Dr. Dre, Mobb Deep and Massive Attack: Top 5 hip-hop songs that sampled late jazz legend Les McCann

Jazz pianist and singer Les McCann died in the last days of 2023. He leaves behind a legacy as a pioneer of jazz-soul and a long list of samples in the hip-hop world. You may be more familiar with his work than you think…

Jazz and soul pianist and singer Les McCann performs on stage during the opening of the 40th Montreux Jazz Festival at the Auditorium Stravinski, June 30, 2006,

On Friday 29 December 2023, legendary jazz pianist Les McCann died, aged 88.

The multi-instrumentalist was born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1935 and taught himself the piano after his first teacher died following a handful of lessons aged six.

For those already aware of McCann, his legacy is immense to the world of jazz. He was a cornerstone of the nascent jazz-soul genre in the 60s. Compositions like the protest-song ‘Compared to What’, a funk-driven song first written by Gene McDaniels, grew McCann’s international renown when his live version from the 1968 Montreux Jazz Festival blended the song’s jazzy riffs with McCann’s gospel-style vocals.

Even if jazz and the history of soul aren’t your thing though, you’re likely more familiar with McCann’s work than you might expect.

Hip-hop has always loved jazz samples, and McCann’s oeuvre was no stranger to hip-hop producers from its early days. From early pioneers like Eric B. & Rakim to contemporary innovators like Black Thought, hip-hop has repurposed McCann’s melodies and beats to create some of the most famous songs in the genre.

It’s no surprise really. McCann’s virtuoso ability to blend complex jazz melodies with groovy soul stylings make his work ripe for hip-hop.

Here are our Top 5 best sample uses of McCann’s music:

‘The Next Episode’ – Snoop Dogg ft. Dr. Dre

I told you McCann’s work has featured in big tunes. Where else to start then but with one of hip-hop’s most iconic pairings. The idiosyncratic Snoop Dogg with legendary producer Dr. Dre have produced far more than their fair share of essential hip-hop tracks.

‘The Next Episode’, the lead single from Dre’s comeback album ‘2001’ may have gotten its official release in 1999, but the song has deeper roots. Originally recorded for Snoop’s 1993 album ‘Doggystyle’, the first version contained McCann and saxophonist Eddie Harris’ tune ‘Go On and Cry’, interpolated with the famous melody line from David McCallum’s song ‘The Edge’.

‘Ten Crack Commandments’ – The Notorious B.I.G.

From one set of 90s legends to another. Biggie Smalls’ final album ‘Life After Death’ featured the harrowing song ‘Ten Crack Commandments’ where the rapper expounded his life advice for holding down a career as a crack dealer.

It’s an unflinching song with no chorus, instead just the list of Biggie’s pain-filled insight. Keeping the momentum going in the background is a heavily edited sample of McCann’s bossa nova-esque melody line that leads his tune ‘Vallarta’.

‘Break It Up’ – Cypress Hill

About half the way through McCann’s legendary performance of ‘Compared to What’ at the Montreux Jazz Festival, Harris comes in with a sharp expressive saxophone solo. The very same solo reappears in Cypress Hill’s short track ‘Break It Up’.

While it may not feature on one of stoner hip-hop pioneers’ more famous tracks, it shows the respect that the genre’s biggest names have for the musician, cramming in McCann’s work to every nook and cranny of hip-hop’s history.

‘Teardrop’ – Massive Attack

From the West Coast hip-hop scene to English trip-hop, McCann’s fingerprints can be found. Bristol-based group Massive Attack were part of a new scene in the 90s that fused hip-hop with electronic dub samples to create an entirely new psychedelic genre.

You might be surprised to know that the iconic beat that propels their 1998 song ‘Teardrop’ is lifted directly from the drum beat on McCann’s song ‘Sometimes I Cry’ from his 1973 album ‘Layers’.

‘Right Back At You’ – Mobb Deep ft. Ghostface Killah, Raekown, and Big Noyd

One of the highest concentrations of East Coast hip-hop talent on a single record to feature McCann’s musicianship. The Queens, New York duo Mobb Deep brought not one but two members of the Wu-Tang Clan as well as regular collaborator Big Noyd onto this track from their second album, 1995’s ‘The Infamous’.

Taken from McCann’s tune ‘Benjamin’, Mobb Deep reappropriate the sombre guitar chords that form the opening to his expressive piano solo and turn it into the beat for the five rappers’ musings over the fragility of life when guns get involved.