It’s been about six months since I felt the mood to write something here. I think that dry-spell ended with a brief e-mail exchange from last week with an old acquaintance named Terrell. Terrell has long upheld the belief that sampling in hip-hop does NOT require skill.
To give a little background, I first met Terrell a decade ago in college after we both enrolled in a Latin ethnomusicology course offered by the legendary Herb Alpert’s School of Music. On the first day of class in an auditorium packed with nearly 300 students, Terrell decided to sit directly in front of me with and block my view of the professor on stage. I was annoyed at first, but then he won points by turning around and complimenting my Thelonious shirt. We struck up a conversation, and I learned that Terrell played saxophone in a jazz band. Although Terrell nodded in approval after learning that I played the piano, he quickly rolled his eyes once I mentioned my involvement in hip-hop.
During that fifteen minute break, Terrell proceeded to tell me that hip-hop does not require much skill since the beats often use samples from already existing works, and that I should understand this since I was a “musician” who actually played an instrument. I wasn’t offended, but rather amused by his unfiltered honesty, maybe because his words came off in a lighthearted manner. Yet I made it clear to Terrell that I disagreed with his statement that sampling takes no skill. At the same time, I had already exhausted the debate of sampling with a few music elitists during the first half of freshman year. In most cases, I was able to bring such folks to a level of understanding. However, by the time I encountered Terrell, I had stopped caring enough to defend my position to those who were simply irrelevant and ignorant to the culture.
Ten years later, Terrell still has my e-mail address, and we rarely e-mail each other about random music stuff. I actually hadn’t heard from him in almost two years until I received his e-mail last week. With his latest e-mail, Terrell unknowingly set himself up to hear an appropriate example that showcased the creative process of sampling which he had previously dismissed. Below is our e-mail conversation verbatim (against Terrell’s wishes, but sometimes you just gotta call people out haha):
Terrell: Whats up man. I was watching Cartoon Network and they played this interesting beat during a commercial interlude for Adult Swim. Any idea what this is? It doesn’t show up on Shazam. I recorded it to mp3, here is the file.
[File attachment] adult_swim_commercial.mp3
Markis: yes, here is the full mp3 that contains your beat
[File attachment] 10cc_-_Johnny_Don’t_Do_It.mp3
Terrell: Haha, very funny. Seriously, do you know the beat?
Markis: haha it’s the right song, check out the whole thing
Terrell: I did, I think you sent me the wrong mp3. I skimmed through it and it’s a rock song
Markis: listen closely at 1:50 to 2:00. that part was chopped up to make the beat you heard on Adult Swim
Terrell: Wow that’s pretty nuts. Who did this?
Markis: J. Dilla, the beat is called “Waves”. he was a master at chopping obscure sounds, one of many skills involved in sampling. there are a million other crazy examples by him and others. you just got owned
Terrell: Haha ok, i’ll give it to you this time
No, this post was not intended to transition into another lengthy praise of the late great J. Dilla; it’s just a coincidence that a Dilla beat was involved in this specific case. Rather, my main point here is to show that utilizing samples as a way to create something new and refreshing has always required skill and a unique ear.
Ironically, I’ve also received several e-mails from listeners giving positive feedback on how I produced last year’s Impressions album mostly from scratch on my keyboard. Some of these e-mails specifically commend me for “not using samples”. While I certainly appreciate any compliments, there is no question that sampling is the most crucial element that gives hip-hop its classic aesthetic. For this reason (along with many others), I still made the effort to combine a few samples into my live instrumentation off the Impressions album, even if they were subtle.
If anything, I find it more challenging (in a good way) to work only with samples. There is a feeling of gratification and accomplishment that comes after chopping up a sample and producing a beat that sounds different from the original source. Similar to most producers that were homegrown in the culture, I started out utilizing samples and I still use them to this day (sometimes a lot, sometimes a little, sometimes not at all). Despite my recent focus on live instrumentation, there will never be a time when I decide to eliminate sampling from my repertoire. It just wouldn’t feel right.
P.S. Even though I haven’t written much lately, I’m always working on music. Planning to have another project out later this year or next. Thanks for the e-mails, comments, and continued support.