Breaks With Tradition

Breaks With Tradition: “A Garden Of Peace”

It happened again: Someone sampled “A Garden Of Peace.”

This time around, it was 30roc and Datboisqueeze building a beat for 2 Chainz’ “I Said Me,” from the recently released Rap Or Go To The League, and even though there’s a more obvious hook on there that has seen its share of reinterpretations, once the main beat kicks in you can hear that familiar piano refrain burble through like it’s coming from underwater speakers, the notes of Lonnie Liston Smith blurred and faded like a 10th generation photocopy or videotape dub.

Drum breaks have been used over and over in sample-based tracks, but when a melody keeps resurfacing, it bears a deeper look. What is it about this particular refrain, this musical performance, that keeps inspiring producers to flip it, despite how distinctly noticeable and familiar it is?

Maybe there’s some intangible emotional pull to it that keeps it resonating, or an urge to directly evoke or invoke the most famous beat to ever use it. It’s not a party-rocking, anthemic speaker-rattler of a hook, either — it’s almost fragile, delicate, made to sound reflective and introspective. But it’s not necessarily a shortcut to that mood — more a carefully weighted component that a savvy producer can use to build something more conflicted.

Here’s where it went over the course of 35-plus years.

The Original: Lonnie Liston Smith, “A Garden Of Peace” (from Dreams Of Tomorrow, 1983, Doctor Jazz)

Lonnie Liston Smith is credited (or blamed) for inspiring the rise of acid jazz in the late ’80s and early ’90s; in “Expansions” alone you can hear the wellspring for all kinds of fusion-reclamation projects from Jamiroquai to Kruder & Dorfmeister. (The Brit-funk soul tribes of the early ’80s were especially wild about this kind of thing way back when, too, but that’s a whole other story.)

But Smith was picked up by hip-hop pretty early, and in a historic context: When Stetsasonic put together a track justifying the use of sampling as a creative art, they interpolated the bassline of ’70s hip-hop park-jam favorite “Expansions” for their 1988 single “Talkin’ All That Jazz,” and Smith’s co-sign of its transformative new context (“That ain’t ‘Expansions’ no more, you done made something new”) was a watershed moment in legitimizing the usage of breaks as a re-interpretive work of musical composition.

But we’re not hear to talk about “Expansions” — and as it turns out, “A Garden Of Peace” has arguably surpassed it in the hip-hop production lexicon for a completely different reason than the percussive, speaker-rattling qualities of your typical classic break.

“A Garden Of Peace,” which closes out Smith’s ’83 album Dreams Of Tomorrow, is the closing number on an album that’s otherwise largely dedicated to positioning Smith as a smoother-than-smooth R&B crossover artist with the help of his brother Donald on vocals. It’s a stark outlier on the otherwise Quiet Storm-drenched LP: just Lonnie solo on acoustic and electric pianos, a meditative piece dedicated to guru Sri Chinmoy that just so happens to have the kind of chord progression that can sound peaceful or tragic, austere or luxurious, depending on what your mindframe is when you approach it.

The First (And Breakthrough) Sample: Jay-Z, “Dead Presidents” (12″; later released with different lyrics on Reasonable Doubt, Roc-A-Fella, 1996)

So Ski Beatz found a way to make it sound like all of those moods at once. You should know this one already; it’s the cut that more than any other really embodies what made Jay-Z that dude when he emerged, triumphant but always with that Sword Of Damocles looming overhead (“Shit I’m involved with got me pins and needles”).

There’s a fantastic clip where Jay talks about how the beat felt so in tune with how he felt that it really dictated how he went at the track, and Ski just lays it out like it’s no big deal, discussing it in terms of using his beat as the dramatic score to the movie he pictured Jay unspooling on the mic.

The Nas hook and the ensuing infamous “Takeover”-spurred hot line/hot song dichotomy made the track notorious for completely different reasons five years later, but it’s the combination of Ski’s hard-punching SP-1200 drums juxtaposed with Smith’s melodies that really does it; wintry pre-gentrification Brooklyn never felt more like epic poetry. It still hasn’t really been topped.

The Early Sample: DJ Krush, “Maze” (from Headz 2B, MoWax, 1996)

Funny how the only other track to sample “A Garden Of Peace” in ’96 was from a DJ in a completely different hemisphere — literally and figuratively.

Aside from the fact that both Hov and Tokyo-based trip-hop turntablist DJ Krush were criminals turned legit through hip-hop — though the gulf between “former crack dealer” and “former Yakuza apprentice” is probably worth noting — this Lonnie Liston Smith track is probably all that really unites them, and to completely different ends.

And where Ski’s beat was upfront and straightforward and to-the-core instant, the instrumental track built here by Krush is something far more slippery and elusive, building around the dynamics of his scratch technique and a deep sense of how a big fuck-off boom-bap beat can be the chassis for the strangest engines.

“Maze” matches an unsubtly hard-hitting beat to these odd, discombobulated anti-melodies that sound like warped, melting chimes and scat-sung phrases that trail off before they really get a chance to sink in. The Smith sample comes in about a minute and a half in, after a slow-burn buildup/breakdown that drops in a few beatless bars of dub-reverb negative space, and it’s not the recognizable hooky three-note variations heard in “Dead Presidents” — instead, it’s a glimmering flourish from the intro to “A Garden Of Peace,” an unfinished fragment of an abstraction that joins a discombobulating chorus of them.

The Weirdo Sample: Knxwledge, “NaymeDrawps” (from WrapTaypes.Port2[bootleg], self-released, 2012)

Knxwledge is scary prolific — he’s got at least 100 releases up on his Bandcamp right now, as sure of a sign I can think of that the artist-to-listener pipeline has never been less obstructed. That can make the route from “I liked that beat he did for Kendrick” or “that NxWorries record is dope” to a deeper engagement with his work kind of time-intensive, I know.

Binge-listening is probably not advised, but just dartboarding one of his countless beat tapes is bound to give you a bullseye one way or another, so I’m not going to front like there’s anything definitive beyond the next-gen Madlib/Dilla-isms of his ’15 Stones Throw dank-soul travelogue Hud Dreems. But why not use his flip of “A Garden Of Peace” to at least navigate the ways he corrodes and molds a hook that heads already know, turning something recognizable into a tactile object he actually has his own fingerprints all over?

The played-live bump/pulse of “NaymeDrawps” gives the warped-cassette wow and flutter of the drum-muffling fidelity its own rhythmic emphasis — in other words, the break sounds even better when it’s broken.

The Recent Sample: Meek Mill, “Respect The Game” (from Championships, Maybach, 2018)

How much do you really need to tweak an instantly recognizable loop to justify it? What Papamitrou, Beat Menace, and Rance Dopson do with that piano isn’t all that revolutionary, but it doesn’t need to be — they pitch it up a bit, buff it to a shine you can see the reflection of forever in, and give it a classic half-trap beat with enough bass to turn subwoofers into trampolines.

So it sounds damn near immaculate even though it’s, you know, “Dead Presidents” — and “Rain” and “Take Me As I Am” and “Usual Suspects” while we’re at it.

Sometimes it’s enough to prove to yourself and everyone else that some samples just can’t be rinsed.