba, Black Moon, Beastie Boys, Kurious, Fat Joe, Nine, M.O.P. and dozens more used the track between 90 and 95 and even Tribe went back and sampled it again on Buggin’ Out, one of the standout tracks on their strongest, most worshipped LP, The Low End Theory.

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