Seventeen years ago, after filming the video for “Rock the Boat” in the Bahamas, Aaliyah and her crew boarded a small aircraft that would shuttle them back to Florida. They never got there. The plane crashed shortly after takeoff, taking the lives of the promising R&B starlet and eight other passengers. The hip hop world mourned—and continues to do so.
Because even after almost two decades, the question on everyone’s lips is: “What would she have become if she hadn’t boarded that fateful flight?” Aaliyah had been one of music’s brightest young talents, combining pop, soul and hip hop into a package as smooth as silk. Destiny’s Child, Christina Aguilera, and even contemporary artists like The Weeknd continue to be indebted to her.
And Baby Girl has proven influential, even outside the pop/R&B scene. Take it from these six DJs, producers and pop aristocrats, who have plumbed through Aaliyah’s small-yet-significant discography to redefine their own sounds—and music itself.
“I Refuse” on Burial’s “In McDonalds”
It’s arguably the sample that pioneered the use of R&B sounds in post-clubbing electronic music. Off Burial’s seminal record Untrue, “In McDonalds” is a beat-less, amorphous track that sounds like how a 3am bus ride around South London feels: lonely, grimy and utterly depressing.
Which is as far away from Aaliyah as you can get. Yet “In McDonalds” is built around a single line from “I Refuse,” off her third and final studio album. “’Cause at once upon a time it was you I adored” is all the UK producer took, smothering it in reverb and thinning out the frequencies so the indignance on Aaliyah’s original verse turns fragile and desperate.
In doing so, Burial found a way to transform bouncy, ’90s-style R&B into stark, raving sad music—while preserving the emotional resonance and technical virtuosity of someone like Aaliyah. It’s a template that producers the likes of James Blake and Clams Casino would emulate and, later, make their own.
“Rock the Boat” on Zomby’s “Float”
Around the same time Burial had been mapping out his haunted London on tape, another British producer, Zomby, was busy assembling a dubstep-inflected tribute to ’90s-era acid house and UK garage. Where were U in ’92 was the resulting product: a phantasmagoric, MDMA-fueled trip into the UK underground.
And it seems even in that grubby world, you’ll find Aaliyah.
“Float,” the most aggressively ’90s tune on Zomby’s 2008 record, features repeating lines from “Rock the Boat,” off Aaliyah’s self-titled album: “You know you make me float / You really get me high.”
Besides woolly reverb and lots of echo, Zomby doesn’t really mess around with the original verses. He layers them with breakbeats, synth stabs and that other standard-issue rave sound, the air horn, to weave a dancefloor-ready choon that reimagines R&B and rave as musical siblings.
“Are You that Somebody?” on James Blake’s “CMYK”
Before James Blake took on his sadboi guise, he was a promising producer whose cuts brought together 2-step, rave, and Burial’s dubby, late-night vibes. He burst onto the scene in 2010 with a trio of EPs, of which CMYK is arguably the most refined and well known.
Its skittering title track, in particular, was instrumental in laying the foundation for what would eventually percolate into ‘alt-R&B,’ as popularized by The Weeknd’s early work. So it doesn’t come as a shock that “CMYK” is built upon R&B samples, in this case Kelis’ “Caught Out There” and Aaliyah’s Grammy-nominated “Are You that Somebody?”
You’ll hear the Aaliyah samples clearly at around the two-minute mark of Blake’s track. “Talk on the phone / But see, I don’t know if that’s good,” the sample repeats, pitched up, down and left alone. Her voice and flow are unmistakable, even under the pressure of Blake’s heavy-handed production.
“Back and Forth (featuring R Kelly)” on Madonna’s “Inside of Me”
“Back and Forth” was the song that propelled Aaliyah’s career and defined R&B for the years to come. So it’s no surprise that even Madonna wanted a slice of that pie.
Released in 1994, the same year as Aaliyah’s hit, Madonna’s “Inside of Me” borrows its classic ’90s hip hop beat. So it’s hard not to miss Baby Girl’s touch on this one—the song literally opens with R Kelly’s boom bap rhythm.
But instead of Aaliyah’s steady flow, it’s Madonna’s sultry vocals that glaze over the track. Sure, Bedtime Stories was heralded by critics as one of the Material Girl’s weakest albums, but “Inside of Me” remains an underrated pop gem.
“If Your Girl Only Knew” on Tourist’s “Your Girl”
William Phillips—better known by his stage moniker Tourist—adds to the list of electronic music producers that have mined Aaliyah’s works. He has, however, done well with the borrowed samples.
On “Your Girl,” Phillips’ breakthrough dance hit that dropped in 2012, the English musician builds his track around the infectious hook on Aaliyah’s 1996 smash, “If Your Girl Only Knew.” Written by Missy Elliot and produced by Timbaland, the track slathers charisma over a bouncy, funk-driven tune. It even scaled the peak of Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip Hop Songs chart.
Tourist’s cut goes down a dreamier direction and dials down on the swag. Tweaking the pitch on Aaliyah’s vocals, he weaves her slinky pipes with his lush synths and soft percussion to create a hypnotizing soundscape.
“One in a Million” on Sango’s “No One Else”
Her brand of R&B has rippled across genres, from dubstep to pop to trap. Like Drake, Seattle-based producer Sango isn’t low-key about his love for Aaliyah. The DJ puts her vocals front and center on most of his tracks, melding it with a clever concoction of his woozy experimental club beats that corral sounds from house to trap.
Just listen to his song “No One Else,” taken from his 2013 LP North, and you’ll hear Sango extract a line from Aaliyah’s “One in a Million.” You won’t fail to recognize her voice when it enters at the 13-second mark. “Don’t you understand?” she repeats, her voice retooled to sound stretched, bloated and glitched.
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