Sampling in hip-hop is important because it can send you backward in time, when it’s done well. It’s crate-digging shared on wax. The best samples offer a window into the mind of the producer, and a peek at the most obscure records in their vault. Since legally all sources must be credited, you can check the liners and draw up a shopping list. The torch of the turntable is carried on.
And oftentimes, forgotten geniuses of the past get their due.
There’s an unspoken rule in hip-hop culture; it’s based in appropriation, so it’s all about forging something fresh out of a juxtaposition of elements. A sample is looped over a beat by a DJ, before the MC begins to rap. The right samples are crucial; they provide the hook of tonal immortality.
The handsome gent in the photo above is David McCallum. He is the most widely-heard yet unknown dude in rap music.
McCallum is a Scottish actor and musician, who played Russian spy Illya Kurlyakin on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. in the 1960s. Over that decade, McCallum cut four albums for Capitol Records with a producer named David Axelrod. These discs were instrumental interpretations of contemporary hits, with strings, horns, and guitar.
One of McCallum’s songs, “The Edge”, was heard by a megastar rapper known as Dr. Dre (not the Yo! MTV Raps host), who sampled part of it to create one of the greatest rap songs of all time. (With Snoop Doggy Dogg and Nate, of course.)
David Axelrod is the other pillar of sampling. A former boxer, Axelrod is a “cool jazz” producer and multi-instrumentalist who helmed albums for Lou Rawls and Cannonball Adderley in the 1960s. Capitol Records allowed Axelrod to make solo albums, based on his success behind the mixing board, and he based the first two on the poetry of William Blake. Song of Innocence(1968) contains “The Smile” and “Holy Thursday”, which I have had stuck in my head for four years. “Holy Thursday” has been lauded as “the greatest hip hop sample of all time”. It is.
Axelrod followed this album up with Songs of Experience in 1969, which includes “The Human Abstract”, a slow piano piece sampled by DJ Shadow on “Midnight in a Perfect World”. Shadow also samples Meredith Monk on that track, adds some warm bass guitar, and the results gleam and thrive. There’s a woman’s vocal that’s off-key, but somehow it fits. Technically, we’re in xenochrony territory here. I think it’s the best track off Endtroducing.
Here’s my thing about DJ Shadow. He’s cut a couple of albums that I’ve played a thousand times. But I had to trim them down before I went totally insane. You know that thing rappers do, where they load down their album with “skits”? Shadow doesn’t do that. He adds studio patter.
At numerous intervals over the course of Endtroducing, somebody attempts to play an ostinato on an organ. It gets to be the most aggravating thing ever on repeated listens. I don’t care what the circumstances are behind it, if it’s a Make-A-Wish kid, or what. I just don’t want to have to skip it.
The other log in the road is on Preemptive Strike. Some dude that sounds like a cartoon gold prospector says “I’m gonna try and make ya comfortable… BUT YEW AIN’T GONNA BE ENTAHRLEY CUMFTERBUL.” Again- I don’t care if it’s the greatest producer in the world, or a terminal cancer patient. I hate having to skip it to get to the good stuff.
Prefuse 73 is one of the most brilliant hip hop artists I’ve ever heard, and he drives me nuts with filler. I could have done without the warbling hippie chant on Surrounded By Silence, but I enjoyed his takedown of an idiot college journalist on mescaline from Security Screenings. He’s a glitch master and a sampler bar none, in that his samples are typically altered beyond recognition. Well, except for the old radio program bits that he hammers into magma once or twice*. This is all part of being a recording genius that I have a love/hate relationship with. It’s the thinnest of lines.
*In my rancor, I confused Prefuse with RjD2.
One of the things that sustained me in those 48 days I was incarcerated was 3 6 Mafia’s “Poppin’ My Collar”, which I cycled through my head whenever possible. I often use the song to build myself up for whatever purpose. The rapping is nonpareil, and the sampling sounds like the Pimp God descending the Heavenly Stair.
The bulk of the anchor is from Willie Hutch’s “Theme From The Mack” (1973). I’m convinced that it’s sweetened by David Axelrod’s “The Smile”, but I can’t confirm. Hutch was a legendary Motown artist, and the uncle of rapper Cold 187um from Above The Law.
See, critics of rap and hip hop take them at face value, and don’t acknowledge the forces and struggles that shaped them. Recording requires expensive equipment that has to be safely transported and stored. Meaning, desperate persons will steal it from you at gunpoint. So either a rapper has to be tough, or surrounded by dudes who are. Think of the type of scumbag that steals for shoes; the guys that come for your gear are a hundred times worse. They’ll kill you. It doesn’t matter why. You’re dead.
Good rap maintains its integrity because it was produced in an uphill battle. Bad rappers are the ones who merely follow the formula the superstars created, in comfort, and expect adulation and riches in return. Kanye West can bark about what a genius he is all day; he isn’t. Geniuses don’t boast, they just do. Other people boast about them.
If you’re gonna boast, you have to compete with the Greatest Of All Time, rapper Rakim Allah of Eric B. & Rakim. Eric B. is to turntables what Leonardo Da Vinci is to helicopters. He flawlessly crafts a loop of James Brown brass, and Rakim delivers hip hop’s version of “I Have A Dream”.
If you’re looking for the best defense of rap, hip hop, and sampling, start with that.