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“Sampling: The Redheaded Stepchild of Hip-Hop”

*”I’m mad vexed it’s what the projects made me / Rebel to the grave there’s no way to barricade me.” – Inspectah Deck, Wu-Tang Clan
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Yesterday I got through the better part of Beats, Rhymes & Life: What We Love and Hate About Hip-Hop, and found discussion of sampling glaringly missing from the text. Initial inclination would dictate to see me as a phony or a trespasser reading this book, since I’m white, but the truth is that the book, which, albeit, in its moderate to substantial enjoyability, is basically a scrapbook of editorial oratories about youths peppered with hip-hop lore, takes on a very academic, post-modern, theoretical voice in its diatribes. Another thing that irked me was that at least one of the writers alleged irresponsibility on the part of the hip-hop artist who chooses slinging rock as a lifestyle, over going to college. Though it’s true that crack is harmful to the user, and that, possibly, paths of life could be chosen by these young men which would be more innocuous, I think it’s unfair to judge the dealer to be criminally minded, especially since college, and most of the other “responsible paths” hawked to them by catty outsiders, are distinctly white creations, and are beacons very much of white society and culture. If a young Negro chooses to deal rock, it’s his decision. Not all of them succeed in this, obviously, but if he does, we should not judge him harshly for his choice, because, as should be apparent to any fan of Clipse’s Hell Hath No Fury, slanging is pretty much the single proud, profitable and purely African-American way to remain on the block where you grew up, the way, I understand, Africans would, and still make a lot of money. A yin and yang of crack dealing emerged in popular rap music in the mid ’00’s: Hell Hath No Fury and Kanye’s “Crack Music.” The first, more so than glamorizing the crack game, tames it, with beats and flowing that are dark, haunting and gruesome, but breezy and embraceable. The second, even if it hints at some destruction done by the dealing, also totes with it images of what came before, for black people in this country, which was often even worse.
To shift things to myself, for a moment, even though I’m white, it’s rare that I feel comparatively white next to other people. I listen to a lot of hip-hop music and I’m a huge basketball junkie. Also, I love witnessing people dance, and I’m a big fan of when little black girls tap dance in front of me in the bank.
So I’m glad to behold the whole Black Milk/Kanye rivalry, the reason being that, next to them, I do feel comparatively white. That is, it’s wild. Trust me, you don’t want to be, or feel, black.
Just to brief you real quick on this rivalry, one of Black Milk’s songs goes “I’m accustomed to walkin’ through customs with a lump sum in pocket,” and then Kanye, on his Watch the Throne album with Jay-Z, mocks it. Then obviously, Kanye’s built up an impressive catalogue since this with the addition of Yeezus, and we’ve yet to get a new Black Milk album since 2010, so here we are. Both make superlatively tremendous beats. Both take heat for being mediocre rappers, but could rap you under the table. The thing Kanye beats Black Milk at is smapling. “Bound 2” is sublime, whereas Black Milk’s “Try,” in the transition into the chorus, comes off clumsy and prideful. And I’m not sure why, but there’s something just generally endearing about sampling. It’s like the quintessentially ghetto way to make music, in places where the musicians can’t afford, or don’t have access to instruments. Check Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth’s “Straighten it Out” for a great lecture on this.
I don’t think it’s harder, necessarily, to sample from a song of the new, post-1995 or so digital era, but, in a way, it’s pointless to do so. The reason is artistic. For practical purposes, let’s call “soul and R&B” the most fruitful pool of material worthy of sampling for songs that will become popular. Now there are contemporary bands that have generated great individual sounds within their songs — Wolf Parade with their drums, the Fleet Foxes with their guitar [1], but these are rare, special exceptions. For every one of these, there are five exmaples like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Beach House wherein the production achievement walks with the emblem of blending, rather than striking. Anyway, the poster boys of this expression-by-blending technique are Washed Out, whose individual sounds are underwhelming, but whose product congeals into such a homogeneous mass as to assuage even the deepest stoned/paranoid eye-bouncing fits. The other possibility for true, benchmark originality in our day and age is the way of The New Pornographers — boosting variety of instrumentation. Each unit’s weight, hereby, is minimized by the numerical breadth of its consummate brethren, among them Moog, oboe and trumpet, all on the masterpiece album Twin Cinema, with “Stacked Crooked,” et. al.
Of course, access to all these instruments is another thing that’s characteristically white. And sure, it’s great, the Pornos are a moving outfit with originality pouring out of their fingernails, but just as a musically uneducated black kid would be lost in a band room, the Canadian supergroup would be lost in a ghetto.
In Something for Nothing: The Art of Rap, you have Grandmaster Caz beaming proudly about rapping over old albums. An upwardly mobile African American of academia may look at this and feel shame, since, musically, this practice lacks a certain holistic originality, but maybe this particular black person takes too much ownership in hip-hop.
A couple key things are proffered by Ice-T’s documentary, among many others: one, hip-hop and DJ scratching, rather than initially being a competition of masculinity or conquest, much less of academic or critical acclaim, were conceived as, simply, ways of surviving the sweltering, vacant nights in the city — a unifying experience that, if not judged as artistic by outsiders, was made as such with the enthusiasm and zeal of its participants. The second of these key points is that hip-hop was birthed as folk art, as such being the farthest thing from “pop” possible. This segment is offered by Mos Def, and he seems to be combating, in particular, any analytic critique of hip-hop’s founding rudiments as stacked up against other genres. I don’t think it’s that he has a problem with people outside of ghettos enjoying the music, it’s just that he’s appalled by the tendency to remove hip-hop from the ghetto and examine it under lenses of academia or ubiquitous politics, which is what some of the writers in Beats, Rhymes and Life tend toward.
They tried to make sampling illegal in the late ’80’s, and I think, in large part, they succeeded, but before this, as is illustrated by Grandmaster Caz in The Art of Rap, the most enjoyable early hip-hop moments came from rhyming over old records. And for sure, everyone likes Paul’s Boutique, which uses Abbey Road, Superfly, and something else as well, in the rip-roaring “Johnny Ryall,” and no one likes that a capella crap Run-DMC did anymore. It’s primitive.
Sampling entails ripping off, sure, but here are two more things to consider, regarding this. One, the ’60’s and ’70’s were overwhelming times of change and cultural metamorphosis, during which it would have been next to impossible to even notice all of the great new, seminal music coming out, let alone pay it its full respects. Many facets of the early ’60’s gave birth to this movement — the economic peak and downturn of American industry, and the drug LSD are of anything but miniscule importance. The second is that, more than likely, a lot of the old records that were being rapped over at the Saturday night street parties of the early ’80’s were probably furnishing particular songs that were underexposed within the record, and which didn’t make it onto radio. I’m not white, but pride is still contagious, and, sadly, all too rare, in historical literature of minorities that reaches the mainstream.
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[1]: The experience of googling “fleet foxes guitar” represents another reason altogether for which I supremely appreciate sampling: it prizes sound and sonic experience over mathematics. Any scientific strategem toward scrutinizing music may dissolve under the beauty of the truly original waves of the likes of Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel” or a John Talabot track. Two things were painfully clear from my google search: a lot of people like getting guitar tabs, and the Fleet Foxes are from Seattle. But if there’s anything still top secret, it’s the exact methods, down to contributing companies, pedals and other elements, by which prominent musical artists achieve their final audible product. Is it a deliberate concealment, or simple lack of appreciation?

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