"The true gentleman is friendly, but not familiar." - CONFUCIUS

Wednesday, August 6, 2008


In the early 20th century, African slaves living along the Mississippi Delta birthed a musical style known as the blues. A 12-bar song structure capable of being played by anyone with a guitar, a voice and a minimal sense of rhythm and melody, the white musical cognoscenti of the time ridiculed the blues for its seeming simplicity. Musical instruments were nowhere near the grasp of the average slave, many playing on makeshift instruments made from pieces of scrap metal and trash. Lyrical subject matter rarely deviated from simply-told tales of sadness, disillusionment and heartache. How can this repetitive, simple sound possibly be considered as creative or accomplished as classical music with all its many instruments and chord progressions, the critics asked?

Fast-forward to 2004, and African-American music is the tree from which all popular contemporary musical forms spring forth and blues is the root; the father of jazz, rock ‘n roll, R&B and the grandfather of hard rock, hip-hop and all pop music by default. That century-old 12-bar structure continues to echo through at least every other song created since, and modern music continues to grow from this foundation. Just like life, all music is a continuum, one long strand, and every song - to varying degrees - is a reinterpretation of the sounds that came before it. At least half of all jazz songs are covers of the same old tunes written years ago. The vast majority of what passes for original rock ‘n roll songs are little more than minute variations on riffs and melodies that have existed for decades. The same classical composers that frowned on blues in the 1900s made their careers playing symphonies written hundreds of years before they were born.

Borrowing melodies, rhythms, even entire songs and altering them to make them your own is the way music is made, always has been. It is the manner in which the sounds are combined and delivered that makes each genre unique. The largely solitary lives of most slaves were the reason that the blues was initially played by one person, and although most contemporary blues acts are full bands, it is still essentially a one-man show. Jazz was born in New Orleans, where brass marching bands were already a local cultural staple at the time of jazz’s inception, so it is only logical that jazz became a brass-based genre founded on the band principle. And when kids in the cash-strapped New York City of the late 1970s couldn’t afford musical instruments, they simply hooked up two turntables and juggled two copies of the same record over and over, essentially repeating the instrumental bridge of someone else’s song, creating a hypnotic, mood-inducing groove for an emcee to rap over, a practice that became the hallmark of hip-hop music and defined it to the world. The advent of the drum machine and the concepts of sampling and looping in the early ‘80s opened up a whole new dimension for hip-hop producers, allowing them to explore a realm of musical possibilities untapped by any other genre while staying true to the essence that made hip-hop unique in the first place. The sampler took the world of music – never mind just hip-hop - into the future, and hip-hop was at the forefront, hip-hop producers squarely at the helm. It is arguable that just as the blues was the foundation of a whole new progression in popular music, hip-hop was also responsible for music’s next major evolution, electronic music – and the sampler is central to this. As the guitar is to the blues, the horn to jazz, the drum to tribal music, it is the instrument of our culture, one of the things that makes us us.

And it’s not easy. Try chopping different sounds out of records and combining them like Pete Rock does. Spend one night with a drum machine trying to compose coherent, groundbreaking soundscapes out of amplifier fuzz and old funk records the way El-P does. Sure, most sample-based tracks are just a loop with programmed drums added, but much of the genius of sampling lies in knowing which records to sample. When Puffy lifts the entire instrumental to an ‘80s smash hit like The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” – chorus line and all – he is exploiting the instant connection most people feel on hearing an already-familiar groove to sell records. But when RZA introduces a slowed-down 3-second loop of an old Aretha Franklin song with a 2-bar sample of some out-of-print song from the ‘50s, he is twisting old, obscure sounds into something all his own. Critics charge that sampling is too easy, but like anything, it’s easy to attempt, exceedingly difficult to master.

99.9% of live bands suck at hip-hop. Point blank. And it’s not that they are necessarily incompetent musicians (although many of them are), it’s just that most bands don’t understand that their job is to compliment the emcee. In band-based genres like jazz and rock ‘n roll, lyrics are often short, simple and repeated throughout the song while the band provides the dynamics, the experimentation. In hip-hop, the emcee is the virtuoso, the soloist. The beat remains static; solid, hypnotic, leaving the emcee enough room to exercise his range. Synthesizers, keyboards and live instruments are becoming more prominent in contemporary hip-hop, making for busier, more crowded beats where the emcee often plays second string to the track. Whether this is due to increasingly restrictive sampling laws or the declining lyrical quality of today’s emcees is a debate unto itself, but the fact remains that just about every classic hip-hop song rides a sample-based beat.

This is not to suggest that live instrumentation has no place in hip-hop music. Production units like Organized Noize and The Roots routinely use live instruments, and the resulting music is routinely incredible. At the same time, the mere fact that a beat has been played by a live band does not make it inherently superior to a sample-based track. The sampler is an integral part of hip-hop and should not be dismissed as a simple man’s tool when all music, live or otherwise, is borrowed to some degree. A live band may have provided the backing track to Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight”, but that track is an exact replay of Chic’s “Good Times”. So since we’re all in the business of borrowing, I think I’ll keep it hip-hop. Boom-bap to the beat y’all…