Zen and the Art of Sampling
In fairness to all those lovers of electronic music out there, I’ll let my bias flag fly free. I am not an Electronica fan; I have always been partial to human voices, poetic lyrics, funky guitars and acoustic drum sets.
Last September, I went to Burning Man and relished in any hip hop I could find, but I didn’t hear much rap at the festival. Unarguably, underground musical trends are going electric.
I’m only 21 years old and never thought my taste in hip hop would make me feel old, but it is becoming clear that the days of Pete Rock and the Wu-Tang Clan are gone, perhaps forever.
Now, I understand that everyone has different taste in music and I won’t be the neighbor who bangs on your door and tells you to turn down that hellish oscillator. But last Wednesday, at the Jack Beats concert in Santa Cruz, I heard something that set my blood boiling.
Admittedly, I was enjoying myself, despite hoards of local high school children sweating profusely, wearing bright colors and mouthing pacifiers. My friends and I danced to the catchy beats and the stage lighting and go-go dancers made it quite an event.
But at one point, as I was beginning to drown in the synthesized robotic drum drudgery, the beat cut out and the DJ played a short segment from “Gimme Shelter.” As expected, everyone cheered for the Rolling Stones reference and then returned to their slow-motioned grinding.
Don’t get me wrong, I love sampling and I love the Rolling Stones, but what Jack Beats did was cheating. The art of the sample has been under attack for as long as it has existed and simply playing 15 seconds of a song during a DJ set is nothing but a disservice to every other disc jockey on the planet.
True sampling is like auditory alchemy – a great DJ can mix one part funk, two parts jazz and a hint of 1940s show tune and create something fully new and fully his own. Sure he has borrowed from other recordings, but he has not stolen a thing.
The king of sampling, and arguably the greatest DJ of all time, is none other than DJ Premier, one half of the legendary rap group Gang Starr, and the producer of classic hits by Nas, Jay-Z, Notorious BIG, and many others.
Like most other DJs, Premier usually employs funk and soul samples in his beats, but on the track “Represent” on Nas’ debut album Illmatic, Premier dug deep into his record collection and found the most unlikely of samples.
Borrowing from a Lee Erwin song off the soundtrack of Raoul Walsh’s The Thief of Baghdad (1924), Premier creates a canvas on which Nas paints a striking scene of the street life in New York City. In a way, “The Thief of Bagdad” is the Machu Picchu of samples – and like Hiram Bingham had done with the lost city 80 years before, Premier searched long and hard to bring the forgotten song to a new generation.
Yet perhaps the comparison sells Premier short. Bingham found something that the Incas had built and simply redisplayed it in its original, somewhat weathered form. But Premier grabbed something ancient and forgotten and refurbished it to the point where it was grander and more astounding than ever.
Premier’s borrowed segment comes 55 seconds into a Lee Erwin song that is to hip hop what Larry the Cable Guy is to political humor. For Premier to even locate the original track and then to have the ear to decipher the 10 second segment which could be used in a beat demonstrates exceptional talent and obsessive commitment to his craft – two qualities that almost all great artists share.
Which finally brings me back to my sweaty Wednesday night in Santa Cruz.
The “Gimme Shelter” sample is the antithesis to Premier’s masterpiece. Not only is the segment not weaved into the original song, but locating the Rolling Stones’ song took almost no effort.
Turn on any classic rock station and listen for a few hours and “Gimme Shelter” will be played. Listen to the radio for years and you will never hear “The Thief of Bagdad.”
And I’m not calling Jack Beats lazy or unimaginative – I just believe they used a fully different criteria in choosing samples than Premier. While Premier (and many of the other classic 1990s DJs) strove to find segments of old funk and soul to merge into his own original track, Jack Beats used “Gimme Shelter” to contrast with their sound.
Electronica is meant to be danced to, so using “Gimme Shelter” as a drum break allows the wet, hot mob a chance to breathe and cheer at something it recognizes.
For Premier and the mid-90s DJs, part of the goal was finding an unused and unlikely song to sample. But for Jack Beats, the sample was chosen specifically so it could be easily recognized.
And I agree that it feels to good to catch a musical reference. But sampling should be about more than giving a technicolored 17-year-old the chance to impress his date with classic rock knowledge.
Hip hop’s hey day was undoubtedly in the early to mid-1990s when Jay-Z, Biggy, Tupac, Snoop Dogg, Nas, and Tribe Called Quest were releasing their finest work. And behind the hip hop boom was a collection of DJs committed to creating an innovative sound by scouring old records for the perfect samples.
Believe me, I don’t want to sound old and nostalgic. But with copyright laws, big bad record companies and the obsessive premium our country sets on originality, the sun may have set on the hip hop sample.
But even if we must now refer to the greatest hip hop DJs in the past tense, no one has the right to muddy what they created. So please, before you put a sample in your track, ask yourself: what would Premier do?
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