Eric B and Rakim

In 1987 I remember having my ears grabbed by this track on the radio called “Pump Up The Volume” by MARRS.

Now that mashups are so common, this track doesn’t sound particularly remarkable. But in seventh grade it was startling to hear a house music track full of random samples. “Pump Up The Volume” was part of the same UK dance music movement that spawned the KLF’s “Doctorin’ The Tardis” and “Rush” by Big Audio Dynamite. I wasn’t enough of a hip-hop head in 1987 to recognize where the phrase in the title comes from, but now I do, it’s from “I Know You Got Soul” by Eric B and Rakim. Listen at 0:43:

It makes sense that I first encountered Rakim Allah in the context of a sample, because he and Eric B pretty much wrote the book on sample-based music. “I Know You Got Soul” is named for the Bobby Byrd song, written and produced by James Brown, that you hear looped throughout the track. Sampling James Brown has become a basic part of the musical toolkit, but it wasn’t such an obvious choice back in 1987. Stetsasonic said it best in their song “Talkin’ All That Jazz:”

Tell the truth, James Brown was old
’til Eric and Ra came out with “I Got Soul.”

Now, thanks to eighties hip-hop, James Brown will be cool forever. Sample-based music is supposed to be “fake,” but paradoxically, sampling made funk authentic again after disco had turned it corny. Michael Krimper observes in his blog post Future Funk: Searching For The Lost Groove that by removing music from its original social context, sampling frees it to be heard and experienced in new and unexpected ways.

The aesthetics of the hip-hop beat — one of recycled recorded sounds and reinvented roles for samples clips repeated on loop — spawned a whole new social practice of archiving. A new culture of crate diggers, both collectors and enthusiasts, grew obsessed with finding and archiving dusty, lost vinyl from a previous generation… It’s almost as if these producers began, nearly 20 years later, where the previous musicians had left off. Those funk sounds, once dulled down by over-saturated commercial mediation, became fresh again and pregnant with a wave of creative potential. The early hip-hop generation didn’t grow up during the golden age of the funk era, but they listened and absorbed at home as children. They grew familiar with the sounds without enduring the same forces of marketing as their parents. Maybe that opened up enough free space for them to imagine the music differently.

Eric and Ra have a futuristic electronic sound based almost entirely on samples and turntable scratching, but its futurism is balanced by the rich network of associations they build in with their choice of sampled records. Here’s a map of all the samples on the album Paid In Full – click to see it bigger:

Eric B and Rakim - Paid In Full sample map

Fittingly, Eric B and Rakim have themselves been a rich source of samples for other artists, starting with Coldcut’s epic remix of “Paid In Full.” Eric and Ra themselves have sampled the songs on Paid In Full many times as well. The phrase “follow the leader” at 1:03 in “I Know You Got Soul” is the basis for, no surprise, “Follow The Leader.”

Eric and Ra sample “Eric B Is President” in both “Eric B Never Scared” and “Move The Crowd.” This kind of extreme self-reference has been an inspiration for subsequent self-samplers, like Nas on “Nas Is Like” and Fugees on “The Score.” And by the way, “The Score” includes a sample of Eric and Ra’s “My Melody,” which heavily features a sample of itself. How’s that for recursion?

I had a teenage guitar student who loves hip-hop, and he asked me for some recommendations. He was underwhelmed when I played him “Follow The Leader” — he thought it sounded old-fashioned and unsophisticated. I was shocked; what could be fresher than Eric B and Rakim? But I’m from a different generation. High school kids now were born into a world where hip-hop is a given. They take it for granted that artists like OutKast and Common and Lauryn Hill will pack their flows with dense internal rhymes and tumbling streams of imagery. Rakim doesn’t sound so groundbreaking now that every halfway decent emcee has absorbed his techniques. It’s like the way the radical innovations of Jimi Hendrix have been turned into standard rock cliches. It takes some historical context to imagine how stunning he must have been back in the sixties.

Rakim came by his connection to the musical past more personally than most, since he’s the nephew of the great R&B singer Ruth Brown. In an interview with Planet Ill, he talks about how his musical upbringing impacted his flow:

I think playing in the bands and learning how to read music; learning the theory of music breaks it down a little more and you get to understand it better. It helped me a lot with my rhythms and my syncopations… I played the sax in school. I play alto all the way up to baritone sax. Coming up in the house my older brother played piano, my middle brother older than me played saxophone, the drums.  I tried to get my hands on whatever I could.

You can clearly hear the bebop in Rakim’s deadpan delivery and his long chains of eighth notes, starting and ending on unexpected beats. His flat affect holds a lot more swagger than if he was yelling and screaming. It lets you focus on the complex musicality of the words. For the first couple of albums, he uses every single song to rap about how awesome he is at rapping, which he proves by being awesome at rapping, even when he’s just rapping about how awesome he is at rapping.

I’m a member of the first hip-hop-listening generation and I still hear Eric and Ra as hot. All that minimalism and repetition and empty space — I know plenty of musicians who are still catching up with it. The eighties hip-hop sound feels urgent to me, it’s so confident in itself. It becomes timeless by being so unapologetically of its time.

Some of the musicians I work with are very anxious about not being too fresh. There’s this need to imitate the masters of the past, to not stray too far from the territory marked out by the Beatles or Led Zeppelin or John Coltrane or whoever their idols may be. This results in weak music. How can you tell the truth about yourself when you’re too timid to belong to your own time and place? I want to grab any musician now who’s obsessed with sounding like Zeppelin, and ask: would you care about them if they were anxiously imitating the music of thirty or forty years before them? There were plenty of bands in 1975 who only played big band jazz, does anyone care about them now? Led Zeppelin took big risks in 1975. Now that their sound has become acceptable, there’s no risk in sounding like them, and no reward either. It’s 2010, better to play and write and produce like it’s 2010.

That doesn’t mean you have to forget or ignore the past. Far from it. Best to follow Eric and Ra’s example and study the past, incorporate it and transform it. The Biz Markie sampling lawsuit may have thrown a wet blanket onto sample-dense music as a commercial enterprise, but the artistic genie is out of the bottle. I, for one, plan to keep doing as much sampling as I can get away with.

Meanwhile, Eric and Ra continue to make their presence felt. The list of hip-hop and techno artists who sample or quote them is too long to go into, and it runs right up to the present. They’ve even crossed over into video game territory — DJ Hero lets you mash them up with MIA, Tears For Fears and David Axelrod.

Hear my mashup of “I Know You Got Soul” with “Pump Up The Volume” and “Follow The Leader.”