When talking about experimenting with the harp in jazz music, one can think of musicians such as Alice Coltrane. But years before she even entered a studio, it was a Detroit native who was pulling the strings (pun intended) as a pioneer with the harp as her instrument of choice: Dorothy Ashby.
Dorothy wasn’t the first to ever pick up the instrument grounded in classical music: Adele Girard & Casper Reardon did so as early as the 1930s. But Dorothy Ashby truly pioneered harp improvisation within jazz grooves. As harpist Brandee Younger strikingly puts it in an article for Revive Music: “Her melodic approach is that of a horn player, and harmonically, one may be fooled into thinking they hear a guitar playing instead.”
Dorothy Ashby’s critically acclaimed debut The Jazz Harpist (1957) kicked off an impressive track record: she played on records by the likes of Stevie Wonder, Bill Withers, Freddie Hubbard, Earth, Wind & Fire, Bobby Womack, Minnie Riperton, Hubert Laws… too much to name, really. There’s even an on-going attempt to display every record and CD Dorothy Ashby played on, because today the list still doesn’t seem to be definite.
J Dilla sampled Dorothy Ashby for the first time in 1995 for “Drop” by The Pharcyde, in an ingenious way: he reversed and chopped a loop from Dorothy’s “Django," which was released on her self-titled album released in 1962 and written by music director John Lewis. Dilla sampled it and played it backwards throughout the whole track (now The Pharcyde’s backwards music video for “Drop” makes a lot more sense, huh?).
And that wasn’t the last time Dilla played with reversing music. Think of the inverted guitar on “Nothing Like This” (pay attention to the absorbing cymbal at the end of the loop, which gives away it has been reversed). Or, more famously: for Slum Village’s “Players” he altered the order of musical elements from a capella song “Clair” by The Singers Unlimited. In their version there’s “Clair” first, then scat singing. Dilla reversed it for his loop to scatting first before “Clair”, which he slowed down and manipulated to make it sound like “Players”.
In the years that followed, J Dilla sampled Dorothy Ashby’s music more often. A few examples include “Ash Rockin” (a direct nod to Dorothy), the heavier “Snappin’ Necks in Africa”, “Janet Jacme” for 5 Elementz (the Detroit group consisting of Proof, Thyme & Mudd, with himself as their sole producer), and the little lesser known beats “Jay Dee 3” and “1 for the Treble and 2 for the Bass”. But out of these tracks, “Drop” gives the best example of how Dilla was such an innovator with his sampling, in a similar vein to how Dorothy was a true jazz innovator with her harp.