I’ve been dreading this day and this piece. I hate that one of my favorite producers of all-time was taken from us too early, and I hate the heavy responsibility of crafting a worthy tribute. I’m not sure I’m a good enough writer to translate what his music means to me into words; I'm not sure anyone is that good. The best thing I can do is simply share his music. There’s nothing I can say or do to make you understand his wizardry, you just have to hear it for yourself.
If you're unfamiliar with Nujabes’ name and work, here's a quick rundown.
First, the man shares a birthday with Dilla. I firmly believe that is not a coincidence. Like Dilla, the Japanese producer heard samples in a completely different way. A wizard of beat alchemy, Nujabes created rich landscapes by layering and blending a vast array of samples and sounds. Every single sound is its own texture. He’ll loop, cut, or alter the sounds to fit the mold of something bigger. Both potent and heavy-hitting, while also light and whimsical, his art is rooted in jazz—what Dilla was to soul, Nujabes was with jazz—but hip-hop's influence is undeniable.
Nujabes is popular for his work on Samurai Champloo but he’s also amassed a cult following of hip-hop heads, which is why he drew attention from emcees like Cise Starr, C.L. Smooth and Substantial. Like Dilla, he too was taken from us too early.
On February 26, 2010, almost exactly six years ago, Nujabes died from injuries sustained in a car accident. Though we will never enjoy new material from Nujabes, the music we already own is timeless. It’s as fresh today as it was when it was originally released. It will be in 20 years.
Nujabes is magic and here is proof...
“World's End Rhapsody”
I wanted to begin with "World's End Rhapsody" because it's one of my all-time favorite beats. Not just my favorite beat by Nujabes, but one of my favorites of all-time. Period. While the Quadraphonics sample engines the effort, the instrumental sections are what make the production special; specifically the piano section in the middle. The beat feels like a jazz number in the sense there are several instrumental “solos” all placed over one constant, unchanging foundation. Almost instinctual, that sample makes me want to move—bob my head, sway, two-step—but the other layers almost paralyze me. I want to close my eyes and focus on the minutiae. A great selection to start with because the record evokes real feelings. It's light and free, yet it also carries tremendous weight.
"Peaceland" doesn’t scream samples like “Worlds End Rhapsody,” but it is an incredible demonstration of Nujabes' attention to detail. The way he chops and bends that horn is astounding. It gives the beat a rippling effect that never ceases to blow my mind. It almost sounds like the song is skipping. Nujabes heard music differently. I don’t think there are many producers who'd even think of an approach like this. With drums fortifying a rock-solid foundation, the beat sounds complete. But it’s that extra level of detail that sets Nujabes apart. He’s like an impressionist painter. He uses these chopped, almost broken brush strokes—the smallest little detail, the blurring of those horns—to paint a larger picture in vivid color.
Want to hear a sample that will blow your fucking mind? Look no further than "Counting Stars." This song soothes my soul and washes away my troubles. It’s peaceful, but at the same time, I start to get energized. It’s insane! Before you listen to the original sample, be sure to take in “Counting Stars” a few times. Not to discredit an amazing song, but it feels empty, lacking. A little clustered, too. Listening to "Counting Stars," and then hearing its source material, helped me to appreciate Nujabes' mind. To hear where he took that sample is a crash course in sampling. Nujabes didn’t just speed it up or cut it; he uses it as a platform to jump off into his own universe. I could listen to this beat over and over and over, and I know I'm not the only one. People have made "homework edits" of the track, looped for over an hour. How many beats could you listen to for an hour straight?
“Horn In The Middle”
Though I wouldn’t call it one of my all-time favorites, “Horn In The Middle” is an important beat to include here because it shows that while Nujabes is an expert in light, airy, and soothing instrumentals, he can also reach through the speakers and slap you in the face. “Horn In The Middle” has the ability to make you drift while listening and think WOW. For a jazz record, it has so much attitude and aggression. This one is an interesting, unique piece of an already unique producer.
I thought "Feather" would serve as a great ending because it not only shows Nujabes hip-hop ties—shout out to the immensely dope Cise Starr and Akin (of Cyne)—but also because of its power. Whenever I’m in a rough spot, having a bad day, can’t sleep, don’t feel well, I put on "Feather." It speaks to me. It cradles me. It comforts me. It makes me feel so good. That’s what music is supposed to do, right? “Drifting away like a feather in air.” That’s exactly how I feel while the record plays. How many beats have ever made you feel free? It’s one of the most jarring, profound pieces of art I’ve ever experienced, and at the same time, it’s so simple and so easy.
Honorable Mentions: “Lady Brown” (Cise Starr is everything);"Reflection Eternal” (love the dusty feel); “Luv (Sic) Pt3” (those scratches!); Nas' "One Love (Nujabes Remix)" (not an official remix but dope nonetheless)
It's hard to write a tribute to someone who means so much to you, but sharing music and nerding out about dope samples is the right way to honor Nujabes. If I convinced just one person to buy Modal Soul, I'll be thrilled.