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Ahmad Jamal smiling
Ahmad Jamal smiling
Ahmad Jamal, piano, performs at the Concertgebouw on October 25th 2000 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Photo by Frans Schellekens/Redferns

Without Ahmad Jamal, One of Rap's Greatest Hits Wouldn't Exist

Nas’ “The World Is Yours” is considered one of rap’s greatest hits. An Ahmad Jamal sample is a crucial piece of why that is.

What sets the tone for “The World Is Yours,” the second to last single Nas released from his debut album Illmatic, is that opening piano melody. Those six syncopated piano strikes, looped infinitely for the track’s almost five-minute runtime, are just as important as Nas’ rhymes, borrowed from a song that — like “The World Is Yours” is for Nas — is considered one of his best — “I Love Music” by Ahmad Jamal.

In his passing, Jamal has rightfully been remembered as the jazz legend he is. As a pianist, he innovated by going in a direction different from his contemporaries of the fast-paced bebop era, focusing more on space and tension instead of the virtuosic, rapid-fire playing that defined that time.  He’s also been remembered as an impactful figure on rap, his songs perfect sample fodder for some of the genre’s greatest hits.

“The World Is Yours” sampling “I Love Music” is the pinnacle example of this. Appearing on Jamal’s 1970 album The Awakening (filled with six other songs that have also been sampled in jazz rap songs), “I Love Music” is the longest track on the record. A little over seven minutes, the song is a rousing musical journey, Jamal essentially playing an extended solo that feels like a cathartic release. It’s a showcasing of both his jazz and classical chops, the colorful and intricate chord progressions giving way to beautiful and dramatic runs that playfully go back and forth between subdued and towering.

But the moment that served as the basis for “The World Is Yours” comes near the end of “I Love Music.” Ushering in the two other members of Jamal’s trio — bassist Jamil Nasser and drummer Frank Gant — those notes are played in an instant as Jamal continues on, playing with space and time as his bandmates hold him down. It’s a section you wouldn’t think twice about. But in the hands of hip-hop, it became something else entirely, a testament to the power of a simple but tasteful sample.

A devoted fan of Jamal, Pete Rock used that moment for the foundation of an instrumental that became the beat for “The World Is Yours.” 

“I kept repeating this loop with my hand on the SB-1200 over and over. Then I looped it up real quick, just to see what it might sound like without drums. I was in love with it,” Rock recalled about making the beat in an interview with Okayplayer. “Ahmad Jamal is one of my favorite pianists, so being able to make something that sampled his music was very special for me. That loop just sparked so much nostalgia, and making the rest of ‘The World Is Yours’ beat wasn’t too hard after that.” 

Backed by Rock’s production, Nas sounds so assured on the Scarface-inspired track. A literal descendant of jazz (his father being cornet player Olu Dara), Nas is just as much MC as he is soloing musician, crafting rhymes that give a glimpse into the world of a young but wise rapper navigating the streets of NYC. As Rock said of Nas’ lyrics in that same interview, they weren’t just raps — they were street literature, the rapper’s immersive wordplay and delivery resulting in many seeing him as a rap great just as he was making his proper debut.

“With Illmatic, I was trying to make the perfect album,” Nas said of the album in the 2014 documentary, Time Is Illmatic. “I was trying to make you experience my life. I wanted you to look at hip-hop differently. I wanted you to feel that hip-hop was changing and becoming something more real. I gave you what the streets felt like, what it sounded like, tasted like, felt like, all in that album. And I tried to capture it like no one else could.”

Now, Illmatic is revered as one of rap’s greatest albums, with songs like “The World Is Yours” getting its own praise as one of the genre’s greatest hits. But there’s no denying how that Ahmad Jamal sample is a crucial part of why that is, showing how the late musician is just as important to jazz’s history as he is rap’s history.