Aja At 40: A Track-By-Track Listing Of Its Greatest Echoes
Steely Dan are definitely their own monumental idiosyncratic impossible-to-duplicate entity, but they’ve also felt important as part of a collective continuum — a ’70s band that reached out to a ’50s past and rippled through pop music well past the ’90s into now. Subsequently, Aja isn’t just their most well-known and best-selling album, it’s also one of their most influential, marked by how much of it wound up permeating the musical atmosphere in the 40 years since its release. The album inspired a few covers when it was initially released, and then, starting a little over a decade later, an even more notable series of repurposings presented themselves when sample-based artists found Aja to be a good source of tight musicianship and emotive sophistication. Here’s a song for every track on Aja that got lifted, one way or another, by another artist who helped ensure that the Steely Dan masterpiece wouldn’t remain stranded back in circa-’77 hi-fi shops.
1. “Black Cow”: MF Doom — “Gas Drawls” (1997)
Lord Tariq & Peter Gunz got all the shine — and a memorable acknowledgement from Walt and Dan themselves during the Classic Albums: Steely Dan – Aja documentary — for flipping “Black Cow” into their hit “Deja Vu (Uptown Baby)”. But MF Doom’s debut 12″ on Fondle ‘Em beat them to wax by a few months, filling out a single that also included future Operation Doomsday highlights “Dead Bent” and “Hey!” No word on whether either member of Steely Dan ever heard this one, but I’d like to think they’d appreciate it a little more: Doom flips the beat a bit more cleverly, focusing on the little three-note refrains that punctuate the mid-song solo as sample source rather than just making a beeline for the big clavinet riff at the beginning. Plus of course he drops in Fagen’s line “you were very high,” because it’s an MF Doom track on Bobbito Garcia’s label — why would he not do that?
2. “Aja”: Anthony “Shake” Shakir — “Arise” (1998)
Anthony Shakir is one of Detroit’s great underrated techno producers — not nearly as renowned as Juan Atkins or Derrick May but a longstanding peer of theirs, as well as a link between their work and the second-gen techno artists that emerged in the ’90s. His early track “Sequence 10″ received the honor of appearing on Virgin’s pivotal 1988 genre-overview compilation Techno! The New Dance Sound Of Detroit alongside such cuts as Inner City’s “Big Fun” and Juan Atkins’s “Techno Music” — which is sort of like the musical equivalent of being the sixth man on the Bad Boy Pistons. But it was his recordings in the ’90s and ’00s, canonized on Rush Hour’s 2009 compilation Frictionalism, that most vividly come together as a body of work from an adventurous producer who seems largely disinterested in whatever borders might lie between techno, house, hip-hop, and soul. “Arise” is the leadoff cut from his ’98 12″ …Waiting For Russell, and practically everything about the slow-boil way he uses its “Aja” sample is breath-snatching. The simmering way the loop of the original song’s coda solo glows through a muffling fog until it emerges in deep-focus speaker-rattling clarity is one of the greatest examples of taking a piece of a bigger, more elaborate whole and finding the same kind of transcendence in just a few bars of it.
3. “Deacon Blues”: Savant — “Innocence” (2015)
Savant, aka Norwegian producer Aleksander Vinter, is probably one of the most prolific beatmakers of the last decade to be almost completely overlooked. There could be a couple reasons for that, but the biggest one seems to be the likelihood that releasing anywhere from two to four albums’ worth of music every year in a brostep-adjacent corner of EDM — timed to peak somewhere in the midst of its crash-and-burn overexposure — is a good way to be taken the opposite of seriously. But if there’s such a thing as a breakthrough album that also happens to be the 13th release put out under a single alias, Invasion seemed pegged to be it, coinciding as it did with Deadmau5 pinning the hopes of a less stagnant EDM future on Savant’s tireless output. “Innocence” is one of 18 tracks on an already borderline exhaustingly long album, but in isolation it’s a fine-enough slab of post-Daft Punk house, infused with a cheery hyperactivity that chops “Deacon Blues” into pieces, jumbles it all up with chunks of “Peg,” and soups it all up with maximalist Adderall basslines that do their damnedest to obscure anything even remotely 1977 about it all. There’s probably some irony here in taking a song about fading into a romanticized lonely adult loserdom and turning it into something that sounds like the soundtrack to a True ’90s Kid’s refusal to age, but what am I, a psychoanalyst?
4. “Peg”: De La Soul — “Eye Know” (1989)
You know it, you love it. Even Donald Fagen, who hit producer Prince Paul pretty hard for royalties back in ’89 because of the “Peg” sample, stated a few years later that he still liked the song (“as long as they pay for the usage, it’s fine by me”). So this De La classic doesn’t need a ton of explaining, really, except maybe to note that the famous Lyricon riff on the hook is courtesy of Tom Scott, and it’s not even his greatest usage in a hip-hop beat ever. It’s also worth noting that Prince Paul’s beat here is a masterpiece of juxtaposition — it’s not just the “Peg” sample, but the opening guitar riff and horns from The Mad Lads’ “Make This Young Lady Mine”, the Otis Redding whistle from “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay,” and the drums from Lee Dorsey (“Get Out Of My Life, Woman”) and Sly & the Family Stone (“Sing A Simple Song”) that make it a complete song, and getting five different tracks to come together in one cohesive whole like that was a hell of a technological feat for ’89 (and an extra-hell of a compositional feat at any point in time).
5. “Home at Last”: Big Shug — “Stripped And Pistol Whipped” (1993)
Here’s a weird brush with history: Big Shug, a Boston-based rapper and friend of GangStarr’s Guru, released his first solo cut “Stripped And Pistol Whipped” on the same 1993 12″ that introduced Jeru The Damaja’s iconic “Come Clean” to the world (back when Jeru was credited as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels). Re-released a couple years later as part of Big Shug’s “Treat U Better” single, “Stripped And Pistol Whipped” isn’t nearly as famous as that DJ Premier-produced Jeru classic — Shug’s career was largely singles and guest spots until he finally started releasing full-length albums in the mid ’00s, and he’s not at his most quotable here, though he’s got a way with hammering his voice right into the beat. “Stripped And Pistol Whipped” is still a strong cut, though, thanks to the way Guru’s beat has a Premier-style sense of just what piece of a song to lift to make a loop heavy; the opening piano from the original Steely Dan song might not sound all that hardcore, but with those door-kicking drums laid in beneath it there’s a whole new swing to it. And there’s a funny juxtaposition between Shug’s beatdown threats and “Home At Last”‘s theme of a relief that feels like an illusion (“Well the danger on the rocks is surely past/ Still I remain tied to the mast”). It’ll probably be OK, just so long as you don’t try to flip.
6. “I Got The News”: The Woody Herman Band cover (1978)
Well, here it is, the only song on Aja to not have at least a modest-profile track sampling it. And wouldn’t you know it, it still wound up covered — by a big band that first rose to renown in the 1930s. Not like Woody Herman and company were total cultural irrelevancies in the Dan’s prime; Woody did play the halftime of Super Bowl VII in ’73 with the Michigan Marching Band (the theme: “Happiness Is” — oh, the Normie ’70s) and headlined Carnegie Hall in November ’76 for his 40th anniversary as a bandleader. But it’s still kind of an odd honor, coming as it does on an album half-dedicated to Steely Dan’s then-recent work and half-dedicated to a suite composed and arranged by Chick Corea. Odd, maybe, but not the weirdest, really, since the Woody Herman Band were known for adapting to later forms of bebop and fusion better than most ’30s-originating jazz bands. And replacing Fagen’s vocal lead on “I Got The News” with a big brass section really makes it pop, especially since they preserve the distinct half-dissonant piano chords that are laced through the whole thing. Oh, and Becker and Fagen co-wrote the liner notes to this album, which are 100% a must-read despite (or maybe especially because of) its total lack of insight into what made the album possible. (“It’s about four o’clock on a balmy afternoon and Hector Aquilar is trudging home from the traffic court in West Los Angeles…”)
7. “Josie”: Wiz Khalifa ft. Smoke DZA — “Old Chanel” (2013)
One of the Dan’s most opulently celebratory anthems — yell it with me now: throw down the jam ’til the girls say when — it’s hard to think of “Josie” as bleary or wavy or any other term people like to use to describe downtempo weed-beats. Sure, a lot of seeds and stems have probably been separated in Aja’s gatefold, but to the layman, anything this polished is usually associated with people who really like the smell of cocaine, no matter what its creators were imbibing at the time. But here come Wiz Khalifa and Smoke DZA, who 100% demand your finest kush-accommodating musical atmosphere, and who are any of us to refuse? An under-heralded transformation by production crew the Black Market Music Brokers turns the Aja closer’s opening guitar flourish into a late-night float through a red-eyed vision of Harlem in your finest streetwear. And if you thought that was something, wait ’til you hear that crescendo get flipped bookmarking DZA’s verse. That’s a raw flame.