I’ve been dreading this day and this piece for some time now. I hate the fact that one of my favorite producers of all-time was taken away 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. Ultimately, I think the best thing I can do is simply share his music. There’s nothing I can say or do to make you understand, 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 shared 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, a ton of his art is rooted in jazz (what Dilla was to soul Nujabes was with jazz), but hip-hop's influences are 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 and it will be in 20 years.
Nujabes is magic and here is proof...
"World's End Rhapsody"
I wanted to start with "World's End Rhapsody" because it's one of my all-time favorite beats. Not just my favorite Nujabes' beat, but one of my favorites of all-time. While the Quadraphonics sample engines the effort, the instrumental sections are what make it special; specifically the piano section in the middle. This feels like a jazz number in the sense that 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. This beat is a great selection to start with because it evokes real feeling. So light, so free, so much damn bounce, yet it also carries tremendous weight.
This one doesn’t scream sample like “Worlds End Rhapsody,” but it’s an incredible demonstration of his attention to detail. The way Nujabes chops and bends that horn is astounding, giving it a rippling effect that never ceases to blow my mind. It almost sounds like the song is skipping it’s so well executed. This is further proof he heard things differently. I don’t think there are many producers who'd even think of an approach like this. With those drums fortifying a rock-solid foundation, the beat sounds complete already. 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 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 when I think about this flip, 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 really helped me to appreciate Nujabes' mind. To hear where he took that sample is a crash course in sampling. He didn’t just speed it up or cut it, he used 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 that are 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, I think “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. This beat is not “Ante Up,” but in its own right, “Horn In The Middle” has the ability to make you drift while listening and think WOW. The beat has so much attitude and aggression (for a jazz song). This one is definitely an interesting, unique piece of an already unique producer.
I thought "Feather" would be a great ending point because it shows Nujabes hip-hop ties—shout out to the immensely dope Cise Starr and Akin (of Cyne)—but also because of how powerful it is. That balance between making you feel rejuvenated and free but at the same time wanting to break down and cry is no more evident than right here. Whenever I’m in a rough spot, having a bad day, can’t sleep, don’t feel well, I put on "Feather" and it speaks to me. It cradles me. It comforts me. It makes me feel so good. At the end of the day, that’s what music is supposed to do. “Drifting away like a feather in air.” That’s exactly how I feel while it's playing. Anything that stresses me or makes me upset just melts away and I’m free. 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!) and 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 was definitely the right way to honor Nujabes. If I convinced just one person to buy Modal Soul than I'll be thrilled. It can be hard when you now listen to Nujabes not to think about his premature passing and how much music was left unmade and how much less color there is in our world. In the short time that he was among us, though, Nujabes left our world with some incredible compositions, ones which reach to the depths of my core.
Luckily there will always be a new nook and cranny to find, a new drum kick to fawn over. Nujabes’ art never loses its freshness, never gets blunted.
I’ll always feel his music in my ears and my heart. I’ll never stop listening to Nujabes and I will pass his music onto my children like a family heirloom; better believe my kid will be vibing out to Nujabes in the womb. We will never get new music, but the music he left us will last a lifetime.