Each One Teach One: Record Rundown With Philly’s Small Professor
by David Ma
86 Witness is enormously important to Jamil Marshall, whose Small Pro nom de guerre is an endearingly self-deprecating nod to production hero Large Professor. A posthumous Sean Price release, 86 Witness is a pastiche of nostalgia, soul, horn stabs, and well-placed Mike Tyson sound bites—a glowing elegy helmed with Jamil’s clear commitment to sonorous boom-bap in mind. Typical of Price, his presence is brash and uncanny, his punchlines relentless. The majority of the project was fortunately completed prior to Price’s passing in 2015. “I feel really lucky that he was able to hear most of it before he left us,” says Jamil.
Jamil’s musical kindling came from his brother, and around 2005, Jamil went public as Small Professor. “Most of the music I was really into growing up was through my older brother’s tapes. Lots of Tribe and DJ Premier beats,” says the Philly native. “In high school, I listened to the Roots a lot too. They gave me a lot of pride about my city when I was younger.”
After hearing 9th Wonder as a college freshman, Jamil felt he could improve on the flat snares and loops that struck him. “Let me be clear! I think 9th Wonder is a legend!” says Jamil. “But cocky eighteen-year-old me wanted to download the same program onto my laptop, and do the same things. Before doing beats, I even rapped for a while, but after hearing a playback of myself, l decided I would no longer do that,” he laughs.
Tenets of Pete Rock and Preemo spiral through Small Pro’s Bandcamp and various work for Coalmine Records, like his longplayer with Guilty Simpson. “Microwaved Vendettas,” a track off Zilla Rocca’s Future Former Rapper, lifts a Jimmy Ruffin sample to haunting effect; as does posse cut “Jon Gotti,” where the song’s reliance on changeups and dark echo prove incredibly compelling. Hyperaware of the sonic progeny that came before, Small Pro proves that truly great teachers remain lifelong students. Here are ten records that immensely impacted his own learning and subsequent ascendance.
The Ahmad Jamal Trio Awakening (Impulse) 1970
I heard this in the 2000s. I was put on to it because I was just looking up samples and digging for sounds, and of course the sample for Nas’s “The World Is Yours” is on here—on the track “I Love Music,” the end of the song, if I’m not mistaken. Amhad Jamal in general is a virtuoso pianist, and the whole album is incredible to me. The first track alone, “The Awakening,” is a perfect example of what an intro needs to sound like. As far as the rest of the album goes, just listening to Ahmad play around with the same phrases but put different spins on them were always amazing to me.
Waka Flocka Flame Flockavelli (1017 Brick Squad/Warner Bros) 2010
This was a time when I was listening to a lot more Southern music, and it influenced my production in a lot of ways—but mostly because of Lex Luger and how he was able to modulate one melody up and down with his beats. I always liked that, and thought he did it so well. So I tried doing that too with samples I’d find. I got into hip-hop a unique way; I kind of listened to albums a bit later than when they were released, so my timeline when things came out was different. For the most part, I was listening to a lot of ’90s hip-hop up until 2008. I didn’t even start listening to rap until 1996 and didn’t start buying my own music until 1999. Up to that point, I was listening to whatever my older brother had on cassette. So he had ’90s stuff—that’s what I listen to.
Big Punisher Capital Punishment (Loud) 1998
This record influenced me on the beat-making side of things a lot; there’s tons of strings samples on there. I forgot who did what because there are a lot of different producers on here, but the drums are mostly chopped, and I love that. This was ’98, so it wasn’t break loops as much. Everybody had solid drum programming, and it was a very great display of gritty, cinematic, dark, hip-hop production. I based 86 Witness completely off of that aesthetic, and I would say a lot of my output is based on this sound.
Soul Position 8 Million Stories (Rhymesayers) 2003
This album to me is a great example of what I try to do with my group Career Crooks (with Zilla Rocca) in that you’re working with a rapper that does beats too, and they approach songwriting and flows a little bit better than a rapper who doesn’t. Not to say one is better than the other, but that’s the kind of sound dynamic I try to go for, especially with group projects. And this to me is a perfect example of that.
DJ Shadow Endtroducing… (Mo Wax) 1996
To me, it was amazing that Shadow was able to find all this material that went naturally together. Not that he didn’t do anything to samples in order to make them fit or help the cause, but it all sounded like one person created this rather than it being pulled from several sources. I was always very drawn to his arrangements too. His songs are sometimes long, but there’s always some movement happening or about to happen. Shadow always had a knack for bringing your attention back to what he was doing, which is something I also pay a lot of attention to.
A Tribe Called Quest Midnight Marauders (Jive) 1993
This is an easy one. [laughs] For one, there are some really interesting [things] Q-Tip did in terms of meter. I always liked “Lyrics to Go” for that reason. “Electric Relaxation” is another one, depending on how you count the beats as it goes, it’s a six-bar loop. But neither of those particularly sound like there’s anything different about them, so you’d rap to them the same as you would a four-four beat. But once you count along, you’re like, “Oh snap! I’m off!” I always liked that anytime Q-Tip did that to his production. The sample flips on this album as well and how Tip can extend notes and rap over it and for it to be in an odd meter was amazing. There’s a lot of things going on at once. I had to be when I was in seventh or eighth grade. It was one of the albums my brother had on tape.
Black to Comm Alphabet 1968 (Type) 2009
It’s an album I must have heard around when I started listening to ambient music, around 2015. It always stuck in my head, and I saved it and I think about it a lot. He plays piano and manipulates field recordings and other weird sounds. And that’s pretty much what I do too, so I feel a kinship with ambient producers in that way. That project stuck out to me because of all the dark-sounding piano parts. Without drums, you have to find other ways to include percussion in your music, but not in an obvious way—like static in the background or a wind chime or something like that. It was an album that made me think about everything in the background much more.
J Dilla Ruff Draft (Stones Throw) 2003
In general, Dilla was just someone who did a lot of things in his own way, and he definitely had his own sound, which always sounded right. And he knew exactly what he wanted his beats to sound like. I know that sounds simple when you’re using other people’s material to make your own, but sometimes it’s harder than it seems. But Dilla always got what he wanted from his sounds. There’s rock samples, breakbeats, and all the same stuff he’d always use, but it sounded different too. It’s nice to be able to step off and do something leftfield just because you can. So I try to test myself to be as good as a producer as I can be. So to me, being able to experiment is huge.
The Roots Illadelph Halflife (Geffen) 1996
Gotta represent the hometown! Questlove is his own entity, and Black Thought is simply amazing. This album in particular is what I wanted to do in terms of my own musical life. The Roots were influenced by the New York sound, and I always loved their take on it. They were always musically very different because they’re obviously a live band, so they always did more than what you could with just samples. I came to this later than my first Roots experience with Things Fall Apart. So I came to Illadelph backwards, when I was a little older, so I definitely appreciate what they were doing at that point in their career.
Gang Starr Moment of Truth (Virgin/Noo Trybe Records) 1998
I haven’t said a Gang Starr album on here and I don’t know which one. [laughs] Daily Operation is my favorite because it’s not perfect. They were not yet who either of them would become but, I just liked the simplicity of that Preemo era. Guru as well, of course. But Moment of Truth is the perfect balance of both artists at the top of their respective crafts. They both improved. Like they said on the album, “We update our formulas.” Guru was at his best here. And this seemed like an evolution of Preemo. He always had a particular skillset but here the entire repertoire is on display.
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