By Alex Rice
Donald Fagen’s witty way with the English language has led many a wordsmith to study the singer’s cutting narratives, but his genius musical arrangements with instrumental mastermind Walter Becker have become even more revered in the pop and hip-hop worlds. More than three dozen selections from the Steely Dan songbook have been sampled in over 100 tunes over the past three decades. Who knew that the whitest of old white dudes - those who blazed the trail for such edgy genres as yacht rock - could ever be so effortlessly cool?
“Eye Know” by De La Soul (1989)
Plug One, Plug Two and Plug Three brought the ‘60s and ‘70s into The Daisy Age on their 1989 debut 3 Feet High and Rising. The third single from the alternative hip-hop classic, which hit #14 in the U.K., samples the “I know I love you better” refrain from 1977’s “Peg,” as well as Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” The Mad Lads’ “Make This Lady Mine” and Lee Dorsey’s “Get Out of My Life, Woman.” De La Soul’s offbeat, jazz-indebted rap rarely found a better musical match than The Dan.
“I Know Where It’s At” by All Saints (1997)
More like The Royal Sample. This groovy debut single by these Spice Girls “Wannabe”s reimagines 1976’s “The Fez” for the end-of-the-millennium pop explosion. Cribbing the piano hook of Fagen and Becker’s sartorially Seventies hook, “I Know Where It’s At” helped propel All Saints’ self-titled 1996 debut to quintuple-platinum status and make it the third best-selling girl-group album of all-time, behind Victoria Beckham & co.’s first two records, of course.
“Threemosphere” by Atmosphere (2002)
This bonus track from the Minneapolis rap duo’s breakthrough LP pitch-shifts The Royal Scam’s “Haitian Divorce” into a reggae-fied rarity. The comical Dan number fits the sonic vibe of Atmosphere’s sophomore release seamlessly, as its light-hearted tale about an American woman seeking a quick split from her husband in the Caribbean hints at the quirky lyrical underbelly of this early ‘00s thinking-man’s rap.
“Champion” by Kanye West (2007)
“Did you feel like Yeezus? Did you realize that you were a champion in their eyes?” This cut off Kanye West’s celebratory Graduation is centered around the pre-chorus hook of “Kid Charlemagne,” which tracks the rise and fall of a larger-than-life figure. Sound familiar? Fagen and Becker initially declined Ye’s request to clear the sample, but relented following a heartfelt handwritten letter. Wish his heart still was in rhymin’.
“Missin’ U” by Usher (2016)
Gaucho finale “Third World Man” is a sardonic statement on foreign affairs, while Usher’s “Missin’ U” is a sexy chronicle of affairs of the heart. No surprise on either front, as the R&B megastar tapped the 1980 guitar epic on 2016’s Hard II Love. Its slow-groove verses lay a classy foundation for the “Yeah!” hitmaker, who transforms the wordless chorus into a sensual singalong.
Alex Rice is the founder of Bandbox. His writing has appeared in the Denver Post, Guitar World and Minneapolis's City Pages.
Photo: Youngrobv / Flickr