Hip-Hop’s Unsung Love Affair With Yacht Rock

At first glance, hip-hop and yacht rock have little in common, but actually...
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Thundercat - 'Show You The Way (feat. Michael McDonald & Kenny Loggins)'

In February 2017, fresh off winning a GRAMMY with Kendrick Lamar for To Pimp a Butterfly standout "These Walls," hip hop's go-to bassist, Thundercat, released the lead single from his third studio album, Drunk. The veteran musician could have featured any number of big-name rappers or singers on this pivotal release. Instead, he turned to two middle-aged crooners: Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald.

Despite the shared initials, Kenny Loggins and Kendrick Lamar have little in common. Loggins is best known for the song "Danger Zone" from the Top Gun soundtrack, which itself is best known to many as the basis for a running joke in Archer. Michael McDonald shares his initials with several rappers, too. But unlike Meek Mill, Method Man or Marshall Mathers, McDonald is best known as a former member of the Doobie Brothers and hater of hip-hop sampling. Both artists were key figures in the late-'70s/early-'80s world of yacht rock.

At first glance, hip-hop and yacht rock have little in common, but the trio’s resulting single, "Show You the Way," was sublime. The ‘Cat’s signature wobbling basslines and smooth vocals are perfectly complemented by Loggins’ Bee Gees-esque falsetto and McDonald’s gruff baritone. If you were unfamiliar with the record's release date, the song could very well have been a lost yacht rock classic.

"Show You the Way" was not the first time someone from the hip-hop hemisphere expressed admiration for the yacht rock stars of yore. Far from it. This was just the latest example of hip-hop’s longtime love affair with yacht rock—a love affair that, though it gets little attention, dates back to the beginning of the genre.

Yacht Rock Sets Sail

Summer 1979, San Francisco's Bay Area. Young dudes with short beards and long hair are crafting a sound. It's a sound built on smooth basslines, vocal harmonies, pop hooks and sax solos. They don't know it yet, but decades later that sound will be christened "yacht rock" and it'll go on to inspire some of hip-hop's greatest artists.

It's a genre with pretty loose requirements, but most yacht rock music relies on a combination of a traditional rock band playing at mid volume, often with keyboards at the forefront of the mix. It’s always catchy and, most importantly, smooth. The genre was actually only named in 2005 at the debut of JD Ryznar’s Yacht Rock web series, which aired on Channel 101 for 12 short-but-enjoyable episodes. The series parodied the late-'70s/early-'80s soft rock artists—including Loggins, McDonald, Steely Dan, Toto, Hall & Oates, and Christopher Cross—and created a fictional mythology for the origins of many of their biggest hits.

At the heart of the Yacht Rock series and genre is the preppiness of its key artists. All of them at least behave like they own or spend a lot of time on yachts. Hence the name. One typical episode sees Michael McDonald heartbroken when Kenny Loggins abandons "smooth music" to make the hard-rockin' theme for the Bill Murray/Chevy Chase/animatronic gopher vehicle Caddyshack.

It’s another episode, however, that connects the dots between the preppiest of genres and nascent hip-hop. Yacht Rock Episode 7: ‘I Keep Forgettin’ (NSFW for the first 18 seconds) skips ahead in time to tell the story of a young Warren G, who was struggling to impress his cousin Dr. Dre with a hard-edged, N.W.A-style rap track. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work, and Dre sends him away to find himself. In the process, he finds an old, disheveled Michael McDonald and, together, they team up to create "Regulate," which samples McDonald’s 1982 hit "I Keep Forgettin’." Dre loves his cousin’s smooth new direction, and history is made.

Yacht Rock Samples in Hip-Hop: An Incomplete History

Michael McDonald has received far too much attention thus far, so let’s turn our attention to his Yacht Rock co-stars, Steely Dan. Even when they were popular, Steely Dan were considered some of the least cool musicians in the business. Really, the group only had two members—Donald Fagen and the late Walter Becker—with the rest of the music being performed by highly-trained studio musicians. The resulting material had none of the raw grittiness preferred by rock fans at the time; instead, it had a polished precision sheen appealing only to, well, music nerds. 

Enter De La Soul.

De La Soul’s iconic 1989 debut 3 Feet High and Rising is a collage of musical references which elevated sampling to a higher plane. Sadly, for those who haven’t heard the album, like most of the group’s catalog it is unavailable on streaming services due—unsurprisingly—to sample clearance issues. Amongst the audio clips from genres all over the musical spectrum, 3 Feet High and Rising prominently samples Steely Dan’s "Peg" for the single "Eye Know." The track "Say No Go" also uses a portion of "I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)" by yacht rockers Hall & Oates for its chorus.

Alongside the more typical samples of '70s funk and soul classics, the tradition of sampling yacht rock heroes lives on as hip-hop has evolved. It proved a perfect way to create a smooth instrumental bed for many different styles of rapping.

  • Ice Cube’s 1992 track "Don’t Trust ‘Em" samples the (surprisingly heavy) drums from Steely Dan’s 1976 track "Green Earrings."
  • The “M-E-T-H-O-D… Maaaaaan” refrain from Method Man’s 1993 self-titled Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) track is thought to be a reference to Hall & Oates’ "Method of Modern Love," though I’m not sure it really qualifies as a sample since both choruses are just spelling out a word.
  • A few years later, in 1997, MF Doom sampled Steely Dan’s 1977 track "Black Cow" for "Gas Drawls."
  • One of the best J Dilla instrumentals is "Track 12" from 1998’s Another Batch mixtape (later released as "This Is It" on 2007’s Old Donuts), which is based around a sample of a short moment from a live version of Hall & Oates’ "Wait For Me" (from Rock N’ Soul Part 1, 1983).
  • Kriss Kross might be named in tribute to yacht rock legend Christopher Cross, but maybe this one’s a reach.

What’s Behind the Yacht-Hop Love Affair?

Thundercat’s collab with Loggins & McDonald, as well as the continual influence of Thundercat-style smooth production in the alternative hip-hop world, is proof positive that the yacht-hop relationship is still going strong to this very day—but why?

Maybe it's the contrast between street-hardened emcees and soft rich guys on their yachts. Or maybe the connection is the most natural thing in the world. 

Classic R&B, jazz, soul, and funk are the more obvious sources for hip-hop samples. Since these genres also had a huge influence on yacht rock artists, it wouldn’t be crazy to characterize a large swath of yacht rock as an evolution of “blue-eyed soul” (though Al Jarreau, George Benson, and Patti Austin were all yacht-ish at times).

In the free Kindle preview of Questlove’s new book, Creative Quest, the Roots drummer speaks of his father’s love of yacht rock artists like Kenny Loggins and Christopher Cross “because it had sort of the same vibe as doo-wop.”

One of the drummers on Steely Dan’s much-sampled album Aja—the one Ice Cube famously borrowed a beat from—was none other than Bernard Purdie, best known for countless soul and funk tracks from the '60s and '70s. The bassist on that same album was Chuck Rainey, a soul and jazz veteran who played for Aretha Franklin and Quincy Jones.

Yacht rock’s leading musicians looked to '60s and '70s funk and soul for inspiration, just as rappers and producers did in the '80s, '90s and beyond. But since hip-hop's unsung love affair with yacht rock is born out of a mutual appreciation of the same R&B, funk, and jazz that informed them both, it's inevitable that there'd be cross-pollination between them. And, despite surface differences, it’s not a surprise that they’re a match made in heaven. 

Anything else is just what a fool believes.

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