The Yoda of D’Angelo

I had to uncheck a box off of my life to-do list this week. D’Angelo cancelled his concert at the Chicago House of Blues due to medical emergency. Very disappointed, but not so much in D’. The dude’s cancelled like five shows this week alone, so I think the medical thing is legit. I had been undergoing a sort of music therapy “training” for this concert for the last month, and through the course of listening to nearly non-stop R&B/Soul music from the last 40 years, I had unconsciously gotten myself insanely amped up for this show.

Truly though, I’m bummed not to see him but I harbor no ill will, because D’Angelo is unquestionably a musical genius, and my music listening regimen for the last month has brought that to light for me in a new way. I had no idea the breadth of his musical knowledge and influences, or how much he’s paid tribute to his idols (or, collectively, “Yoda”, as he and Questlove called them during the recording of Voodoo, couldn’t be happier that they used a Star Wars reference) in live shows and on his albums. I had no clue his albums used the very niche samples it did, and it was eye-opening to go back and listen to all the puzzle pieces that eventually informed Voodoo so heavily. So let’s take a quick tour through the landscape of D’Angelo’s Yoda.

First though, here the albums/concerts I’m using for reference:

  • Brown Sugar (1995)
  • Live At The Jazz Cafe (1995) – D’s only official live concert release
  • Voodoo (2000)
  • Voodoo Outtakes (2000) – This is a random collection of tunes. If I find a D’Angelo song that isn’t on any of these other releases, I put it here. It’s a great catch-all collection.
  • Live At Le Zenith (2012) – This is a bootleg recording from the first set of shows D’ had played in nearly a decade. They were all in Europe, this venue is in Paris.
  • Superjam: Live At Bonnaroo (2012) – Another bootleg recording of D’Angelo’s first live show in the United States in 10+ years. Band performers included Questlove, Pino Palladino, James Poyser, Kirk Douglas, Frank Knuckles, Jesse Johnson, Eric Leeds, and Kendra Foster.
  • Brothers In Arms: Live At The Brooklyn Bowl (2013) – Another bootleg recording of a show with just Questlove on drums and D’ on keys held earlier this year.
  • Brothers In Arms: Live At First Ave. (2013) – Much like the first Brothers In Arms show but held in Prince’s home venue in Minneapolis, MN.

Sidebar: There are many more groups that could be included on this list as influences. I’m sticking with the five that crop up most in D’s studio and live work.

Ohio Players:

  • Genre: many
  • Hit(s): “Love Rollercoaster” is the most famous, but they had some other singles that hit charts in the ’70s
  • Timeline: Major output of albums was in the ’70s, but they continued to release music into the ’80s as well.
  • Influence: This is easy to spot in D’Angelo’s canon. Direct covers/samples include:
    • “Players Ballin’ (Players Doin’ Their Own Thing)” is sampled heavily on the Voodoo opener “Playa Playa”
    • “Heaven Must Be Like This” (Live At The Jazz Cafe, 1995)
    • “Pride And Vanity” (Superjam: Live At Bonnaroo, 2012)
    • “Our Love Has Died” (Brothers In Arms: Live At The Brooklyn Bowl, 2013)
    • “Sweet Sticky Thing” (unknown)
  • Recommended albums: My favorite hands down is Honey, but Pleasure and Fire are also good starter albums. The Roots actually just covered “What The Hell” off of Fire for Common’s walk-on song when he was a guest on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon last week. You can find the clip online, and it is awesome.

Sly & The Family Stone:

  • Genre: many
  • Hit(s): Loads of them. “Dance To The Music,” “You Can Make It If You Try,” “Everyday People,” too many more to name.
  • Timeline: Really picked up steam in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Output fell off greatly after that, as Sly Stone went through major addiction problems and the band disintegrated.
  • Influence: This is a little bit tougher to find, as D’ hasn’t straight up covered as many songs of Sly’s. It’s more abstract, like you can feel Sly’s presence in D’s music. Direct covers/samples include:
    • “(You Caught Me) Smilin'” (Brothers In Arms: Live At The Brooklyn Bowl, 2013)
    • “Africa Talks To You ‘The Asphalt Jungle'” (Brothers In Arms: Live At The Brooklyn Bowl, 2013)
    • “Let Me Have It All” (Brothers In Arms: Live At The Brooklyn Bowl, 2013)
    • “Babies Makin’ Babies” (Superjam: Live At Bonnaroo, 2012)
  • Recommended albums: Dance To The Music is great fun. Stand! is essentially hit after hit. And I feel obligated to put There’s A Riot Goin’ On on this list, even though I don’t know it well. Questlove has stated countless times that this is one of the most influential records ever, a complete game-changer in pop music. I believe him.


  • Genre: many
  • Hit(s): no huge individual hits (as far as I could tell), although “One Nation Under A Groove” did reach #1 on the US R&B charts in 1978.
  • Timeline: Heavy in the ’70s. George Clinton was the ringmaster of both Funkadelic and Parliament and a contemporary of Sly Stone’s.
  • Influence: This is another easy one. D’ and Quest cite these guys time and time again as hugely influential in their childhood and musical lives. Direct covers/samples include:
    • “Cosmic Slop” (Brothers In Arms: Live At The Brooklyn Bowl, 2013)
    • “Funky Dollar Bill” (Superjam: Live At Bonnaroo, 2012)
    • “Hit It And Quit It” (Superjam: Live At Bonnaroo, 2012)
    • “If You Got Funk, You Got Style” (Voodoo outtakes)
    • After the release of Voodoo, Quest said in more than one interview that D’s new musical direction was heavily guitar-oriented, towards more Hendrix-psychedelic rock. He specifically quoted D’ as saying he wanted to learn Eddie Hazel’s 10-minute guitar solo from the title track of Funkadelic’s magnum opus Maggot Brain.
  • Recommended albums: I’m less versed on their discography than others, but I’d go with Maggot Brain, Cosmic Slop, and finally Free Your Mind… And Your Ass Will Follow. Easily one of the greatest album titles of all time.

J Dilla:

  • Genre: many
  • Hit(s): Dilla’s work is not widely known, but he has done production for loads of hip hop artists and was a founding membor of the hip hop group Slum Village.
  • Timeline: Heavy in the ’90s and ’00s. He tragically died in 2006 from TTP.
  • Influence: Dilla’s influence is more subtle than the others. D’Angelo discovered Dilla’s music very early in the planning/recording process for Voodoo and when Q-Tip first introduced Dilla’s music to Questlove, Quest freaked out. Dilla’s off-kilter beat-programming style is the pulse of Voodoo. Questlove described it as something like a drunk 4-year-old on the drums. Dilla would manually program a beat for many more bars than was customary with drum machines, so rather than getting atomic clock-like perfection, the timing was just slightly off or inconsistent, and it allowed the other instruments to play off of that inconsistency and play behind the beat. Lenny Kravitz is quoted as hearing a discrepancy in the drum pattern and not wanting to play guitar on a track they were doing for Voodoo. This off-kilter style is a foundational element of Voodoo. Direct covers/samples include:
    • “Fantastic” (Brothers In Arms: Live At First Ave., 2013)
  • Recommended albums: I don’t know J Dilla that well, but I’d recommend Slum Village’s Fantastic, Vol. 2 and Dilla’s Donuts, along with The Root’s Dilla tribute album, Dilla Joints.


  • Genre: many
  • Hit(s): You know them. “Purple Rain,” “When Doves Cry,” “1999,” “Raspberry Beret,” and many more.
  • Timeline: Best stuff in the ’80s, his first album was very late ’70s and he is still making music today.
  • Influence: Prince’s music brought D’Angelo and Questlove together, so in my mind he’s the reason we have Voodoo. Questlove tells the story of playing a show that was attended by D’Angelo when The Roots were on tour opening for The Fugees. Quest had previously written D’Angelo off as another plain vanilla R&B singer before Brown Sugar came out and declined the opportunity to work on that album, then realized what a huge mistake he had made and was trying to get back into D’s good graces. During a drum solo in the show, Quest went off the musical script The Roots were used to following and started playing the drums from “4” off the Madhouse album 8. D’Angelo states he felt like he and Quest were the only ones in the room, that nobody else knew that Quest was referencing a Madhouse tune, let alone that he was referencing anything at all. That one drum beat connected these two musicians who hadn’t previously met. And we all owe Prince a big thanks. Prince’s influence is also all over Voodoo and D’s live stuff, as you can see:
    • “New Position” (Brothers In Arms: Live At The Brooklyn Bowl, 2013)
    • “I Wonder U” (Voodoo, 2000) – This is also one of the rare samples on Voodoo, drum track sampled on the album closer “Africa”
    • “My Summertime Thang” (Superjam: Live At Bonnaroo, 2012) – actually a song by The Time, one of Prince’s side projects
    • “She’s Always In My Hair” (Scream 2 OST, 1998)
    • “Pop Life” (Brothers In Arms: Live At First Ave., 2013)
    • “Mutiny” (Brothers In Arms: Live At First Ave., 2013) – a song by The Family, another one of Prince’s side projects
    • “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” (Voodoo, 2000) – So this isn’t an actual cover, but it was written by D’ and Raphael Saadiq as a direct homage to the work of Prince.
  • Recommended albums: I’m not a colossal Prince fan, but I have a deep appreciation for what he’s done. I’d start with Around The World In A Day, then go to Purple Rain, then Sign O’ The Times.

Again, D’Angelo’s influences certainly do not stop with these five. But these have seemed to be the most common names that keep popping up in all my listening and research. One of the things I find most interesting about all five is that they are all nearly impossible to pin them down to a specific genre. J Dilla might be the most easily boxable, but he very much transcends the hip hop genre. Each of these five artists touched on so many genres like funk and soul and R&B and pop and rock that it doesn’t make sense to categorize any of them with a one word description. D’Angelo has managed to perfectly carry on that torch of casting off genre limits.

I’ve spent the last month heavily listening to these artists, but I’ve also especially spent my time in a playlist entitled “D’Inspirations.” It is the original version of (nearly) every song D has covered or sampled in concert or in the studio.

D’Inspirations (“Song Title” – Artist, Album Title)

  • “I’m Glad You’re Mine” – Al Green, I’m Still In Love With You
  • “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window” – The Beatles, Abbey Road
  • “Use Me” – Bill Withers, Still Bill
  • “Woman’s Gotta Have It” – Bobby Womack, Understanding
  • “Hollywood Squares” – Bootsy Collins, Bootsy? Player Of The Year
  • “Mother’s Son” – Curtis Mayfield, Got To Find A Way
  • “Give Me Your Love” – Curtis Mayfield, Superfly
  • “Space Oddity” – David Bowie, David Bowie
  • “Can’t Hide Love” – Earth, Wind & Fire, Gratitude
  • “Girl You Need A Change Of Mind” – Eddie Kendricks, People…Hold On
  • “Mutiny” – The Family, The Family
  • “Cosmic Slop” – Funkadelic, Cosmic Slop
  • “Funky Dollar Bill” – Funkadelic, Free Your Mind… And Your Ass Will Follow
  • “Hit It And Quit It” – Funkadelic, Maggot Brain
  • “Ex-Girl To The Next Girl” – Gang Starr, Daily Operation
  • “Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)” – The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Electric Ladyland
  • “What Is And What Should Never Be” – Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin II
  • “Your Precious Love” – Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell, United
  • “Sweet Sticky Thing” – Ohio Players, Honey
  • “Players Ballin’ (Players Doin’ Their Own Thing)” – Ohio Players, Pain
  • “Pride And Vanity” – Ohio Players, Pleasure
  • “Our Love Has Died” – Ohio Players, Pleasure
  • “Heaven Must Be Like This” – Ohio Players, Skin Tight
  • “Do That Stuff” – Parliament, The Clones Of Dr. Funkenstein
  • “I’ve Been Watching You (Move Your Sexy Body)” – Parliament, The Clones Of Dr. Funkenstein
  • “I Wonder U” – Prince, Parade
  • “Pop Life” – Prince & The Revolution, Around The World In A Day
  • “Feel Like Makin’ Love” – Roberta Flack, Feel Like Makin’ Love
  • “Tell Me If You Still Care” – The S.O.S. Band, On The Rise
  • “Untitled / Fantastic” – Slum Village, Fantastic, Vol. 2
  • “Let Me Have It All” – Sly & The Family Stone, Fresh
  • “Babies Makin’ Babies” – Sly & The Family Stone, Fresh
  • “Africa Talks To You ‘The Asphalt Jungle'” – Sly & The Family Stone, There’s A Riot Goin’ On
  • “(You Caught Me) Smilin'” – Sly & The Family Stone, There’s A Riot Goin’ On
  • “Cruisin'” – Smokey Robinson, Where There’s Smoke…
  • “My Summertime Thang” – The Time, Pandemonium

There are a few songs that I know were sampled on Voodoo that I don’t have so they didn’t fall into this list. I know of at least three, and I can pretty much guarantee that D’ has done more Yoda tributes that haven’t been released. In a 2007 interview with the Red Bull Music Academy, Russell Elevado (Voodoo‘s sound engineer) stated they ended up recording probably around 40-50 cover songs during studio time. It would be truly fascinating to get to listen to those and I hope one day they get released.

Here’s to D’ getting well soon. A sincere thank you to both the Brothers In Arms for introducing me to so much insanely good music and creating the best album I’ve ever heard. I can’t express how much I’m looking forward to Voodoo‘s follow-up and what new Yodas I’ll discover through it.



1 Comment

Filed under Music

One response to “The Yoda of D’Angelo

  1. Kevin Kretschmer

    Jon, you did an incredibly thorough job of listing influences and then illuminating them further. I’m very impressed!

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