Sampling: The Technology & Sounds (part 2)

Or: My case for why sampling MADE Hip-Hip

A Change in Sound

We mentioned the technical innovations of Marley Marl and Paul C but what has to also be mentioned that went hand and hand with that time period was the pillaging of the James Brown catalog.

And not just James Brown alone either. We’re talking James Brown proper. If they played for him, were associated with him, any of that…their music was ransacked. I would call 1987–88, “The Years of Brown.” I could bog you down with yet another list but suffice it to say that “I Know You Got Soul” & “Rebel Without a Pause,” two of the songs we cited as in Part 1, both owed a lot to the James Brown samples that they were based on.

The same could be said about many of Paul C’s work on Ultramagnetic & Super Lover Cee & Casanova Rud’s work — James Brown was the lifeblood of those songs.

Public Enemy Niggas” is what they called me and Sayyed Munajj during the second semester of our Sophomore year in high school but that would change soon. NWA had just started making noise and Denverites began to embrace their West Coast leanings. Like most places west of the Mississippi, historically, Denver was always rooted in Funk so their connection with Dr. Dre’s production was almost visceral. We weren’t really with that. (Though it did seep in through osmosis)

As I stated, while I “liked” Marley Marl’s production, nothing about it struck me as innovative — I was young. But the first time I saw the “Potholes in My Lawn” video (which was my intro to De La), I was transfixed.

First of all, the group War was not a part of my parents collection. If I did know any War songs they were of the more commercial, late 70s fare. And that’s just one of the samples that makes up the song. There are at least four more, with the Brother Soul scratched refrain sending the whole affair over the top.

But what made “Potholes in My Lawn” standout (aside from the home movie like video) was how smoothly those samples were meshed in together.

We were dying to get our hands on the album. So that March of 1989, second semester of my junior year, we shifted from “Public Enemy niggas” to “De La Soul niggas” because that’s all we played for the next few months.

3 Feet High & Rising from the “Intro” to the “D.A.I.S.Y Age” was the most eclectic, original, left field Hip-Hop album that I had ever heard.

Robert Christgau had this to say, and it’s almost positive:

“Their music is also radically unlike any rap you or anybody else has ever heard — inspirations include the Jarmels and a learn-it-yourself French record. And for all their kiddie consciousness, junk-culture arcana, and suburban in-jokes, they’re in the new tradition — you can dance to them, which counts for plenty when disjunction is your problem.”

Ok, he still had to take a pot shot with the whole “disjunction/problem” bit but did recognize how extremely different the album was. And who was behind all of this? Prince Paul.

When I used to read about Afrika Bambaattaa, I was always astounded by the “king of records” moniker. I read about his choice of music, and since it was before the days of the internet, I couldn’t fathom how he fit some of the songs he played into the context of Hip-Hop.

And then I heard, 3 Feet High and Rising. If there was a direct line from the man who would drop “C is for Cookie” in a park jam, to modern times, it was this album.

Although De La Soul were just as responsible for the eclectic mix of music, Prince Paul was already a renowned DJ in Long Island, and member of the Brooklyn-based rap band, Stetsasonic. He was the mentor-like figure that encouraged Pos, Dove, and Mase to push the envelope. Prince Paul freed sampling and Hip-Hop from the tried and true funk and classic breaks; anything was fair game…and as we discussed in “Negros Need Not Sample,” that would be a problem.

De La Soul’s “Change in Speak” pulled from Cymande’s “Bra,” A Tribe Called Quest’s “After Hours” samples Sly Stone’s “Remember Who You Are,” Def Jeff’s “Droppin’ Rhymes on Drums” tapped the soon to be famous Soul Searcher’s song, Brand Nubian’s “Concerto in X-Minor…” I’m done snitching. These are just quick examples of how the aesthetic began to shift from the traditional funk-based source music to a wide range of sounds from psychedelic music to jazz, the latter of which, is what would rule East Coast rap for the next few years.

Ushered in by Stetsasonic’s “All That Jazz” in 1988, the song was an anomaly. It wasn’t until 1991 that the jazz-heavy, mostly East Coast sound, took hold. Most people will attribute that to A Tribe Called Quest’s Low End Theory (which we will get to in a second), and, I’m sure they were recorded around the same time, and in each other’s company, but proceeding Low End by at three months was the Ep from Pete Rock & CL Smooth, All Souled Out.

All Souled Out was a proper Ep, containing only six songs, half of which contained an early to mid ‘70s era jazz sample. What’s most important to this release, though, is two things: the yet to be ubiquitous horns, and the tight samples of Pete Rock. When I say tight samples, I mean Pete Rock often takes less that five seconds of a song to form his loop. And, even though I said I won’t be doing much more snitching, some beats have to be exposed for one to truly appreciate it.

All Pete Rock needed of O’Donel Levy’s Carpenter Remake was from 0:02 t0 0:05, which he turned into the seamless, “Mecca & The Soul Brother” loop. Pete Rock then accented that with four more samples.

People were into the Ep but had no idea what Pete Rock and Cl had up their sleeves for the 9–2.

*Not sure why Step in The Arena, Gangstarr’s sophomore album, Premier’s first as a solo producer, is often overlooked (in the bringing jazz to rap discussion)…but we’ll get back to Gangstarr.*

I was just using Jazz samples ’cause nobody else was. I wasn’t trying to create a new thing called Jazz Rap or something like that. I was just staying ahead of the curve, which is what my father always told me to do: be a leader and be different from everybody else. DJ Premier

In the meantime, the Hip-Hop world would be taken over by the bass-laden, jazz-filled sophomore release from A Tribe Called Quest.

We saw this video the summer of ’91…first of all, all everyone could talk about was Phife (May Allah be Pleased With him)…but we’re not going to go into all of that. It was the Brecker & Rogers horns, the Ed Brown bass line, and the sheer coolness of the video that had us shook. The album couldn’t come out quick enough.

Of course the debate now is which is better, Low End or ’93’s Midnight Marauders but in 1991, there was no question that Low End Theory was an opus. Similar to the Pete Rock example above, Tribe perfected the art of constructing whole songs from two to three second samples. The difference is Low End was composed with 90% Jazz Breaks. Most songs contained more than one sample and Tribe even went as far as getting legendary Jazz bassist, Ron Carter, to play the bass on “Verses From The Abstract.”

The proverbial Jazz floodgates were open. Daily Operation, Gangstarr’s third album came out the Spring of 1992. If it weren’t for Tribe, surely Premier would have been recognized as the first to really dig in to the jazz.

Dropping just a month after Daily Operation, Pete Rock and CL Smooth’s debut, Mecca an The Soul Brother became the soundtrack of the Summer of ’92. The album seemed like it went on forever…and that’s not in a negative way. It’s just that Pete Rock possessed such a wealth of beats, even the interludes — five to twelve seconds — were hotter than most peoples whole albums. The bar for sample selection was raised 100-fold. But it was the horns….Pete Rock used horns throughout the album and it became a signature sound that was copied for the next two years.

Of course it wasn’t 24–7, wall to wall jazz sampling. EPMD’s fourth album, Business Never Personal, was in heavy rotation. Erik Sermon jumped from basic loops of popular funk tracks (see: “You Gots to Chill) to splicing, playing, filtering funk breaks to the point of non-recognition. Sure, we recognize the Roger hook on “Crossover,” but what’s all that other business? He did some serious manipulation on, “Say What.” E turned a Foreigner song into Funk…Foreigner.

For me and Ismail Latif, the pinnacle of the sampling record came with Diamond D’s breakout Stunts, Blunts, and Hip-Hop. Diamond was able to put into words the whole Hip-Hop aesthetic in four concise lines.

And I’m proud because our borough
was the first to take a five second beat
make it repeat
then it spread across the tri-boroughs

That is as good a description of Hip-Hop ever given. Knowing breakbeats increases one’s appreciation, not just for the craft of assembling a beat — that’s certainly a great skill, but it also makes one aware of the patience that a producer must have. Some breaks, a few seconds, as mentioned, are two minutes in of an eight minute song. Some breaks are found in unlikely genres on the most unassuming of songs. Learning those breakbeats, wasn’t as simple as googling an album and scrolling down on the wiki description.

You had to be initiated into that knowledge. Again, Diamond spells out that code:

Know a lot of beats
but I say no names

Diamond explained to the world what “Diggin’ in the crates” meant turning the phrase into common vernacular that went beyond searching for rare beats to searching for any hard to find item. His punchlines alone are a veritable list of artist that have classic breaks (King Errisson), pop trivia — all accented with some of the rarest beats.

By the time The Digable Planets’ Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space) was released in early 1993, I had had my share of jazz influenced albums. But the industry hadn’t. Pharcyde’s Bizarre Ride made it’s mark on the West filling them with those jazz vibes. But things were changing. Although producers still sought out horns and baselines, the music was no longer light and upbeat. Rap turned dark and filtering became the order of the day.

A month after that Digable album dropped, the tentpole for change in East coast rap was released — we’re talking about Onyx’s Bacdafucup.

The single, “Throw Ya Gunz” had come out in the winter and had garnered a lot of support. (the video was wild). Despite the fact that the song was dark…we are talking about guns here…the music was still jazz-based. The foundation of the song is the oft-used Bob James, not to mention the frequent horn stabs. But the album would turn that jazz sound on its head.

What most people remember about Bacdafucup, and what made it so popular, was the intense bass. From “Bichasniguz” to “Getdafuckout” the album is filled with trunk-rattling bass, most of it filtered. Chyskillz, a Jam Master Jay disciple, is responsible for crafting the sound. Most of what I read about the album involves the lyrical content; very little about the production. After Chyskillz played them “Nigga Bridges,” Onyx sound and image was formed.

Then there whole demeanor changed, you know, it started getting more grungy and gritty. Everybody started shaving they head. Then we just had a movement after that.

We talked about the baldhead movement in “Hip Hop Hair History…”, here, we’re talking about the filtering bassline movement. Two of its biggest adherents would also drop albums that year.

The Beatminerz and the RZA took the filtering to another level.

You can take anything and put it on some hard drums and it becomes hard. And you can take a bass line and filter it like crazy until it’s just bass. And then you just turn it up. To me, hard bass and hard drums is hip-hop. Mr. Walt

“Who Got The Props” was just an introduction to the Beatminerz. The single dropped around the same time as “Throw Your Gunz” but it would be almost a year before the album was released.

The first time I heard Enta Da Stage songs 1–4 (really the first three, I had the cassette which didn’t have “Ack Like U Want It) were just ok to me. It was “Buck Em Down” that completely arrested my attention.

The beauty of what The Beatminerz was they could take a sample, in this instance, “Wind Parade,” and use multiple elements to construct their song. The bass line was filtered to the point of being muddy, yet the horns were left clear and hot. It’s a method used throughout the album.

Enter the Wu Tang: 36 Chambers was an entirely different matter — I loved that from the start. If you read reports from Johnny Come Latelies, they cite where the album landed on Billboard rankings as their measure for its success. But this was a different world — one that was Black and insular.

The influence of the music was not based on sales, it was based on sounds. Because of that, the filtered, Soul songs that were the cornerstone of 36 Chambers led a strong shift from jazz to a more soulful based sampling hunt.

It’s worth nothing that Tribe’s 3rd album, which some consider to be their highest feat of recording, Midnight Marauders, was released on the same day as 36 Chambers. And while it was jazzy, they too began leaning towards Soul with their sampling of Minnie Ripperton on “Lyrics to Go” still being one of my all time favorite samples.

The Interpolation Sound & A Few Rays of Light

Long before the term ‘hater’ was tossed around, I was a card holding member. The main reason for that was, like I stated in the open paragraph, I loved the art of sampling. One album would split my taste in half. Sadly, the winner in that battle would start my downward trajectory into a world of hate. That album was Ready to Die.

It started off splendid. When I tell you we ran “Unbelievable” into the damn ground, that is an understatement. I might go as far as saying that we had that song memorized the same day that we got it…and I doubt I would be far off. If this what the Biggie album was going to sound like, I had already earmarked two copies. Then I heard “Juicy.”

People love that song. Negative words about “Juicy” turn regular citizens into a Lynch mob. But I abhorred it. It was everything that I ever hated in rap. A beat so damn familiar that it couldn’t be anything less than a hit…and a interpolation of the hook that’s just as familiar…what in the hell. This is why I never liked Hammer…or Vanilla Ice’s productions. (Note: I’m not comparing them lyrically, calm down)

But that’s why Diddy’s a multi-millionaire and I’m not.

An album full of “Unbelievable” like tracks would have generated Illmatic type numbers — that means it would have sold wood. So “Unbelievable” and most of them other street cuts were buried on the album and anchored “the hits.”

(I didn’t like Big Poppa either…I know…get the blindfold and the firing squad)

G-Funk would quickly follow and that interpolation sound would rule the airwaves.

“I Want’a Do Something Freaky to You,” led the charge back in ’92 for Dr. Dre and his protege Snoop Doggy Dog on Dr. Dre’s The Chronic so by the time “Who Am I” dropped in ’93 not only was the West Coast eager for that sound, the majority of the Hip-Hop community was. “Atomic Dog” was bad (as a sample) but when Warren G grabbed a hold of “I Keep Forgetting,” it was too much for me.

The reality of the situation is this — no matter how you slice it, financially, it made sense. The cost of clearing one sample for one song versus the costs for clearing eight or nine samples is a no brainer. Add to that the fact that your chances of having a hit with your source material already being a tried and true pop song almost increase 100 fold. It’s throwing good money at good money.

Producers also learned that playing over a song was more cost effective as well. Often times this cut out paying a record label and only paying for publishing rights…so why sample?

I mean, yes, there was still a few beacons in the dark. Cru’s Da Dirty 30 (97) produced entirely by (ironically enough) future Bad Boy Hitman producer, Jeremy “Yogi” Graham, being one. A thirty (yes, 30) song album, Da Dirty 30 would be one of the last albums that I had in heavy rotation. A cool, two second sample of a little known blaxploitation film soundtrack and another swiping from Portishead was enough to have me a fan of Yogi’s production.

By the time Life After Death dropped in ’97, however, I was on my way out of Rap.

Magnetik 7 circa 2004

First of all, my brother would kill me if he knew I included that above graphic. But I posted it for a reason: by 2004, the idea of me anticipating a rap album was unheard of. And really, there were very few producers that I was checking for. The one producer who’s name would make me listen to anything in the early aughts was Jay Dee, now commonly known as Dilla.

I mentioned my introduction to Dilla’s production with “Stakes is High” in ’96, but it was his productions in ’97 that vaulted him up into the greats for me. And, it wasn’t a Hip-Hop song that did it. It was Jay Dee’s remix of a song by one of my favorite groups at that time, Brand New Heavies, “Sometimes.”

I was disappointed with Shelter, their third album (I don’t count that rap one). No diss against Siedah Garrett but she was no N’Dea Davenport whom I had grown accustomed to hearing over the Heavie’s funky retro beat. So this album got very little spins…then I heard that “Sometimes” remix. It became one of my summer anthems.

Here’s the thing — I’m still at a lost of words to describe what it is about Dilla’s music that resonates with me. Wax Poetics “Hip Hop” Issue #17’s Dilla dedication didn’t help. Neither did Questlove’s description:

I like his kick patches better than anyone; I love his snare patches better than anyone; I love his sample chops better than anyone; I like his ability to flip samples better than anyone; I like his engineering better than anyone; I love his chord structure better than anyone; I love his bass tones better than anyone. It really just starts there.

But whatever that sound is, the kicks, the organ-like notes…(I told you I don’t know how to describe it)…I recognized it immediately and got all crack addicted-like looking for similar sounds. No way could I have been ready for Fan-tas-tic Vol. 1.

I have to consult Daoud Bowling and King Esseen about this one question: who was the source for all those tapes that we circulated around the AUC?

I have no idea how Fan-tas-tic Vol. 1 found it’s way into my hands but I do remember listening for the first time and feeling like I was being let into some small, secret society or something. Many of the songs sounded like demos and barely exceeded two minutes but they were not like anything I heard before. Take the second song, “Keep it On.”

Dilla starts off in familiar territory — “Party all the time…” get’s you prepared for “Ain’t No Half Steppin’” but those expectations are quickly dashed. I can’t think of any productions at that time, aside from Dilla’s productions that had bass notes like that. My resident production expert, Bashir Allah and I differ here. According to him, there’s nothing that was done here that Pete Rock didn’t do on Main Ingredient.

I took it to DJ TJ the King a top producer in his own right and DJ for Jay Electronica and he had this to say:

He had a way of placing a sample over a boom bap beat rearranging it and also capturing the same feel and soul of the original.

and presented his case with:

I could easily roll off into fan-dom. But I’ll say this, Dilla’s sampling techniques were so refined that they blended into a beat the way fine ingredients blend into a soup — in a song like “Thelonius,” for example. Although George Duke and the Steve Miller Band are credited as being sampled, one would be hard pressed to find the skeleton of either song.

Of course, all of this is highly debatable and this is my ongoing complaint about Hip-Hop scholarship. More often than not, the people commenting on the rap records of the past do so out of context. And when I say out of context, I mean there is little to no personal experience with the music and its release.

If you were born and raised in Long Beach, California and 18 years old in 1993 your memories and connection with Doggy Style will be completely different than if you were the same age growing up in Memphis in 1993 (where your album would have surely been Comin’ Out Hard.) Meaning: everyone’s experience and thus take on the music of the era is different.

I grew up on what came to be known as “East Coast” rap so my leanings are towards that. I was a fan of the old boom bap, the eclectic sample, scratching, etc. I’ve always maintained that listening to sampled based songs was mentally stimulating. Figuring out how songs were made was like putting together a musical puzzle. It’s what I loved about Hip-Hop, and in my opinion, is in the true spirit of the original music that spawned the $10 billion a year industy.

My love for that sound does not in anyway, however, discount the validity and experience of someone who grew up listening to “Bounce” in New Orleans or “Chopped and Screwed” music in Houston. Either it’s all Hip-Hop…or it’s not. I’m only writing from my experience, mixed with a bit of history and context. Feel me?