I was asked on Quora to give a list of my favorite hip-hop songs, because what better source is there than a forty-year-old white dad? (I am literally a mountain climber who plays the electric guitar.) I did grow up in New York City in the 80s, and I do love the music. But ultimately, I’m a tourist in this culture. For a more definitive survey, ask Questlove or someone. These are just songs that I like.
Thelonious Monk’s beautiful ballad “Round Midnight” is said to be the most widely recorded and performed jazz tune — that is, a tune that was written specifically for jazz, not an adaptation of a showtune or pop song. It’s a testament to its popularity that it’s one of exactly two songs that Dave Chappelle knows how to play on the piano. There are a couple of scenes in Dave Chappelle’s Block Party that show him noodling around it. He talks in this clip about what Monk’s music means to him as a comedian — it’s all about timing.
Carmen McRae was a good friend of Monk’s, and for my tastes, she sings this song better than anyone. Her tart, unsentimental intellect matches Monk’s own approach to music perfectly. Here she is performing “Round Midnight” in 1962.
Music blogs, magazines and cable channels like to run lists of the best albums of all time. Certain albums get listed again and again: Sgt Pepper, Pet Sounds, Highway 61 Revisited.
If you were to compile the best albums as measured by how often they get sampled by hip-hop producers, the list would look very different. There would be some famous names on it — James Brown, Led Zeppelin, P-Funk — but it wouldn’t necessarily include their best-known songs. And you’d see a lot of names that would be totally unfamiliar, unless you were a really devoted crate-digger. In the top ten, alongside tunes by The Honey Drippers, The Soul Searchers and The Incredible Bongo Band, you’d find “The Champ” by The Mohawks.
Hip-hop fans will instantly recognize the organ riff that kicks off this song. It’s everywhere. Yet I had never heard of the Mohawks before looking into the source of the riff. They were an ad-hoc band of session musicians led by a British organist named Alan Hawkshaw, best known for his commercial jingles, library music and TV theme songs. He also played on records by Barbra Streisand and Olivia Newton John. Not the likeliest source of inspiration for Big Daddy Kane and Ol’ Dirty Bastard, is he? But the album grooves hard.