Hip-Hop, huh? That music where they steal other peoples songs and rap about guns and drugs and bitches, yeah? Well, technically yes to the first part, and sort of, to the last part. Copyright laws ignore the creative ‘Audio mosaic’ style that defines what Hip-Hop is, so technically speaking, it’s stealing. And as to the last part? That’s a rather narrow definition, based on a sub-genre that took off because record companies realised that a specific market would buy it. In the case of Gangsta Rap, that was mainly urban middle class white teenage boys. This view of Hip-Hop is basically because of what commercial radio and MTV allows in their playlists. So, now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s get down to a few definitions, and take it from there.
Sample – a section of an existing song, mostly used as a loop (repeated musical phrase) which is then offered up as something new.
Why would anyone do that? Well, originally, because you could. But the real why? Because the person sampling had found a piece of magic that occurred in a recording. If anyone reading this is a musician, you’ll know that magic is rather elusive to capture when it comes to being in the studio. It’s an ever tangible thing, why this recorded take is better than the previous, or the next one coming. It’s perhaps even harder to define, but when you hear it, you know it. And as far as trying to recreate that? Even more difficult again. So that’s a big why, right there. The last part of why is, the sampling person heard that piece of music and thought, I can hear that in a different context.
Maybe I’ll take another quick step back, here. Those of you who know about the evolution of Hip-Hop know this, but this is for those that don’t. Hip-Hop started from DJ’s at ‘Block Parties’, which were basically having 2 turntables and a mixer, and playing records to get everyone to dance, often on the street, parks, or houses. Kool Herc is credited with being the guy who would have 2 copies of the same record, and using them to extend drum breaks or instrumental sections of songs. This reason for this was 2 fold, A – to keep people dancing with a particular groove, and B – to let someone with a microphone let you know what was going on, like introducing the next DJ, the cops are coming, run, or just general announcements. This is where the term MC, ( short for Master of Ceremonies ) came from. When a few people decided to rhyme their announcements, and add some flair, it became a thing that was expected. It all started from friendly competition, and fun. Right, so that’s some relevant back story.
Given that the history of Hip-Hop evolved from using other peoples songs as a backdrop, this became the sound source for it. It’s much the same in actuality as any musician using chords from the major scale, only the methodology is different. If you look at a sound, melody, or musical phrase in the same way as you look at a chord being a building block, this makes sense. But the real craft isn’t in just taking a section of a song, and repeating it over and over. This can be done with many different samples to make up the one song, say, a bass-line from that tune, drum sounds from that one, a sax riff from that one. Or, using the one element from a song, and rearranging it, like the following.
Chop – A process where a sound is loaded into a device known as a sampler (Such as an Akai MPC, ASR, or more likely today, software) and sliced into sections of individual sounds. These sounds can now be played in whatever manner or order the person sampling see’s fit. Great exponents of this type of sampling are Pete Rock, Premier, DJ Shadow, 9th Wonder, and more.
Flip – the process where chopped up samples are then played back (usually via assigning the chopped sound to a particular key on a sampler) by hitting each key to a beat, in whichever order the sampling producer chooses as a musical statement. This can often result in a sampled loop being unrecognisable, other than to a highly tuned ear, from it’s original source. Again, producers like Premier and Pete Rock are great at this, along with the legendary J Dilla.
And I believe that that is significantly more honest and original than the sound of most commercial music released these days.
Whoah! Big call! And can I back that statement up? Sure can. And here goes.
If you sample something, you’re acknowledging that you’ve borrowed some magic, or created magic from something pre-existing as a piece of music. That’s honest. And flipping it so it’s unrecognisable from the place you got it? That’s original.
But how is that more honest than commercial music? Because it’s acknowledged. As a musician myself, I hear so much plagiarised music on most commercial radio, when I’m unfortunate enough to be in a place where it’s playing. It comes down to most songs using what are called scale tone chords, which are chords only containing notes that are included in a scale. That’s fine. However, it’s mainly only the major scale being used (the white keys on a piano) and there’s only 7 notes in that scale, ergo, 7 chords to use, and the last chord, a Minor7b5, isn’t often heard in anything but Jazz and Classical music. So that’s 6 chords, then. What about key changes, the musically literate ask? Still the same chords, just in a different key. So there.
Don’t believe me about all this? That’s ok. You can believe what you like, doesn’t make you right. It’d be worthwhile checking this out, though.
And that’s just a tiny snapshot of songs you can play with just 4 chords. THE SAME 4 CHORDS. That’s not to say NOBODY is doing anything original, as that’s just untrue. Meshuggah are doing crazy things with their 8 string guitars and tunings, and adding in strange fusion style guitar solo’s, within some defined parameters. I’m sure there’s some avant garde stuff I’m missing, and there’s some guitar players doing some wonderful things with alternate tunings and capos. But still, there’s only 12 notes to pick from. And as much as I don’t like Dubstep, I’ll acknowledge that certain people were using sounds rather than notes to create something new. It’s just that it sounded like a Transformer ass-raping an unhappy smaller Transformer with a fax machine dildo, to me. Each to their own.
So why does sample based Hip-Hop rule the Universe? Because unlike a lot of genres, the use of samples actively encourages the listener to find out about the origins of the sample used. Right, and? In most cases, the listener has their ears opened to a whole new world of music, by artists they may never have heard of otherwise. Be that Jazz, Soul, Funk, Disco, Classical, Latin, Bossa Nova, Rock, or any sub-genre thereof. It certainly did in my case. Each new audio mosaic presented as a beat was not only a celebration of the use of magic and creativity, and proof of great taste in music and the contents of the producer’s record collection, it was also an invitation to a history lesson. And it was a gratefully received invitation. Sure, along the way I got some shit albums with just that one little thing, that 2 -4 bars of magic on one song, but way more often than not, I got something that altered my perceptions of what music is, has been, and can become. Also, there’s quite a few Hip-Hop crews that used real musicians blended in with samples, such as A Tribe Called Quest, Digable Planets, Spearhead, Disposable Heroes Of HipHoprisy, or currently Madlib and his Yesterday’s New Quintet project.
Here’s just a few examples of tracks I followed the thread back with and copped the originals of, that I’ve listened to just recently, both originals and samples.
The Pharcyde, and their track On The DL.
A sample they used, ‘Travelin’ Man’ by Stanley Cowell.
Also by Stanley Cowell, ‘Equipoise’. This one is on my want list, but it’s horrendously expensive on CD and Vinyl. Cheapest vinyl I found was over $140 USD. Ummmm, no thanks.
J Dilla. The master of re-imagining samples into brand new things, and adding his own played sounds too, to such an extent that you most often don’t know which part is which. Genius.
Contains this sample.
And a little vocal part from this one.
Pete Rock, often imitated due to his innovative use of filtering, a technique where you use eq to make some sounds louder or quieter, to give you more control over what sounds or phrases from a song you can use.
Here’s this very subtle sample used, it’s a very clever re-arrangement. That sax riff, just brilliant.
Jurassic 5, production by Cut Chemist. Uses 3 awesome songs.
My god, this song.
And this one.
A Tribe Called Quest, ‘Bonita Applebaum’. Sample classic magic.
This is the most recognisable element.
Along with this..
Jungle Brothers, sampling one tune I’d heard before, and one I hadn’t.
The one I’d heard.
The one I hadn’t.
D J Premier remixing a Nas track with Kanye West, and making the Nas version look absolutely amateur. And somewhat unbelievably, the spoken word intro is from a live recording by… Liberace. Didn’t see that coming.
Here’s the main sample.
Okay, so there’s a few. A definitive list? Fuck no, not even close to scratching the surface. Just some I picked up the originals of recently, and some that came to mind.
Here’s a small list of some people I would most likely not know much about if it weren’t for them being sampled, and me listening to 90’s Hip-Hop.
Donald Byrd, Roy Ayers, Dave Pike, Minnie Ripperton, Rotary Connection, Stanley Cowell, Harold Alexander, Gwen Macrae, Curtis Mayfield, Kashmere Stage Band, Maceo Parker,Vicki Anderson, Bobby Byrd, Patrice Rushen, Betty Everett, Brother Jack McDuff, Lou Donaldson, Grover Washington Jr, James Brown ( meaning, I woulda missed out on the good shit, rather than the obvious stuff like ‘I Got You’ ) Lyn Collins, Marva Whitney, Nina Simone, Kool & The Gang, Art Blakey, Betty Wright, Grant Green, Sly & The Family Stone, The Commodores ( 70’s stuff, not the 80’s pop shit ), Blackbyrds, Darondo, The Isley Brothers, Astrud Gilberto, The JB’s, Idris Muhammad, Gene Ammons, Bernard Wright, Parliament, Ramsey Lewis, Bob James, Gil Scott Heron, Inell Young, Johnny Guitar Watson, Spanky Wilson, Marlena Shaw, Pleasure…
And that’s just a few. And that DOESN’T include all the other artists I came across after following the thread backwards, and seeing what else was out there along with what I was tracking down. I’ve found so much righteous good music that for one reason or another, just didn’t get the chance it deserved back in the day. And do I wanna hoard it for myself? Hell no. It’s my most communistic trait, sharing great sounds with people. It’s why I took up DJing in the first place. I learnt so much about great music and having my mind expanded by some DJ’s I knew, some I’ll never meet in person, some I’d heard and didn’t catch their name, as well as online mixes and links.
All from a few songs that I loved being honest about their origins, and their place in the record collections and hearts of the producers who sampled them. I can’t think of any other genre of music that would inspire that dedication, not just by me, but by millions of ‘beat-heads’ who just get it, and want to know more.
You DON’T have to buy Vinyl to do this, this is no purist statement about sampling or listening. It’s kinda cool if you want to, but definitely not a requirement. You just have to be inquisitive of the origins, and open minded. That’s it. You can just set yourself up a Youtube playlist of what you’ve found, that’ll do. Mind expanded, method of listening = irrelevant. It’s the fact that you are. And good on you, and I mean that very sincerely. Have fun!
Tips For Following The Thread Back
Try using http://www.whosampled.com/ to find out some stuff. I use it frequently.
These ones here give you related artists and releases. I use it to check similar Hip-Hop crews out, AND similar sampled artists. There’s plenty more you can use, just make friends with Google.