"Ice Cream" by Raekwon
Though Wu Tang Clan member Raekwon doesn’t consider himself a legend, this beat, found on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx (1995), is one for the books. Produced by RZA, this haunting beat lays down the track to Raekwon’s word play on ice cream flavors. Found on his debut album, this track, alongside “Criminology” and others, set the stage for his solo career well.
"Lost One" by Jay-Z
Kingdom Come harnesses one of Hova’s most somber tracks, as he discusses his then-failed relationship with Beyonce, the troubles of living a famed lifestyle and his nephew, who tragically died in a car wreck. The song’s lyrical content is juxtaposed by a jubilant, poppy beat produced by legend Dr. Dre while guest singer Chrisette’s vocals in the hook really complete an unforgettable track that delves into life’s ups and downs.
"Up Against The Wall (Getaway Car Mix)" by Group Home
This track from New York’s little-known Hip Hop duo Group Home, found on their debut album, creates a haunting, chill atmosphere that catches the ear by surprise. Shockingly simple yet profoundly melancholic, this beat is one that is sure to send chills down your spine.
"I Ain't Mad At Cha" by Tupac
Straight from one of hip-hop's most storied albums, All Eyez On Me (1996), this song’s piano groove connects with the brain instantly, forming a full on addiction. This single, released shortly after Tupac’s death, was produced by Daz Dillinger, who sampled soul/funk group DeBarge’s “A Dream.” This track’s theme of forgiveness goes hand in hand with the famous rapper’s untimely shooting death.
"Chum" by Earl Sweatshirt
Earl’s debut studio album, Doris (2013), strays a bit from his usual work with Odd Future. This particular track uses a simple, syncopated piano rhythm as the foundation for Earl to spit out his thoughts and feelings after being sent away to Samoa by his mother for misbehaving too much. The track’s jazzy tune mixed with young Earl’s deep lyrics make the song’s cheesy -- yet witty -- shoutout to Vince Carter almost bearable.
"My Block" by Scarface
This fabled track’s piano melody should be permanently seared into the minds of all hip-hop fans. Found on Scarface’s seventh album, The Fix (2002), the song samples a memorable tune from soul artists Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway’s 1971 debut album and discusses the tough streets Scarface, one of rap’s most under-appreciated legends, grew up on.
"What I’m Here 4" by Gang Starr
DJ Premier’s bouncy, joyous piano theme sets the tone well for the late MC Guru as he ponders life’s nuances in this song. Found in Moment Of Truth (1998), this track’s simple but effective beat is sure to get heads bobbing once the full melody is revealed. This track easily has one of the funnest sing-along hooks of all time.
"No Rest For The Weary" by Blue Scholars
Seattle's socially conscious hip-hop duo, comprised of MC Geologic and DJ Sabzi, really create an alluring beat sampling Cat Steven’s “Daytime.” Found on their self-titled, debut album (2008), this beat’s multi-layered piano melodies captivates listeners from the opening moments and never lets go while Emcee Geo’s flow and mind-bending rhymes take over. This song’s beat is so good, the artists let it play for the last 1:30 of the song with no vocals over it, presumably just so listeners can appreciate it’s beauty.
"Dance With The Devil" by Immortal Technique
Jam-packed with raw emotion, hard-hitting lyrics and a sample of Francis Lai’s ever-haunting “Love Story” piano theme, this epic 9-minute song’s verses resemble the acts of a movie, one that culminates into a jaw-dropping twist at the end. Found in his debut album, Revolutionary Vol. 1 (2001), Technique’s depiction of the grim realities of gangster life, alongside the chilling nocturne beat, create one of the darkest atmospheres ever found in a hip-hop song.
"Feather" by Nujabes
This majestic track from Modal Soul (2005) features Floridian underground hip hop due CYNE rapping over a classical-era piano beat reminiscent of the works of Frederic Chopin. Nujabes, a Japanese-born producer known for making awe-inspiring beats using string and brass instruments, samples Yusef Lateef’s love song from “The Robe” in this emotionally-moving track, which gives listeners a wispy experience, as if they were actually as light as a feather, floating through the air. Nujabes tragically died in a car crash in 2010, but with this defining beat, he and his body of work will never be forgotten.
We take a look at ten instrumentals that use piano keys exceptionally well.
Hip hop beats are beautiful, no doubt. But the most superb ones are done by going back to the basics by using an age-old instrument integral to the evolution of not just Hip Hop, but of all music in general: the piano. Though the piano started off being equated with classically-trained musicians, it soon found its way to jazz, which used the instrument in a more progressive manner, and subsequently, it found its way to hip hop.
Beats that incorporate the piano deliver tranquil, melodic backgrounds for emcees to spit their soulful, profound lyrics on to, whether they be about social equality, slaying past demons or deep personal issues, such as the death of a loved one.
This list explores 10 songs that incorporate the piano as a canvas, whether they be sampled from a past artist or originally created by a producer. There are plenty more piano-driven beats to choose from, so this serves as a small selection of the best.