Sample School: The Isley Brothers

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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.

I think I count ‘Summer Breeze’ as one of the earliest examples of a song I really, really loved. There was plenty of amazing music playing in my family home as I grew up but most of it took a long time to resonate with me. I remember a compilation album we used to play in the car during long trips which featured the track, nestled right in between ‘Macarena’ and ‘The Chicken Dance’. To this day I can’t figure out how they chose the track-listing for that CD. ‘Summer Breeze’ is a quintessential feel-good song, but also one that you should never, ever attempt to sing unless you are actually making a serious, laudible attempt to cover it. Anything less will sound like you’re beating a cat to death with a slightly smaller cat. On a pile of active rape alarms.

The famous track is, of course, only one isolated example of Ronald Isley’s incredible voice and the blistering, endlessly eclectic 61 year (and counting) career the band has had. Since forming in 1954 they haven’t so much followed trends as redefined them and whilst they had an insane compliment of hits and gold records under to their name, sample culture regards them in a very different light. Sure, ‘Summer Breeze’ has been sampled pretty widely (most notably by the late genius Japanese producer Nujabes) and ‘That Lady’ recently made a masterful, unforgettable appearance in Kendrick Lamar’s self-respect affirming anthem – ‘i’, but once you start looking beyond that, it becomes even easier to understand just how much playful inventiveness went into their music.

They didn’t hit stride instantaneously. In fact, success eluded them for almost 20 years (barring a few early hit singles) as they meandered between different labels and lineup changes. They hit it big in the early 70s with two breakout albums in quick succession (3 + 3 and The Heat is On) and since then their popularity has fluctuated as they’ve moved between different styles and scenes. They’re still touring today, even though two of the original Isleys are no long with us and frequently collaborate with other big name artists. To revisit Kendrick Lamar (I know, any excuse), Ronald Isley provided the guest vocal for a track on his most recent album and Ernie Isley features on the seemingly endless roster of Joss Stone collaborators (seriously, she’s worked with every motherfucker). Though their fame wavered, much of their influence has come retrospectively and they’ve typically had a very friendly working relationship with those wishing to sample their tracks. I could probably list a dozen Isley Brothers tunes that have massively influenced hip-hop and other modern music but as De La Soul and every Nintendo boss fight ever have taught us – three is the magic number.

 

For the Love of You (Part 1 & 2) – The Heat is On – 1975
Appears in Starz by Jaylib

 

This album really represented the lineup forged during the recording of 3 + 3 2 years earlier settling into itself. They had been touring and playing with that layout long enough that they knew how to feed off of each other and how to write music that made of the most of what they all had to offer. The storming ‘Fight the Power’ is the most well known track on the album but this slower, sizzling soul track is probably the next best. It is perhaps the best single example of just how inventive of a keyboard player Chris Jasper is. He stubbornly refuses to keep to the basic chord progression, embellishing almost every phrase as Ronald Isley throws out perhaps his most Stevie Wonder-esque vocal performance. As well as the vocal hook being used by Madlib and Dilla and much of the melody being used by NaS (and almost 100 others), the track made a memorable appearance in the 1993 film Menace II Society.

 

Voyage to Atlantis – Go For Your Guns – 1977
Appears in Voyage to Compton by MC Ren

 

In the same way that ‘For the Love of You’ is a near perfect demonstration of Chris Jasper’s talent, it’s hard to think of another track which makes it more obvious that Ernie Isley was a protege of Jimmi Hendrix. The man himself had lived in the Isley house for a time in the mid-60s and even played guitar for the band for a while. Ernie had only been in his early teens at the time, but he learned a lot from Hendrix and you can hear it in every wild, gorgeous lick that he throws out on this towering track. Go For Your Guns was – as the title suggests – a move into more rock-based territory for the band and ‘Voyage to Atlantis’ has since become a mainstay of their live shows. Beyond just sampling in, many hip-hop tracks also honour it lyrically or even in the titles, as with ‘Voyage to Compton’ from MC Ren’s suprisingly excellent ’98 solo album Ruthless for Life.

 

Between the Sheets – Between the Sheets – 1983
Appears in Big Poppa by The Notorious B.I.G.

 

The Isley Brothers are often referred to as an RnB or Soul outfit, but I don’t think there’s ever been any one generic term to define their style, they’ve been around too long and it’s moved around too much. Case in point, this track, taken from the 1983 album of same name is one of the funkiest sex anthems ever written. It’s utterly devoid of Ernie’s standard wailing guitar, replaced instead by gentle, almost sitar-like picking work and a bassline which builds until it becomes an almost continuous tone in the latter half of the track. The album wasn’t massively well recieved but this tight, complex track is one of the most widely sampled that the band have ever produced. Any track that makes an appearance in Biggie’s 1994 masterpiece Ready to Die is worthy of recognition and the way Chucky Thompson and Diddy reworked it for Big Poppa represents, for me, one of the greatest triumphs of hip-hop’s golden era.