The importance of sampling as an instrument in hip-hop: a history
“Press rewind if I haven’t blown your mind”
-Redman, Blow your mind
In 1857, a Parisian printer named Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville received a French patent for the invention he called the “phonautograph”. The word can be translated to mean ‘the self-writing of sound’. The invention was a “hornlike apparatus that ended in a membrane of parchment” (Johnson p 92). Essentially the device would ‘hear’ sound waves and a stylus would decipher them as lines on the parchment, similar to the output of a polygraph. This patent was awarded two decades before Edison ‘invented’ the phonograph and was approximately a decade before the scientific world as a whole had begun investigating recorded sound in earnest. So why do we not know Scott as a true pioneer of sound recording? Well, he never investigated an essential part of what people want from a sound recording, the art of the playback.
“Dave cut the record down to the bone/ And now they got me rocking on the microphone”
-Run-DMC, Sucker MCs
Moe smacks and pounds a rhythmic pattern on the lunchroom table. Larry memorizes, annotates or records that rhythm. Curly can take Larry’s memory, notation, or today, recording and use it to create a whole new musical piece. Shemp can take Larry’s memory, notes or recording and create an entirely different piece. This is always how music how has been passed forth and learned. In the last quarter of the 20th century, the technology came about that we are able to take previously made recording of sounds and music and use them to build new music. This art of ‘sampling’ has become an important musical instrument in post-modern art, especially hip-hop, in a way that is a natural progression of culture, music and technology.
As more ambitious minds took hold of Scott’s scientific goal, throughout the 20th century the recording, purchase and playback of music became a formative cultural and financial staple of American society. A great example of this ubiquitousness is that by the 1950s young men in the United Kingdom were able to save up pocket change to purchase recordings of African-American blues and soul artists. Some of these scrappy rebels learned every guitar lick they could from the recordings and eventually amplified them and sold them back to America in the stolen art form of ‘Rock’n’Roll’ (Richards). Some of this was pure imitation and others were changes of context for the riffs invoked. While this ‘change of context’ was happening to thousands of minds within earshot of a phonograph player, a similar theory was occurring to the literary intelligentsia.
“Structures were to be undone, decomposed, desedimented”
-Jacques Derrida, Letter to a Japanese Friend
In the 1960s, the philosophical world was introduced to a new thought in literary criticism by Jacques Derrida called deconstructuralism. This paper is not the place to go into depth of what deconstructuralism is or is not, vast papers and books have been written about the subject by greater minds than this author. For our purposes we will use a simplistic explanation by Richard Rorty: “That is, words have meaning only because of contrast-effects with other words.” (Rorty). While Derrida decried that he in no way meant to represent a movement, deconstructionism was applied to many other arts besides literature. Most notably for us this idea that a segment of something, say a musical riff, only has meaning within contrast to other segments, ie. other musical riffs, becomes vitally important.
What had sprung forth from learned men in their ivory towers of academia, the pioneers of the musical art of jazz bebop had understood innately and incorporated into their improvisations decades before. Players like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker experimented with quoting melodies in their solos, sometimes slowing down or speeding up a melody to fit the different chord changes. In general bebop and the jazz forms that followed explored how to expand music while still quoting from musical history.
Now what had happened in jazz clubs among learned musicians and in the halls of Harvard is all fine and well. It makes lovely stuff to discuss at the club over cognac and a good cigar. Outside the club, however, there is a whole world that exists betwixt the rubble created by the advance of modern civilization. Forgotten by the oligarchs, people live here still and they are as vibrant and adaptive as humans can be. For our purposes we will focus on a small part of New York City called the Bronx in the early 1970s. We will see how a small segment of the population lived this deconstructionist theory as they fought to have good times in a concrete jungle.
“Broken glass everywhere/ People pissing on the stairs, you know they just don't care/ I can't take the smell, can't take the noise/ Got no money to move out, I guess I got no choice”
– Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s The Message
In any discussion of any aspect of the history of hip-hop, it is important that the reader understand the physical place where hip-hop was born.
Throughout the 1950s and 60s, many of the rearrangements of New York City were masterminded by a powerful city planner named Robert Moses. In 1959 the City began implementing Moses’ most momentousness municipal project yet, the Cross-Bronx Expressway. The aim of this Expressway was to facilitate suburban traffic from Long Island and New Jersey to ‘money-making’ Manhattan. As has been often pointed out before, during and after this construction, the route could have been adjusted so that tens of thousands homes and commercial buildings did not have to be destroyed. Yet the adjustment was never made. Some cynics have posited that the Expressway was aimed so that “black and Puerto Rican residents were disproportionately affected.” (Rose pp. 31) Under ‘urban renewal’ programs, there was “massive relocations of economically fragile people of color from different areas in New York City into parts of the South Bronx.” (Rose pp. 30) To put it simply, monied interests destroyed middle-class neighborhoods with a tax-payer subsidised construction and corralled poor non-whites into the destroyed area. Berman describes it:
“Miles of streets alongside the road were choked with dust and fumes and deafening noise….Apartment houses that had been settled and stable for over twenty years emptied out, often virtually overnight; large and impoverished black and Hispanic families….were moved wholesale….Thus depopulated, economically depleted, emotionally shattered, the Bronx was ripe for all the dreaded spirals of urban blight.” (Berman pp 290-92)
This was the environment that hip-hop was born into.
“A time of tension, racially fenced in/ One came off (and all the brothers blessed him)”
-3rd Bass Product of the Environment
The accepted date of the birth of hip-hop is August 11th, 1973. Jamaican born DJ Clive Campbell, known by his stage name Kool Herc, was deejaying his sister’s birthday party at the local rec center. Like your average party DJ, Herc worked off of two turntables so that when one song ended he could easily start the next without letting there be a lapse in the music. Kool Herc took it one step further. He had noticed that people danced more enthusiastically during their favorite parts of songs. So why not give the people more of what they loved? According to Professor Rhodes:
“Kool Herc seldom played an entire song. He knew which part of the record sent his audience into a frenzy. It was usually a 30 second “break” section in which the drums, bass, and rhythm guitar stripped the beat to its barest essence. Herc used two turntables to accomplish this feat. This technique became known as “beats” or “break-beats.”
His sets became long collections of breaks to spur dancers on. To hype the crowd up even more, Kool, or more often a friend, would offer up quick rhymes and interjections, eg. “Yes yes y’all” or “Thrown your hands in the air/wave ‘em like you just don’t care”. As the sets become longer and more beat-centric, the vocalists would spit longer rhymes.
Other DJs like DJ Red Alert, Grandmaster Flash and Grand Wizard Theodore took up the mantle of hip-hop and soon a party in the Bronx was nothing without a breakbeat DJ and his crew. This trinity of vamped instrumentals, dance battles and party rhymes were the musical instruments of a generation in the Bronx from 1973 to 1979. Then hip-hop hit wax and the rest of the world started to take notice.
“What you hear is not a test/ I’m rapping to the beat”
– Sugarhill Gang Rapper’s Delight
The first commercially released rap single was “King Tim III (Personality Jock)” by the disco group The Fatback Band. Interestingly enough, this was all original music by the band with an original rap by their vocalist the eponymous Tim. Of course, for these reasons, the song has nothing to do with this paper but it is nice to give credit where credit is due. Within months of “King Tim III”, the song “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang dropped. With regards to originality, this piece was a different case.
The Sugarhill Gang was created by record label owner Sylvia Robinson in order to cash in on this ‘new street sound’. Sampling technology had not yet advanced enough to mimic breakbeat DJs and recording technology not yet enough to record a breakbeat DJ. So Ms. Robinson brought in a studio band to vamp on the main break from the disco band Chic’s song “Good Times”. Add three young men who were hip enough to steal good rhymes and talented enough to rap them, and you have an iconic record that launched what was to become an international billion-dollar industry.
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Johnson, S. (2014). How we got to now: six innovations that made the modern world. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.
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