November 1969 was a seminal month in U.S. history. The Vietnam War unrest was in full swing with over 200,000 protestors descending on Washington, D.C. for the “March Against Death.” The second manned mission to the moon was a success via NASA’s Apollo 12 program. Sesame Street aired their first episode. And one of the greatest voices in music history, Minnie Riperton, was beginning the first steps of what would become a remarkable solo career.
At 22 years old, Riperton has spent the last two years as the lead singer of the psychedelic soul/rock band Rotary Connection. While the group’s experimental sound never found huge commercial success, their eclectic approach spawned a devoted a following and a 1968 Grammy nomination. But Riperton was ambitious and eager to retry a solo career, having previously released records as a teen under aliases. This time, she had the backing of multi-talented producer Charles Stepney, also a member of Rotary Connection and already acclaimed for his work on albums with Muddy Waters, Marlena Shaw and Howlin’ Wolf.
Over the span of a mere two days, Riperton and Stepney would record the 10 tracks that comprise Come To My Garden. Listeners will immediately notice the drastic sound difference from Riperton’s 70s LPs. Come To My Garden is marked sprawling orchestral sounds that weave seamlessly with her otherworldly octave range. A master arranger, Stepney enlisted Ramsey Lewis, bassist Cleveland Eaton, guitarist Phil Upchurch, and Maurice White to round out a sound that is at times jazzy, dreamy and neo-classical, but always subordinate to Riperton’s towering vocals.
“This chick,” he told Downbeat magazine in 1970, “has a soprano range of about four octaves, a whole lot of soul, she’s good-looking and she’s got the experience of Rotary behind her.”
Come To My Garden is considered a masterpiece today. However, it hasn’t been an album that lends itself to easy sampling like Riperton’s later works. The arrangements are multi-layered, making loops and chops difficult in most cases.
But there are notable exceptions. On the “Rainy Day in Centerville,” Minnie sings of being in solitude and lost in her thoughts under the persistent rainfall. Stepney crafts the arrangements to hit like crashing tidal waves around Minnie’s subdued vocals. When we arrive at the eye of the storm/song, a brooding peace comes from the chords of Lewis’ piano keys and Eaton’s bass.
There have been two persistent criticisms of Nas’s albums in the latter part of his career. One is the beats never live up to the potency of his lyrics (debatable). The second is the cutting room floor is littered with tracks of much higher quality than what made the albums (not debatable). A strong argument for the latter is “Where Y’all At,” released in 2006 during the Hip Hop Is Dead era. Admittedly, this song was released early on as a “street single,” to promote the project, but still one that was so dope it deserved inclusion on the album.
Produced by Salaam Remi, the piano-driven sample from Minnie and Stepney is perfect for Nas’s lyrical wheelhouse.
For more samples from Minnie’s career, check out Know Your Samples: Minnie Riperton.