How Ahmad Jamal inspired Nas, Kanye West and other hip-hop heavyweights

In Lifted, Javon Anderson examines the long-standing relationship between jazz and hip hop.

Ahmad Jamal’s career as a jazz pianist has been cemented over several decades and eras of music that have come and gone.

Whether it’s through his compositions, harmonic vocabulary, use of space, or his unique interpretation of jazz standards, Jamal has captured the ear of countless fans, fellow jazz musicians — including having a significant influence on Miles Davis — and even hip-hop producers, as well. While still overlooked compared to many of his contemporaries, Jamal’s playing is unsurprisingly found on some of hip hop’s most iconic records.

One album that has been particularly sought-after by crate diggers is the Ahmad Jamal Trio’s The Awakening, released in 1970. This album was an evolution for Jamal’s playing, as he recognized that simply having the chops and musical knowledge didn’t always translate into making enduring music. He took it upon himself to not limit himself to one particular style of playing, expertly making the album feel all over the place with its range yet cohesive in identity. This versatility helps explain why many of the songs can be found on countless hip hop beats.

One of the most famous examples is, of course, The World Is Yours by Nas. It’s one of hip hop’s most iconic songs and can be credit with shaping the style of East Coast hip hop since the 1990s.

The song owes a lot to Jamal’s playing on I Love Music. You can hear it throughout the beat, chopped up by producer Pete Rock, who also sings on the hook and provides the record scratches to make it feel like you’re walking through Queens to Nas’s words. In this video, Pete Rock talks about the experience working with Nas to make The World Is Yours:

Jamal was also sampled by Kanye West, who, in the mid- to late-2000s, was producing for a wide range of artists while ascending to stardom himself. One of the songs he produced during this period was They Say, from Common’s landmark 2005 album Be. Kanye and John Legend both provided guest vocals.

The main sample came from Ahmad Jamal’s Ghetto Child, from his 1974 record Jamalca. Known for mainly playing on acoustic piano, this song featured an electric piano.

Earlier, producer J Dilla had sampled Ahmad Jamal’s Swahililand for De La Soul’s Stakes Is High, released on their 1996 album of the same name.

The track features De La Soul lyrically expressing their frustrations with the state of hip hop at the time.

Being sampled by the likes of Pete Rock, Kanye West, and J Dilla — who all could easily be on a Mount Rushmore of hip-hop producers — is a testament to Ahmad Jamal’s ability to inspire others with his enigmatic playing and compositions.

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