Samples and community

The defining musical experience of my lifetime is hearing familiar samples in unfamiliar contexts. For me, the experience is usually a thrill. For a lot of people, the experience makes them angry. Using recognizable samples necessarily means having an emotional conversation with everyone who already has an attachment to the original recording. Music is about connecting with other people. Sampling, like its predecessors quoting and referencing, is a powerful connection method.

Run-DMC sample map

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Eric B and Rakim

In 1987 I remember having my ears grabbed by this thing 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:

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Nas Is Like

If I had to pick a single track to explain to an alien or time traveler what hip-hop is and why it’s so awesome, I think I’d pick “Nas Is Like.”

Nas has a great flow full of powerful imagery, but what truly sets this track apart for me is DJ Premier’s production. It’s a complex web of samples and scratches that tie together so seamlessly as to be much greater than the sum of their parts. A lot of the samples are from other songs by Nas himself. Here’s a diagram of all the samples, click to see it bigger:

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Songwriting and genealogy

The best tool for understanding where music comes from is evolutionary biology. Songs don’t spontaneously spring into being any more than animals or plants do. They evolve, descending from reshuffled pieces of existing songs, the way our genes are shuffled together from our parents’ genes. The same way that all life has a single common ancestor, all human music has a shared origin in the calls of our primate forebears.

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Mashups as micro-mixtapes

Back in 1966, Glenn Gould predicted that recorded music would become an interactive conversation between musician and listener. He described dial twiddling as “an interpretive act.” He was wrong about the dials, but right about the main point, that technology would make listening to music more like making music. Anybody with iTunes instantly becomes a DJ. It doesn’t take much more software than that to produce your own electronica. Some copyright holders and their lawyers are feeling a lot of anguish about this development. For the rest of us, I think it’s an exciting new opportunity, a chance to restore music to its rightful and natural state as shared property, a dynamic conversation anyone can be part of. Continue reading

The Michael Jackson sample map goes viral

I’ve been making sample maps, diagrams showing what songs include samples of what other songs. I’m a big sample geek. I like knowing where my music comes from the same way I like knowing where my food comes from. This map shows many, probably not nearly all, of the songs that sample Michael Jackson’s solo work. Click to see it bigger.

MJ is in the middle, with his songs in the first ring out. The next ring shows songs that sampled MJ. The outer ring shows the artist who did the sampling. Most of the information comes from the Rap Sample FAQ and wikipedia. I included MJ quoting “Soul Makossa” and Björk quoting “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” even they aren’t technically samples, but I figured, musically and legally it’s the same thing. Continue reading