10 of Music’s Best Non-Rock ‘n’ Roll Basslines


Another week, another silly online poll. This week, it was UK music site Music Radar, who conducted a poll amongst their readers as to the best bassline ever. As with every other UK-based online poll, the winner, of course, was Muse, who can add this “prize” to their oh-so-richly-deserved NME titles for “Best Lyricist Ever” and “Best Guitarist Ever” — if NME ever ran a poll for “Best 24-Piece Chinese Traditional Ensemble,” Muse would probably win that, too. Anyway, it’s almost too easy to poke holes in these things, but this one does seem particularly absurd. While there are a couple of reasonable choices in Music Radar’s top 10 (Pink Floyd’s instantly recognizable “Money,” Michael Jackson’s dancefloor-filling “Billie Jean”), there are more omissions than you can point a stick at. Most notably, apart from Michael, there’s nothing at all in the top 10 from the worlds of funk, hip hop, reggae, drum ‘n’ bass or anything else that doesn’t involve a long-haired dude plucking away in a 4/4 rhythm. So we’ve taken the liberty of assembling 10 of our own fine bass-toting moments from outside the narrow confines of rock ‘n’ roll. And yes, we’re sure we’ve forgotten someone. So what are your nominations?

Rick James — “Super Freak”

Yes, yes, cocaine is indeed a hell of a drug. But before Rick James was a crack pipe-toting punchline, he was a superstar, and this song was his biggest hit. The reason why? That bassline — later sampled, lest we forget, by MC Hammer. Indeed, it’s amazing how many iconic funk basslines you probably first heard in hip-hop songs — take the walking bassline that underpins Chic’s “Good Times” and also turns up in the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” or George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog” (which you may know as Snoop Doggy Dogg’s “Who Am I (What’s My Name?)”) and countless others. And, of course, it’s not just funk…

Liquid Liquid — “Cavern”

It’s amazing what you can do with two notes, isn’t it? This is probably best remembered for being sampled by Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel for their 1983 hip hop landmark “White Lines (Don’t Do It),” but its original incarnation is a moody post-punk masterpiece that evokes cold, seedy NYC clubs and graffiti-daubed subway cars.

Stanley Clarke — “School Days”

Here’s the thing: no matter how well you can play bass, Stanley Clarke can play bass better than you. This song is best known for its frankly outrageous solo, which runs from about 3:30 to 7:25 and is the sort of thing that induces general despair in anyone trying to learn the instrument, but for all Clarke’s ludicrous virtuosity, it’s the simple four-bar bass riff that underpins the rest of this song that you’ll find yourself humming in the shower. Sometimes, simplicity is best.

Sly & the Family Stone — “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again)”

Come on, Music Radar voters. If this isn’t on your list, you need to get that radar checked out to make sure it’s working OK.

Parliament — “Flash Light”

Actually, we could happily just make this a list of the 10 Best Parliament/Funkadelic basslines and be done with it. But for the sake of variety, we’ll just choose one — so step forward “Flash Light,” which is notable for being arguably the most compellingly hip-shaking bassline to emerge from the glory days of P-Funk, and for being performed not on a bass guitar, but on a MiniMoog synth (by keyboardist Bernie Worrell). Regular bassist Bootsy Collins actually played drums on this track, and did a fine job of it.

Digital Underground — “The Humpty Dance”

George Clinton et al would have been proud of the squelching bass sound on this early-’90s hip-hop classic. Well, in fact, we’re sure they are proud of it, since the elastic two-note bass riff that underpins “The Humpty Dance” was borrowed from Parliament’s “Theme from the Black Hole.” Digital Underground put the two-second snippet to good use, though, creating what was for the time a decidedly unconventional low-end, one that’s somehow both arrhythmic and still funky as hell.

Dead Prez — “Hip Hop”

Hip hop and bass synths go together nicely, it seems. This track is a killer in its own right, and the driving, distinctive bass sound is pretty much the icing on the cake. As with the sample used on “The Humpty Dance,” it’s an unconventional piece of work, using a single low-end note on a synth that’s then pitch bent up and down and looped throughout both verse and chorus. The result sounds more like a motor than a musical instrument, and provides much of the track’s driving energy. Interestingly, the wobbling, pitch-bent sound of the bassline on “Hip Hop” also presaged the sound of another genre that’d emerge across the Atlantic a few years later….

Loefah — “The Goat Stare”

Dubstep tracks generally revel in their ability to cause your subwoofers to implode into a mini-black hole of subbass pressure. Of all the music that’s around today, perhaps only its grand-daddy genre, Jamaican dub, is a more inherently bass-centric style — and it’s from dub that dubstep has borrowed much of its low-end styling, using a trademark wobbly bass sound to create atmosphere rather than to underpin any sort of chord sequence. You could pick innumerable dubstep tracks here to illustrate the point, but we’re especially partial to this one — it features a simple one-note riff that sounds like it’s played on a tabla in reverse, and its minimalism is pretty much the antithesis of some of the virtuosic basslines we’ve talked about here. And yet, in its own way, it’s just as memorable.

Bob Marley & the Wailers — “Stir It Up”

A simple three-chord skank, this song is made special by its swirling synths and, especially, Aston “Family Man” Barrett’s iconic bassline. The song’s a masterclass in how to construct a memorable bass accompaniment — Barrett’s bass bounces softly under the verses, providing space for Marley’s vocals while still adding rhythm to a track on which there’s virtually no percussion, and then easing into the familiar, gorgeous melodic riff under the chorus.

Ginuwine — “Pony”

Fact: this is the dirtiest bassline ever. Ever. Now, if you’ll excuse us, we have some grindin’ to do.