Big Cats (also known as Spencer Wirth-Davis) is best known as a producer for rappers, as one half of The Tribe & Big Cats and for MC/poet Guante. His new solo album, though, is an instrumental hip-hop/R&B composition with deeply personal meaning: It pays tribute to one of the most important people in his life and inspirations for his music, his mother, who died in 2010. For My Mother was funded by a grant from the American Composers Fellowship and the McKnight Foundation, and 75 percent of the proceeds from the album will be donated to the Minnesota Ovarian Cancer Alliance.
As Big Cats prepared for the October 2 album drop and release show on October 11 (with a live band playing his composition), we asked him to compile a playlist of songs that influenced the making of For My Mother. Listen along on Spotify.
Here are 10 songs that I listened to a lot while I was working on For My Mother. They don’t really stick to any one genre or style, but I think there are some common threads that run throughout all of them. Hopefully I’m not giving away too many secrets, or exposing myself as some dude who just bites ’70s soul and other producers, haha. Great artists steal, right? – Big Cats
J Dilla | Time: The Donuts Of The Heart | Donuts (2006)
The greatest to ever do it. I’ve been listening to Dilla for years, and I’m still learning from him. I was listening to Dilla for years before I even knew it. Tribe, Busta, D’Angelo, etc. I’m still finding joints I didn’t know Dilla produced. Donuts was a big influence on my record, mostly because of the way Dilla used the samples. They were pretty obvious samples for the most part, and he didn’t always do a lot to flip them. But he did just enough to make it his own and make it super dope. I took a similar approach when sampling my own recordings on For My Mother.
Blue Magic | Born On Halloween | 13 Blue Magic Lane (1975)
That intro is one of my favorite moments in all of music. The arrangement is so perfect. Who writes for strings, harp, drums, bass, synth and vocals? Brilliant. That lead sound is what inspired me to try using the sitar on my record, even though I know it’s not a sitar, haha.
Oddisee | Skipping Rocks | Rock Creek Park (2011)
I discovered Oddisee at SXSW this year. I had heard his name a lot, but had never actually gotten into his music. Definition of sleeping right there–the man is a goddamn genius. Rock Creek Park was the closest thing I had heard to what I wanted For My Mother to be, and “Skipping Rocks” is the best song on there. I bought this record when I got back from SXSW, and it didn’t leave my CD player for months.
Marvin Gaye | Inner City Blues | What’s Going On (1971)
My favorite song from the best album ever made, by the best soul singer ever. For me, ’70s soul is the epitome of music. Everything just came together for a few years. The cultural climate, musical styles, recording technology. If I had to listen to one record for the rest of my life, this is it.
DJ Shadow | Midnight In a Perfect World | Entroducing (1996)
This record got me started making beats. I was obsessed with the sound, and then became even more obsessed once I figured out how it was all put together. I remember being about 14, going to record stores, just hoping to come across a Shadow sample so I could get a glimpse of how he worked. I went to Amoeba when I was 15, and was super geeked because I was pretty sure Shadow had been there before, haha.
Black Milk & Danny Brown | Black and Brown | Black and Brown (2011)
Black Milk is one of my favorite producers, but I feel like his ideas are often better than the execution. He’s like the anti Hit Boy, haha. The juxtaposition of the strings and drums on this track really stuck with me for some reason.
Erykah Badu | Window Seat | New Amerykah Part Two (2010)
The play between the piano and drums is so dope, sets a really great groove. This record is not at all what I was going for production-wise, but there’s a lot of great playing and grooves on here.
FLYamSAM | The Offbeat | Ghostly Swim (2008)
This is the only FLYamSAM song I’ve ever heard, and I’m not even sure how I came across it. The swing on those drums is nuts, though. Keeps the whole song moving, even though the other instrumentation is pretty straight forward and sparse.
Big Quarters (produced by Benzilla) | Sign of the Time | Cost of Living (2007)
Big Quarters have influenced me in a lot of ways over the years, not just musically. Brandon and Zach have had a huge impact on this community, and many of the acts who are now starting to shine owe a lot to those guys, myself included. Without their work at Hope and LRB, this community is a lot less interesting. Also, shout out to Medium Zach for showing me how to use an ASR-10. It ended up being a big part of my record. But yeah, I love the drums and Nirvana bass on this track. I picked up an ASR just so I could get my shit to sound like that. Shout out to Benzilla on the beat.
Donny Hathaway | Giving Up | Donny Hathaway (1971)
I just really love this song.