Sample School: Steely Dan
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.
So, in the inaugural edition of Sample School we’re taking a look at a band that up until very recently I utterly despised. My family home was an absolutely glorious place to be in terms of music when I was growing up. My father, being a former jazz bassist with a small but nonetheless impressive record collection, used to fill the house with Herb Alpert, Weather Report, Keith Jarrett, Miles Davis, Earth, Wind and Fire, Wynton Marsallis, Billy Cobham and all kinds of other vital music on a daily basis. I couldn’t stand it. Kids seem to have a bizarre tendency, once they’ve started discovering music for themselves, to almost immediately decide that they already know better than their parents and I outright rejected basically everything my Dad was into for years. Gradually though I started to grow up and realise what an imbecile I was being, but one band still remained inked on my hit-list: Steely Dan. I couldn’t put my finger on it, maybe it was Donald Fagen’s vocal style, maybe it was the shifting mixture of big band brass and seventies rock guitar, but something just never clicked. Oh, how wrong I was.
It was actually through hip-hop that I finally realised that I needed to get over my childhood prejudice and embrace Steely Dan and once I did, I understood how incredible they are. They’re the kind of band that never want to do anything other than play great music. Famously they stopped touring almost indefinitely after their third album, Pretzel Logic dropped in 1974 (although that was partly down to Donald Fagen’s wavering health), they rarely give interviews and don’t suffer fools gladly when they do and, putting aside a few early demos, they’ve never actually written a love song. Their music (up until the 90s when they really ought to have stopped) is universally phenomenal, you won’t find a more inventive guitar solo than the one in ‘The Boston Rag’, the way the brass plays out ‘The Caves of Altamira’ just seems to get more impressive the more you listen to it and the building, dissipating wrongfootmanship of the harmonies at the end of ‘Third World Man’ is, you know what? I’m just going to stop, this is getting a little too preachy, they’re just really good, OK?
I will take a moment to call attention to the lyrics though. That particular, middle of the road style between jazz, funk and rock that Steely Dan belong to doesn’t have a particularly rich history where lyrics are concerned, usually they’re about a girl, or a highway, or something that happened with a girl whist driving down a highway. With Steely Dan every single track is a narrative and all the albums tell intriguing, fascinating, often cynical tales. It shouldn’t come as any kind of surprise that Donal Fagen is a huge fan of Mark Twain, you can hear it in his words. A lot of drinks and sexual positions also get referenced and/or name checked, which is always fun. Now, to the other part of this new feature, below you’ll find three tracks famously sampled elsewhere, as well as just being excellent in their own right, enjoy.
Kid Charlemagne – Royal Scam – 1976
Appears inL ‘Champion’ – Kanye West
The opening track from arguably the best album they ever produced, Kid Charlemagne draws heavily from stories about the counter-culture ne’er do well and member of the Grateful Dead entourage Owsley Stanley and his work concocting high quality LSD (allegedly half the acid inspired music of the 60s was partially his doing). References are made to Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. Kanye West only uses the vocal hook midway though the first verse, but he actually wrote a letter to the band to convince them to let him use it. Apparently Fagen and Becker were touched by his affectionate request, but Fagen admitted to not really understanding why Kanye felt the need to use someone else’s work to express his own passion. Generation gap, I guess.
Black Cow – Aja – 1977
Appears in: ‘Deja Vu (Uptown Baby)’ – Lord Tariq & Peter Gunz
There’s a bit less certainty with regards to what Black Cow is actually about. It’s one of Steely Dan’s funkier, more esoteric tracks. Seemingly it describes someone’s frustration with a friend or lover who refuses to stop damaging themselves through a hedonistic lifestyle. A ‘black cow’ is a root beer float with chocolate ice cream, though, so it could just be about someone unwilling to reduce their risk of getting diabetes. In either case, the opening riff makes a memorable appearance in ‘Deja Vu (Uptown Baby)’, otherwise known as ‘Nineties Nostalgia Attack’ amongst scholars. Sadly it didn’t occur to the duo to write a heartfelt letter to the band, or even ask proper permission, which resulted in a lawsuit that significantly hampered Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz in their careers (they haven’t released an album since). The track was also sampled in MF Doom’s Gas Drawls, and given that he has released more albums since then than I’ve had hot meals, I think it’s fair to assume he had the good sense to ask them.
Peg – Aja – 1977
Appears in: ‘Eye Know’ – De La Soul
Arguably one of the most iconic samples of all time, Peg is also probably one of Steely Dan’s best known songs even and especially amongst those unfamiliar with the band. Michael McDonald actually lends backup vocals to this track and the band tried out seven different guitarist before finally settling on Jay Graydon, a legendary producer and musician in his own right (we have this to thank him for). Lyrically it’s ostensibly about an aspiring actress, but a vocal recording buried within the confines of the song (“I don’t wanna do this”) suggests that it’s actually about said actress being press-ganged into a porn shoot. As previously mentioned, Steely Dan have never shied away from sexual content, they’re named after the dildo from Naked Lunch, for crying out loud. De La Soul don’t really take any of that sinister thematic content on board, simply using the chords and vocals to bring us one of the warmest, loveliest hip-hop tracks ever produced. If I’ve ruined it for you somewhat with that little history lesson, my bad.