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Sample School: Hank Crawford

August Greenberg

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Bennie Ross Crawford, Jr. was born in Memphis 1934. He began playing piano at a young age, but when his father (who had long wanted to be a great saxophonist) brought an alto sax home with him from the army, young Bennie quickly picked it up. He earned the nickname “Hank” while attending college in Nashville, after his bandmates noticed he looked and sounded like local sax legend Hank O’Day. It was in Nashville (only shortly before graduation, too) that Hank would make the acquaintance of one Ray Charles. Charles hired him as a baritone sax in his band, but Crawford would eventually become alto sax and then even band leader. While playing with Charles, Crawford began to release albums under his own septet, beginning in 1961 with “More Soul”. Although he was no doubt playing jazz, much in the same tradition of Charles, Hank’s Tennessee roots brought a distinctly bluesy quality to his saxophone playing. His sharp and emotive tone cuts through the mix and makes him stand out from his contemporaries.

Crawford’s career contains an incredibly eclectic range of collaborations, including some of my personal favorite musicians. Soul singer Etta James, the silky smooth Lou Rawls, blues legend B.B. King, Eric freaking Clapton, and the man himself Grant Green are all among those who enlisted Crawford’s bluesy alto sax. In the 80’s, while working as a composer and arranger for Milestone Records, Hank met jazz-funk organist Jimmy McGriff. McGriff was similarly a blues player in the jazz genre, and their expressive playing fit together perfectly. Beginning in ‘86 with Soul Survivor, the two would release seven collaborative albums and one compilation. That compilation, 2001’s The Best of Hank Crawford and Jimmy McGriff, was his last project. Hank Crawford died of pancreatic cancer in 2009.

Crawford’s 1973 album Wildflower was titled after his cover of Skylark’s “Wildflower”. The somber composition is perfect for Hank to play his wailing alto on, but what made his cover stand out to hip hop producers (as opposed to covers by The New Birth or Creative Source) are the descending chords that open the track. Credit is due to organist Richard Tee, but the weight of the sound comes from Crawford’s moody arrangement of vocals swirling in the background. Have a listen:

Depending on when you started listening to hip hop, you probably had a different reaction to that song.

If you came up in the golden era of hip hop, the 90’s, you probably recognized those chords from “Shorty Wanna Be a Thug” off of Tupac Shakur’s masterpiece album, All Eyez On Me. This joint was produced by Johnny J.

If you’re a real deep cut fan, though, you may have realized Eminem also rapped over the “Wildflower” chords. On his debut EP, The Slim Shady EP, DJ Head puts on Shady, Bizzare, Swifty, and Fuzz Scoota on “No One’s Iller”.

If, like me, you grew up in a post-Pac era, you probably first heard those chords on Kanye West’s 2005 album Late Registration. Ye and Paul Wall trade somber verses on one of the more emotional tracks of the album. In my opinion, Kanye put down the drums better than anyone else on this list. He also gets brownie points for using actually Crawford’s sax in the beat.

Later still, J. Cole would put a “Wildflower” on his 2009 mixtape, The Warm Up. But by far the most creative twist on this sample is one you probably didn’t pick up i your first listen. Boi-1da and 40 never do Drake wrong. They took some horn stabs from near the end of the song and turned it into Drizzy’s “Miss Me” with Wayne, a smash hit and a song I never knew sampled the same song as “Drive Slow” and “Shorty Wanna Be a Thug” until now. Granted, this is a song that exemplifies an era of Drake’s career I do my best to forget about. You may have to play it several times to hear it, but try going to 2:00 in “Wildflower” and then 0:48 in “Miss Me”.

“Wildflower” holds the biggest place in hip hop of Hank Crawford’s career, but not the only place. “You’ve Got it Bad Girl”, also on the Wildflower album, was sampled Xperado’s “All Night”, which in turn was sampled in Joey Bada$$’ “Funky Ho’s”, off of his incredible 1999 mixtape. Funny enough, “All Night” was also sampled by Rakim in the year 1999.

Hank Crawford is no sample mine, but he hit on something special on “Wildflower”. And while it may not always be the type of music you load into your MPC, I recommend you check out his albums. I particularly enjoyed the collaborative albums with Jimmy McGriff, especially Soul Survivors. Their blues instincts play nicely into their performances. Check him out in the links below.

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Sample School: Hank Crawford