Bad meaning good

“Peter Piper” is the leadoff track on Raising Hell, the third album by Run-DMC. It was their big commercial and critical breakthrough. My stepbrother Dan had it on cassette and it pretty much defined the sound of my sixth and seventh grade experience.

“Peter Piper” is like a patchwork quilt, both in its music and lyrics. The track is based on samples of Bob James‘ instrumental version of Paul Simon’s song “Take Me to Mardi Gras.” Here’s an excerpt of the Paul Simon original:

Bob James’ version opens with a much groovier beat, along with some random radio chatter:

The bell pattern is an example of Agogô, from a Yoruba word meaning gong or bell. The bells had a religious, ceremonial function in Yoruba society. Agogô spread from West Africa to America via the Caribbean, where it also became one of the foundational sounds of samba. For all I know, people have been drumming variations on that high-low pattern for hundreds of thousands of years, if not millions. Bob James’ Agogô groove intro is the most exciting part of his recording. Once the actual melody starts the energy level falls off dramatically.

Jam Master Jay follows the time-honored hip-hop tradition of taking the coolest part of a recording and looping it to full song length:

Jay is spinning two copies of the Bob James vinyl, and about thirty-five seconds into the track, the two copies play simultanously at slightly different speeds, phasing against each other hypnotically. Vinyl is a lot harder to use than digital sampling, but its adherents are right to stick up for it. Much as I love electronic production techniques, the result can be a little clinical, since it’s so easy to edit out your mistakes. Vinyl can be more conducive to happy accidents.

Hip-hop lyrics are usually full of pop-cultural and folk references, and “Peter Piper” carries the trend as far as it can go. In addition to the tongue twister of the title, the lyrics also reference Humpty Dumpty, Jack B Nimble, Little Bo Peep, Rip van Winkle, Alice in Wonderland, Jack and Jill, Dr Seuss, Mother Goose, Weebles (they might wobble but like Jam Master Jay’s turntables, they don’t fall down), The Flash, King Midas, Rub-a-dub-dub, the little old lady who lived in the shoe, Pinocchio, Trix (they’re for kids), the three little pigs, Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, and Hey Diddle Diddle. My favorite lyric in the song is this, talking about Jam Master Jay:

He’s a big bad wolf in your neighborhood
Not bad meaning bad but bad meaning good

You might make the case that Run-DMC stole from Bob James. I don’t know if they paid for the “Mardi Gras” sample, but even if they did, you might say there’s still an intellectual theft. But did they harm him? I would argue that they helped him. There’s no way I’d even know who Bob James was if Run-DMC (and a lot of other hip-hop groups) hadn’t sampled him. Chances are, you wouldn’t know or care either. If you had played me some Bob James, I wouldn’t have been interested at all, since his style of slick lounge jazz holds zero attraction for me. My ears would have pricked up at the opening few seconds of “Take Me To The Mardi Gras”, but I wouldn’t have paid it any further mind once the main song started in. And much as I love Paul Simon, “Take Me To The Mardi Gras” isn’t one of his stronger tunes. Without the Run-DMC connection there’s no way I would have sprung for a ninety-nine cent download. We usually think of stealing as bad. But in this case, it’s bad meaning good.

Originality is a seriously overrated virtue, and not really possible anyway. Raising Hell is as powerful as it is because of its many cultural appropriations, not in spite of them. Along with “Peter Piper”, the other standout tracks on the album are also derived from other songs. Most famous is the radical reworking of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way,” in my opinion a huge improvement over the original. Then there’s “It’s Tricky”, which combines a guitar sample from “My Sharona” by The Knack with the metrical scheme from the chorus of “Mickey” by Toni Basil. Copyright law as it presently stands is a major impediment to this kind of collage-based music, a source of much sadness for me and other hip-hop fans.

If you’d like to hear my mashup of both versions of “Take Me To The Mardi Gras,” “Peter Piper” and “Work It” by Missy Elliot, get in touch.

Happy sampling!