There’s no choosing the sounds that seize us. The whims of memory are as mysterious as they are unforgettable. Still, there are some tracks that seem conduits for those memories. For a score of instrumental hip-hop fans, that standard is “Arrow Root,” a fleeting two-minute instrumental borne of MF DOOM’s prodigious metal fingers. That freewheeling, sax-laden jazz jam has scored memories and punctuated eras in spite of its own forgotten past.
“One comment [on] YouTube... I kept thinking about it; it was like, ‘I want this song to play at my funeral,’” says Roel van de Heuvel, a Dutch hip-hop fan and infrequent “sample spotter.”
“‘Arrow Root’ has been my theme song for a couple of years, for going to school and doing stuff with music,” he explains, a touch wistful. “Every so often I went back to ‘Arrow Root’ and thought, ‘This is a great sample; I wish I would find a sample like this.’”
Roel is far from the only one. In the 19 years since it debuted, “Arrow Root” has taken on a special significance amongst lo-fi disciples, jazz-rap connoisseurs, and devoted DOOM henchmen. It’s risen beyond its station, climbing from the start of a 2001 instrumentals compilation—a single beat in a series that comprises 72 similar tunes—to the heart of a 2003 Dumile-helmed LP. The cult appeal of the instrumental couldn’t be curbed by vocals: even today, “Arrow Root” has out-streamed King Geedorah’s “Next Levels,” the sample so compelling that no emcee could hope to measure up.
The YouTube comments for the video speak to that allure, filled with similar sentiments about the fleeting jazz loop: “This beat is my life in one cold book;” “This beat speaks to me;” “This song touches my soul.” Shades of lives unseen break out, hinting at the commonalities we share. “I love listening to this instrumental while I’m walking through my suburbs during the autumn season,” writes one listener. “Man… what a beat… just kick back and take it all in, shit’s too precious to waste,” muses another.
Amongst all the praise and pining, one question appears time and time again: “Does anyone know what sample DOOM used?”
It’s a question that’s endured since at least 2004 when The-Breaks user BasementProduction asked after the “Arrow Root” sample. “That shit is hot,” he added, but as undeniable as the instrumental was, it didn’t ring any bells.
A 2009 guess pegged the sample as a demo of “Cleo’s Apartment,” a track from Marvin Gaye’s Trouble Man soundtrack, but it doesn’t seem like that early version even exists let alone matches the profile. A few years later, suspicion fell on the work of Ahmad Jamal, but with some 55 records to sift through, the lead went nowhere.
It wasn’t until 2015 that buzz started forming around a new lead: “I remember on the old mf doom forum, somebody said he heard the sample for this on a BET jazz promo from the early 2000s,” wrote user wordisband. “Madlib says Doom sampled a BET jazz commercial for his newest album, not that long after King Geedorah came out.”
“Buzz” might be a bit generous, with enthusiasm about the lead muted. The ever-ensuing search had come up against a new obstacle: an inability to activate the lead. It’s hard enough sourcing late-’90s BET footage, let alone material from their lowkey jazz-oriented spin-off, and for years, the information that brought direction to the hunt also tied it down. If anything, it seemed more likely the original song was lost to time.
However, a few months ago, a comment from user Roelio started appearing beneath the “Arrow Root” videos: “Help me find the Arrow Root / Next Levels sample… it is from the BET on Jazz show called Impressions. It is the intro tune.”
The trail, it seemed, was not yet cold.
Roel has been a producer for almost half his life, and at just 23, that makes him more seasoned than most. It’s a passion that’s bridged his youth and his maturity, seeing him through high school and carrying well into his college years.
“It’s important for people to find out about the songs they like, and I can’t speak for other people... but for me, it’s ‘Arrow Root,’” he tells me, contemplative. “It’s one of the songs I can always listen to. I have a special bond with it.”
This bond drove the student, fan, and infrequent crate-digger to pick up where so many had left off, tracing the origins of the nigh-mythical flip. The legend of the search caught the eye of the intrigued, the incredulous, and the unsuccessful, who flocked to Roel’s Facebook group as he called for clues.
“I made that group fairly late in my search,” he says of the 75-strong troupe that would later join him on the journey. “I think I started in November 2019.”
“I was looking through the comments and I started to get interested,” Roel continues. “I found out BET On Jazz was a cool channel on American television with lots of great stuff to sample and I think that’s how it started off.”
“I’m not even sure how I started searching, but I remember contacting the label who first released the Special Herbs series,” Roel says, referring to Female Fun Records, responsible for Vol. 1 and Vol. 3 of the 10-record course. “[There] was a producer who was working with MF DOOM... Peter Agoston.”
More than just some label lackey, Agoston was an uncommonly close confidant of the villain, having co-created the Special Herbs concept with DOOM at the turn of the century. Roel points to the 2003 DOOM interview Agoston released just last year, which finds him in candid conversation with the soft-spoken enigma. It seemed about as solid a lead as one could find, but the finer details were hazy: He pressed the first Special Herbs release, Volume 1. Two-thousand LPs, and didn’t clear the sample.
“I was also curious about finding Mr. Fantastik,” Roel admits, his interest piqued by a faceless emcee so untethered, there’s hardly a foothold for even the staunchest sleuth. “Arrow Root,” however, seemed achievable.
“The sample had some leaks, some clues,” Roel explains. “There were some people who knew, or could give me some information.”
The rumor of a BET connection had endured, and by the time Roel started his search, some were even claiming to remember the interstitial melody itself.
“A show called Jazz Central,” offered enthusiast, Cire Soprano. “It had two different intros and this song played into commercial breaks. Somewhere in the very late 90s to very early 2000s.”
“We already had a lot of information, but we didn’t know how to search for it,” Roel tells me, explaining how a lasting lead sat unpursued for the better part of a decade. “I searched every platform—Vimeo, YouTube, Dailymotion—for Jazz Central videos, and once I found Angela Stribling on Facebook, I contacted her.”
Stribling seemed an ideal link: the so-called “Empress of Media” spent four years as the host of the flagship Jazz Central, the more underground-focused Jazz Discovery, and the industry-oriented Jazz Scene, all gigs that might’ve familiarized her with the tune.
“Eventually she responded,” Roel says, surprised he’d escaped from the e-purgatory of ‘message requests.’ However, Stribling didn’t know the sample.
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With Stribling unfamiliar, the trail to “Arrow Root” looked a little frostier. Roel returned to square one.
“At first, Cire was my only lead, and I had a feeling he was rambling,” he remembers. “He said [a recording of the source was] at his mom’s crib in Queens,” recalls Roel. “He said, ‘This Saturday, I’m going to send you the VHS or the audio clip.’ He didn’t come through. I tried to call him like, maybe 10 times. He just didn’t respond anymore.”
Still, Roel’s suspicions ran deep. Even as he turned to more desperate measures, such as “randomly contacting jazz artists in the Washington DC area,” he was diving deeper into the BET connection. He hit up John Robinson, who appeared as Lil Sci on King Geedorah’s “Next Levels,” and received a reassuring response:
“I wish I knew! I was in the studio with DOOM when he sampled it from the BET Jazz Impressions show, but we never knew the original song. He sampled it from TV… I have asked over a dozen music aficionados and no answers yet.” —John ‘Lil Sci’ Robinson, 2020
Impressions was the piece Roel needed: “Once I found out about Impressions, I was looking for the show host. I went through the Wayback Machine, and found an internet page from 1996… it said that Jazz Impressions is hosted by David Tial, a Senegalese man from Canada.”
Roel tried to reach out to David, now in his 70s, but soon discovered something else: “I think Jazz Impressions had maybe 40 show hosts, because every new festival they were covering, there was a new host.”
The line between a lack of interest and a lack of knowledge was blurred to the point of confusion, and whilst many hosts didn’t respond, those that did seemed a little incredulous. “There was a Spanish-American guy, Chiqui Rodriguez, and he was willing to help me, but he didn’t respond after a couple messages,” Roel remembers, with ghosting a common response to his admittedly bizarre request. “They didn’t quite understand it.”
The frayed threads of Impressions hosts, though promising, was failing to turn up any further leads.
“James Zimmerman was the last host I had to contact,” Roel tells me, still stunned by his own luck.
An excited post in the Arrow Root Facebook group broke the biggest development yet: Zimmerman was “the first BET member who recognizes it!”
James dove into his own archives in search of the distant Impressions episode, but as the discovery loomed, Roel himself disappeared.
“Sorry for not giving any updates,” Roel wrote in a solemn post, returning just days on from his big break. “My grandfather is going to die within the next few days and that’s why I haven’t posted any updates yesterday.”
The response was almost immediate: “Sorry about your grand dad, sending love,” offered a follower; “Sorry Roel, also sending a lot of love,” added another; “Love and strength to You and yours Roel,” shared a third.
“I almost tear up thinking about it,” Roel says now. “I really, really like the people in the group, because they’ve been supportive in hard times. I don’t know them personally, but… when my grandad died, I didn’t share it anywhere else, [but] I felt I had the responsibility to tell them because I was updating the group every day.”
Roel continues, his success now a bitter pill: “Unconsciously, I started to rely a bit on the group. I was always looking into it, and my girlfriend—she’s also in the group—was saying, ‘Whoa, they are saying all these nice things about you, and they are all hyped for you.’ That made me happy.”
Finally, the VHS rip landed in Roel’s inbox. The final moments of a two-decade mystery were little more than a scroll and a click, and with bated breath, he hit play.
The VHS static whirred about the azure bays of San Sebastian, a familiar fill dropping into the instantly recognizable melody, the longtime mystery dissipating into stunned surprise. The song rode out, moving into new territory, only partially drowned out by impassioned yells, fist-pumps, and hail marys.
“It [was] rare for me to find James Zimmerman because he was a one-time host,” Roel says.
Indeed, Zimmerman is as central to the clip as the song that scores it, standing above the San Sebastian beaches and spotlighting the jazz to come. It’s ironic the jazz that had already ensued—that opening slice of smooth sax goodness—would one day become the main attraction.
Roel’s solitary success has as much to do with coincidence as the casting of his net.
“I think about 30 people directly, and maybe 2,000 indirectly,” he says of his contacts, reflecting on the scattershot nature of his search. “I looked up my old YouTube comments, and I literally commented the same question on every MF DOOM or BET On Jazz video about the ‘Arrow Root’ sample.”
The sheer conviction of Roel’s efforts won him fans and friends alike, and as updates rolled into the Facebook group, so too did intrigued members offering kind encouragement.
“I didn’t expect people to be so nice to me, and that’s why I,” Roel says before a pause, “how do you say it in English? I’ll translate it real fast… That’s why I cherish those people.”
The feeling was mutual, and as the elusive sample finally came online, it showed.
“Arrow Root” is a lot of things to a lot of people, but for Roel van de Heuvel, it’s no longer a white whale. The framed-and-mounted DVD sits on his bedroom wall, a reminder of not only the song but all that came with it: the memories, the mystery, the search, and the solidarity.
“Maybe it was just a sample for me in the beginning, it definitely isn’t anymore,” he wrote in the “Arrow Root” Facebook group, memorializing his late grandfather. “The more time I spent searching, the more emotional it got for me. When everybody was cheering for me in this group was when I really felt motivated, and these two moments will forever be connected.”
If “Arrow Root” was a staple in the years before Roel’s search, it’s become an entirely different presence in the days since, tied up in a complicated mess of love, loss, pride, and joy. It’s a testament to the power of music, which unites us in ways unseen; a witness to his resourcefulness and his conviction, unflagging as they were; and a memorial to his late grandfather, who “lived a happy life” until the very end.
“I said to my girlfriend, ‘When I die, I want this sample to play at my funeral,’” Roel says with a laugh. “Not because it’s the best sample, but [because], for me, it’s a metaphorical Mount Everest.”