By David Ma.
It’s no easy task to imbue external influence in your work without sounding too measured, contrived, or derivative, but in recent years, Onra (born Arnaud Bernard) has steadily done so to worldwide acclaim. His 2007 solo debut, the now ballyhooed Chinoiseries, underscored his Vietnamese roots with samples sourced solely from Asia—particularly China and other Southeast Asian records. 2011’s follow-up, Chinoiseries Pt. 2, was cut from the same cloth; hard drums over swelling Asian timbres and ebullient samples.
Onra’s also been somewhat of a journeyman, releasing varying work on different labels, eventually bolstering his formidable producer status. Well-received works like an EP on Bo Bun Records and electro-tinged party tracks on Fool’s Gold have all aided his ascent. He also self-releases many projects, one of which can best be described as ‘spiritual jazz’, free-flowing arrangements under the guise Yatha Bhuta Jazz Combo, a collaborative effort with French producer Buddy Sativa. His following 2015 release, a digital download called Fundamentals (All City Records) further showcased a wide pallet and penchant for opulent arrangements laid out with élan. His Soundcloud also offers heady remixes of M.O.P. and Roger Troutman, as well as a highly popular mid-‘90s R&B mix series, Throw ‘Em Up Volume 1-3.
Raised on ‘90s boom-bap, RZA, Q-Tip and in particular Dilla all easily yet respectfully bleed through his work. Laughs Onra: “He traumatized me!” explaining the profound impact of Dilla’s production on his own. Despite having displayed an array of styles to some degree, his foundational influence is the late, great James Yancey. Here, Onra talks earnestly about his favorite Dilla samples flips. “These aren’t in any particular order or anything. I totally love these all songs equally,” he stressed.
A Tribe Called Quest — “Get A Hold” (Jive, 1996).
Sample Source: Cyrkle – “The Visit” [Colombia, 1967]
Onra: Now with this sample, it is from a late 1960s psych rock band called The Cyrkle. This basically opened my mind to this genre of music that I really appreciate these days. The samples are so dope. But I still don't have a clue why he decided to chop those particular two parts of the song; the sample is not really an obvious one. Again he proved how exceptional his ears were.
Keith Murray — "The Rhyme (Jay Dee Remix)" (Jive, 1996).
Sample Source: Bob James — “Nautilus” (CTI, 1974)
Onra: This is the first song produced by Jay Dee that I ever had on CD. Before that, I only heard A Tribe Called Quest’s fourth album, Pharcyde's second album, as well as Busta Rhymes’ first album. I was only fifteen and didn't know too many details about who was who because it was credited as remixed by The Ummah. I remember I bought it because I was a fan of the original version, which was the lead single. For some reason, I’ve always found myself preferring this remix to the original version.
Slum Village — "2U4U" (Good Vibe, 2000).
Sample Source: D’Angelo — “Jonz In My Bonz” (Virgin, 1995)
Onra: I've read that he sampled D'Angelo "Jonz In My Bonz" for this one. I still have no idea how, because I'm pretty familiar with the song, but he made it sound very different. Also, this particular one has one of the illest Dilla signature drum kits. I’ve heard him use these drums many times but it remains one of my all-time favorites.
Busta Rhymes — "Genesis" (Flipmode, 2001).
Sample Source: Acqua Fragile — “Cosmic Mind Affair” (Contempo, 1974)
Onra: When this joint came out, we all bought it the first day it was in stores. I was going crazy over this one! I had never heard Dilla go so hardcore on a beat before. I felt like something kind of changed at this point— like this was the moment Jay Dee became J Dilla or something.
Frank N Dank ft. Tammy Lucas — "Ma Dukes" (Loose Zipper, 2003).
Sample Source: The Supremes — “Wisdom of Time” (Motown, 1972)
Onra: I feel like he spent a lot of time on this one, there's a lot of progression and so many different elements. I've heard the original sample on House Shoes’ King James album. He basically built everything around the beautiful guitar loop and played all kind of synths and even some electric guitar at the end. I think this beat belongs in a category as one of his best, if not, most technically advanced.
Busta Rhymes — "So Hardcore" (Flipmode/Elektra Records,1997).
Sample Source: Crea Watson – “Dead” (Charay,1970)
Onra: This one is probably one of Dilla’s most minimalist works. Only two tracks were pitched and there was probably an up-and-down Rhodes chord sample that was played on his MPC 3000. Add to that a killer drum kit mixed with a tambourine on tremolo. Perfect proof of how simple he can be, but so dope and complex too.
Slum Village — "Fantastic" (Donut Boy, 1996).
Sample Source: Herbie Hancock- “You’ll Know When You Get There” (Warner Bros. 1971)
Onra: I got so obsessed with this and tried hard to sound the same [laughs]. When I started making beats, this was my reference. I didn't even want to make my own personal music, or release records or whatever, all I wanted was to be able to make beats like those and listen to it for hours. This beat, well, the whole album really, made me sample all the Rhodes samples I could find!
J Dilla — "Signs" (Stones Throw, 2006).
By David Ma
Sample Source: Brenton Wood – “Gimme Little Sign” (Double Shot, 1967)
Onra: I've been a huge fan of Brenton Wood for a while now. It was like 2004, me and my friends just came back from some flea market in the countryside of France and I found a 7-inch of Brenton Wood’s "Gimme Little Sign". I played it on my turntable and got all excited! I played it on loop for a few times, telling my friends ‘Yo, listen to that organ loop!!!’ But none of them liked it so I figured I wasn't gonna play with the sample anymore and just left it alone. Next thing you know, Dilla sampled it and put it out as a picture disk 7-inch on Stones Throw! I'm glad I have never sampled it after all [laughs].
A Tribe Called Quest ft. Jay Dee — "That Shit" (The Ummah Recordings, 1998).
Sample Source: Shawn Phillips — “I Don’t Want to Leave You, I Just Came To Say Goodbye” (A&M, 1977)
Onra: I first heard this on Funkmaster Flex’s mixtape when it came out and I remember being so frustrated that it was cut short. I never was able to hear the song entirely because it was all mixed up and edited until I finally found out that it was on one of ATCQ’s The Jam EPs. It's the only song where u can hear Dilla rapping with ATCQ, so it's kind of special to me.
Slum Village — "Climax (Girl Shit)" (Good Vibe Recording, 2000).
Sample Source: Isao Tomita — “Clair De Lune” (RCA/Rec Seal, 1974)
Onra: Well, it would be hard to explain how everything changed when I first heard this album so I'm just goanna give you a little story about this song. At the end of it, you can hear a small sample of Al B. Sure’s "Night And Day" and I always thought it was cool that Dilla sampled later R&B shit. It gave me the idea to make an edit of the same song.
BONUS: Common — "Nag Champa (Afrodisiac For The World)" (MCA, 2000).
Sample Sources: Hugh Hopper — “Morning Order” (Cunieform, 1980); Roy Ayers — “Running Away” (Polydor, 1977)
Onra: I read somewhere that according to Common, Dilla made this beat when he stepped away from the studio and shortly after it was done. Common sounded amazed by how quickly Dilla put everything together. To me, it's like Dilla put two extremely beautiful samples together and it was magic. They fit so perfectly with each other! The chemistry between two amazing samples is unexplainable, another one of my all-time favorites.