What I’m Listening To: Ann Peebles

Sunday, April 5, 2020 - 4:51pm

NOSELL

The Orchard Enterprises

“I can’t stand the rain, outside my window / Bringing back sweet memories,” Ann Peebles sang in 1974, and the world of soul and hip hop changed forever. The song those lyrics belong to, “I Can’t Stand the Rain,” is a masterpiece on its own, a mesmerizing romp through memory and heartache told through Peebles’s unmistakably raspy vocals. “I Can’t Stand the Rain” is the title track of her 1974 album, an effort that brought her to 25 on the US R&B charts and established her innovative storytelling and song structure as a mainstay of music production for years to come. The thing is, Peeble’s story doesn’t end at her own music, nor at her own successes throughout a life of respect in the industry — she’s one of the most-sampled artists in hip-hop history. Now, I’m listening to her beautiful songs as they were meant to be heard: on their own. She’s a well-kept secret that deserves to be less of a secret.

The most striking sampling of Peebles’s work is with this very song, worked into Missy Elliott’s hit “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly).” Yeah, that song. The one with the video where Missy seems to be wearing a bicycle helmet on her head and a garbage bag on her body. The hook in the background of “Beep beep, who got the keys to my Jeep?” is not actually Missy herself, but Peebles. The song also shows up in “Rain” by Mick Jenkins, “Demolitions” by Kaytranada, and according to whosampled.com (a truly amazing resource for curious hip-hop minds), 18 other songs. And those are just the songs that used enough of Peebles’s original track to pay royalties  — you can only imagine the amount of SoundCloud rappers who have taken one snare or pitched-up the initial hook from the song and dropped it into their own mixes.

Peebles’s discography was a goldmine for the earliest master samplers; we’re talking the real big ones, like J Dilla, GZA of the Wu-Tang Klan and those bracing electronica and hip-hop like Gramatik. It didn’t stop at “I Can’t Stand the Rain,” but branched into songs of hers like “Trouble, Heartaches and Sadness” from an earlier album, which is featured on GZA’s incredible track “Shadowboxin’.” Though that use of Peebles’s work in particular only takes a small portion of the original material and integrates it into the new mix, it’s the groove of songs like “Trouble” that makes her music so incredibly good for samples. 

She manages to infuse a sense of dancehall bounce into even the saddest, most heartbreaking soul songs, her voice both soothing and worn-down from years of truth-telling, perfectly merging with the playful ’70s instrumentation that characterized her earliest work. That’s what makes her music so catchy, even out of context  — every track in the mix has that groove, even isolated from the rest of the song. The vocals are beautiful alone, but so are the horns, the keyboard track, the chimes, the drums and the cymbal that only crashes once. It’s like Peebles had imagined each line on its own and then layered them, creating beautiful songs that are just as beautiful when separated as they are put together. 

Even if you don’t recognize what parts of her songs have been woven into other favorites of yours, listening to Ann Peebles is always worth it. On her own, without any of the knowledge of her incredible history of sampling, she is a force to be reckoned with in her own era of soul and R&B, merging the sass of an artist like Aretha Franklin with the ease of Minnie Riperton. Her voice is unmistakable, her groove can make you dance even if you’re crying at the same time. Maybe you’ve heard her before without knowing it, but once you do, you can’t go back  — she’s everywhere, not just in the rain.