Not that sample.
Good morning, popular & classical music blog lovers! I’ve had a notable absence, and I can excuse it by telling you that my life has been in a bit of an positive upheaval state, but I’m here to give you something that you’ll all love.
Today we’re going to discuss the use of samples in Puff Daddy’s “I’ll Be Missing You.”
No, not that sample.
Samuel Barber’s Agnus Dei (1967), the setting of which is based on his Adagio for Strings (1936) seems a logical setting for a sort of confessional, which is how it functions in “I’ll Be Missing You.”
For whatever can be said about the song, it remains enormously popular, 22 years after its release and domination of radio & MTV airwaves. Sean “Puffy” Combs as an artist might not be known as the creative zenith of hip-hop, but he is responsible for the rise of so many important artists since the mid-90s. His friendship with the Notorious B.I.G. is the stuff of legends and his influence continues currently through his work with creative powerhouses like Janelle Monae.
Background: Sean “Puffy” Combs, known under various aliases over the course of his career, is one of the most successful hip-hop artists and producers of all time. He formed Bad Boy Records in 1993, and one of the first acts he signed was newcomer Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. The Notorious B.I.G. Wallace was killed in March of 1997, prior to Combs’s first solo record being completed. “I’ll Be Missing You” was Combs’s first number one single, an honor shared with Faith Evans, Wallace’s widow, and Bad Boy-signed rap act 112. “I’ll Be Missing You” was also the first rap song to debut at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. The single would stay atop the Hot 100 for 11 weeks and also top the charts in 15 other countries. Combs won a Grammy for this song in the category of Best Rap Performance for a Duo or Group. Billboard lists the song as the #3 charting song of 1997 and the #10 song of the 90s. While P. Diddy has not seen success such as this as a commercial artist since 1997, he has continued to grow Bad Boy Records into a massive media empire and overseen Sean John, an extremely successful clothing label.
The linked video clip does not feature the sample of Barber’s Agnus Dei, so I’ve linked the Spotify recording. This is an explicit recording; be warned.
Analysis: At the start of this song, Puffy has a spoken confessional moment where he talks frankly about his feelings regarding the death of his friend. The sample of Barber’s Agnus Dei is heard immediately at the start of the song and starts to fade out at 2:09 in the recording heard on the album No Way Out.
Although the song is almost entirely laid over a sample from The Police’s “I’ll Be Watching You” (and Sting owns 100% of the publishing rights of that song), there is another sample present in the song. Faith Evans starts to sing a version of the spiritual “I’ll Fly Away” after the second verse/chorus (in the recording linked through Spotify, she begins at 4:52, and at 2:52 in the video version).
Can You Play It Without Getting Fired?: The portion of the song that heavily features the Agnus Dei is laced with profanity (the word sh*t appears frequently), so unless you are very experienced with strategically turning down the volume on listening examples or have an understanding with your students, you might want to veer away from this one, especially with younger children.
What Can You Teach with This Song?: Sometimes, it can be an interesting exercise just to connect various forms of music, particularly well-known popular songs, with classical favorites. Why do you think that Puffy chose Barber’s Agnus Dei in particular? Does the use of this music accomplish an artistic end? I do think that “I’ll Be Missing You” achieves an artistic goal. But for my money, a much better example of this idea is found in Janet Jackson’s “Someone to Be My Lover”, where she uses Erik Satie’s famous Gymnopedie no. 1 melody, but puts it in 4/4 time.