In mid-March, music lovers went understandably and rightfully berzerk after news that legendary R&B groups The Isley Brothers and Earth, Wind & Fire would be the next big names to hit up Verzuz, social media’s hottest head-to-head music battle. The musicians are slated to appear on the program April 4, and fans can stream the event via the Verzuz Instagram and Triller pages.
Originally a gospel quartet who became popular in the late 1950s, The Isley Brothers broke new ground in the ’70s after proving their mastery over the pop and funk sounds. They are among one of the only acts in popular music history to have singles hit the Billboard charts in five separate decades, and because of their inimitable career, they received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014. Earth, Wind, & Fire is considered one of the most innovative groups to ever do it, often using their work to combine elements of R&B, funk, disco, Latin, and pop. They are one of the best-selling musical groups of all time, with sales of over 90 million records, and were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.
Each group’s influence and legacy lives on in our hearts and headphones, and throughout the last few decades, several artists have paid homage to these acts in some way, shape, or form. You may not even realize it, but some of the most popular songs in contemporary R&B and hip-hop have celebrated these two iconic groups through song covers, samples, and interpolations.
To gear up for Verzuz on Easter Sunday, take a listen to some of the best uses of The Isley Brothers and EW&F’s work in modern songs.
Big Pun’s “Still Not A Player” Interpolates Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Beijo (Interlude)”
The late rapper’s staple song, a remix to his debut “I’m Not A Player,” is perhaps more well-known and more successful than the original. (The remix hit No. 24 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1998, while the OG peaked at No. 57 in 1997.) The track, produced by music maker Minnesota, not only interpolates R&B crooner Joe’s “Still Not A Player,” it ties in one of the most catchy moments of EW&F’s popular interlude from their 1977 album, All N’ All. Get your best speakers out in order to hear Joe croon “Punisher…Punisher…Punisher, Big Punisher” to the original’s recognizable tune.
The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Big Poppa” Samples The Isley Brothers’ “Between The Sheets”
Christopher Wallace was no stranger to using an R&B or soul-driven sample in his work, evident by the Herb Alpert sample in “Hypnotize” and the Diana Ross sample in “Mo Money Mo Problems,” to name just a few. “Big Poppa” in particular (which in 1996 would receive two Grammy nominations) signaled a stylistic shift for the rapper by utilizing a slower, more sensual groove to pair his rhymes with, and The Isley Brothers’ baby-making hit definitely fit the bill.
Plies’ “Shawty” feat. T-Pain Samples Earth, Wind, & Fire’s “Fantasy”
Throughout the hip-hop collaboration, a loop of the piano intro from “Fantasy” can be heard in the background. While subtle in order to let Plies and Pain’s verses do the talking, the sample is undeniable. Like most songs featuring samples and interpolations from already-popular artists, Maurice White, Verdine White, and Eddie del Barrio of EW&F have songwriting credits on “Shawty.”
Thundercat’s “Them Changes” Samples The Isley Brothers’ “Footsteps In The Dark”
“Them Changes,” found on Thundercat’s 2017 album Drunk, is perhaps one of his most recognizable songs today. This is fitting, considering “Footsteps In The Dark” is one of the hallmarks of The Isley Brothers’ catalogue. The tone is instantly set with the original tune’s iconic opening drum beats. However, Thundercat makes the song his own by including lyrics with gory imagery, which we learn is symbolic of heartbreak and love lost. In a 2020 interview, the Grammy-winning musician says he’s thrilled that “Them Changes” “translated the way it did,” and that he hopes the tune “sticks around forever.”
Yo-Yo’s “You Can’t Play With My Yo-Yo” feat. Ice Cube Samples Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Devotion”
The 1991 song slingshot the rapper into the public’s consciousness, and set her apart from her contemporaries as a self-assured and strong woman. Sonically, listeners are treated to a combination of timeless throwback energy with hip-hop’s infectious rhythms, from a crinkling record noise to kick off the beat to a thumping bass that mixes in seamlessly with EW&F’s cool and collected style.
Kendrick Lamar’s ‘I” Samples The Isley Brothers’ “That Lady”
The first single off of K. Dot’s To Pimp A Butterfly was written in order to instill confidence in his listeners. While the project largely pertains to commentary on society’s negative effects on the Black community, “I” serves as a triumphant tune with a positive perspective. What makes “I”s use of “That Lady” stand out is that elements of the sample were recorded live with Ronald Isley (instead of just using the original version), which provides an unfinished yet classic feeling for the listener.
“You can actually hear him on the record with a few ad-libs that he actually did,” Lamar says of working with Isley. “We got it on camera and things like that, it’s a beautiful thing.” Isley is also a featured artist on “How Much A Dollar Cost?” from the same album.
Queen Pen’s “Party Ain’t A Party” Samples Earth, Wind & Fire’s “On Your Face”
This Teddy Riley-produced hit features a delicious twist on EW&F’s popular Spirit album cut, which is not an entirely unexpected choice given Riley’s reverence for using classic R&B samples in his ’90s production staples. (SWV’s “Right Here” samples Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature,” Blackstreet’s “Let’s Stay In Love” samples “Say You Love Me, One More Time” by D. J. Rogers.) The result of this particular production decision is a bonafide party starter that put the young rapper on the map in 1997.
Aaliyah’s “At Your Best (You Are Love)” Is A Cover Of The Isley Brothers’ Song Of The Same Name
Fresh on the scene as a budding musical ingenue, Aaliyah Haughton’s cover of The Isley Brothers’ “At Your Best” for her 1994 debut Age Ain’t Nothin’ But A Number catapulted her to stardom. Her version of the track — which was considered somewhat of a deep cut for the group — became more popular than the original ’70s version, and its remix brought the song to new heights. After her death in 2001, Ronald Isley said that the group was “devastated,” and they dedicated several performances of the song to her in the aftermath of her passing.
“I met this young lady when she was 15,” Isley said during a concert set in 2001. “She said, ‘Your group is my favorite group. I’m recording one of your songs. This is a favorite of mine.'”
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.