Musicians behind the resurgence of "modern breaks" powering hits by Jay Z and other popular emcees weigh in on infiltrating mainstream music's scene.
Earlier this year, Adrian Younge produced and orchestrated a full-length concept album for Ghostface Killah. It was yet another come-up for the LA-based musician; he’d already established a steady career as a throwback soul artist releasing music on the Wax Poetics label as well as scoring the nostalgic blaxpoitation flick Black Dynamite in 2009. Still, linking up with Ghostface put Younge and his music directly under the noses of Hip Hop fans that might not have been familiar, and, on the strength of that release, he’s already announced another concept album with the Oakland-based Souls Of Mischief crew. A few months after the release of Twelve Reasons To Die, Younge’s earlier work was sampled by Timbaland on Jay Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail. The track “Sirens” was pulled from his 2011 record Something About April, and, in a sense, the “Picasso” sample brings Younge’s relationship with Hip Hop full-circle.
It might be a mostly quiet movement within the Hip Hop community, but producers have come to count on a growing set of contemporary soul and funk music as sample fodder in recent years. Of course, sampling itself has long been a staple of Hip Hop production, but since Marley Marl centralized an updated technique in the 1980s, a tradition of mining largely ‘60s and ‘70s records has been a hallmark of a certain sound. Flips and remakes of contemporary, popular music have played their part (Sean Combs launched a fortune with hits in this vein), but the overall impact of break-driven production never faltered. Kanye West spawned a hit with his flip of Lady Gaga’s “Pokerface” on Kid Cudi’s debut in 2009, but his legacy and early music was launched on decades old and pitched up soul samples. Other examples are easy to spot—L.E.S. and Large Professor both churned hits from the early ‘80s into Hip Hop classics on Nas’ Illmatic—but the approach to recycling was similar. Beyond the aesthetic, obscure samples from a generation past were economical; with the original artist and label unaware, producers built new sounds and profits by guarding their secrets in hopes of avoiding public clearances.
Before his own debut and later largely leaving his sampled-based approach behind, West produced a cut for Rhymefest sampling Sharon Jones and The Dap-King’s 2002 track “Pick It Up, Lay It In The Cut.” With the record flying under the radar and selling poorly, the sample used on Rhymefest’s “Brand New” was never properly cleared. Neal Sugarman, the co-founder and owner of Sharon Jones’ home label, Daptone Records, couldn’t remember Rhymefest’s name when we spoke, and he had clearly chalked the clearance issue up to a mostly meaningless loss. (“What was that dude from Chicago, kind of early 2000s?” he asked. “What was his name? He never really took off, it was on J Records. I think Kanye West was producing him, what the hell was his name?”) But, and even with West’s pre-fame signature attached, that Dap-King’s sample is the tip of the iceberg for Sugarman and record labels like his.
A couple years later, Daptone outfit The Menahan Street Band landed a credit on Jay Z’s American Gangster. Menahan’s “Make The Road By Walking”—the first record they ever released in 2006—became the theme to “Roc Boys,” Rolling Stone magazine’s Best Song of 2007 the next year. That one, Sugarman assured, was properly cleared.
Raised On Breaks: The Rise Of Post Hip Hop Soul & Funk
Hip Hop fans and producers often arrive at a fascination with original soul, funk, and jazz recordings through samples. Whether it’s The Honey Drippers’ “Impeach The President” or Bob James’ “Nautilus,” a generation after-the-fact was continually hipped indirectly to the music of their parent’s generation through the lens of producers like Marley Marl and RZA. Many of today’s soul and funk bands arrived at the music they currently make as young Hip Hop fans in the same way. And with songs like “Eric B For President” and Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story” as an entry point, it’s no wonder that even as they make revisionist soul and funk, they’ve emphasized drum-breaks from a Hip Hop perspective.
Particularly with the recent release of a career-spanning anthology, German band The Poets Of Rhythm are often considered a catalyst for the recent influx of “retro-soul.” Of all places to have rekindled the American sounds of James Brown or The Meters, The Poets came out of Munich in the early ‘90s. “Actually it kind of started all out with Hip Hop, because when I was in sixth or seventh grade someone gave me a Grandmaster Flash tape,” JJ Whitefield, the band’s lead guitarist and frontman said. “Hip Hop was the first thing—but that was ‘80s Hip Hop. It was no samples, [and] it was mostly live played and drum machine. It was far away from what I later did actually.”
Whitefield, speaking on the telephone from Germany and apologizing more than once for his accent, went on to explain that the way he later approached and mixed his funk records was indebted to the early years of Hip Hop samples. “It kind of went hand in hand, because when we started making the old school funk stuff in the really late ‘80s and early ‘90s. The Hip Hop from that era was stuff like Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul—the obscure stuff we didn’t get here anyway, so I mostly listened to the bigger acts—it totally influenced my way of mixing records and even constructing songs,” he said. “Through Hip Hop, there’s more drum breaks in modern funk than there used to be. The drums, as they are in Hip Hop, is the way I use drums in my funk songs as well. [That] feel is a part of what I grew up on. They didn’t have this in the ‘60s and ‘70s, so it naturally influenced my way of thinking of the groove.”
Later, releasing music under the moniker of The Whitefield Brothers, JJ and brother Max featured rappers MED, Percee P, Edan, and Mr. Lif on their 2009 album Earthology. “I always see myself as a contemporary musician even if it’s called ‘retro,’” he said. “It’s just influenced from the old sound. But musically I’m trying to step forward, not just capture the past. The rap is a natural completion of the music; that was the main reason to work with rappers.”
Ripe For Picking: Daptone’s Neal Sugarman On Clearing Samples
Neal Sugarman, owner of the Brooklyn-based Daptone Records and saxophonist for The Dap-Kings among other ensembles, admits he didn’t arrive at an obsession with soul and blues through Hip Hop. “Even to this day,” he said, “I’m constantly hearing samples [from] records that I either own or know. And it’s cool, but it never sounds as cool as the original record to my ear.” Sugarman though, is a not-so-reluctant participant in today’s niche sampling market. He also lent his horn ensemble and band to Amy Winehouse’s flagship album Back To Black and later Nas’ Untitled record from 2008, both a product of a connection with British producer Mark Ronson. As a session player, Sugarman channels gritty soul and blues with his horn. “It’s just coming out of... listening to a lot of the same records that those guys are referencing but not necessarily from the Hip Hop side, more from the original recordings.”
Nonetheless, Sugarman’s legacy in Hip Hop is probably more indebted to his navigating the waters of producers sampling his label’s music than his time as a session player. When an artist wants to sample a Daptone record, it’s Sugarman that fields and makes the final call. “It happens a lot on different levels,” he said. “From a business point, when you’re getting those calls from the Black Eyed Peas or an Eminem or Jay Z, those are cool calls to get.” When we spoke, Sugarman broke down his approach to sample clearance and licensing as both a musician, but also a businessman in the give-and-take model. “We have to be real careful that we’re protected. The first thing is putting a value on our part of the song, our participation in the song and where that lands. Looking at the music and the lyrics as being 50-50 in a lot of songwriting situations, you kind of start to get down that way.
“So I how I deal with it is, if a hundred percent of the song is a dime, I end up breaking it up that way. We try to quote on a penny rate. So, you know, a song like ‘Make The Road By Walking’ was really a huge part of Jay Z’s ‘Roc Boys,’ so I probably quoted five cents on that. That’s an easier scenario as opposed to [when a producer] would be combining different beats and different sections from parts of the music.”
The “Roc Boys (And The Winner Is)” sample may be a hallmark for Daptone, but it’s hardly an isolated example. “Roc Boys” was lifted from the first track of Menahan’s debut, and the second track, “Tired Of Fighting,” fueled Kendrick Lamar’s “Faith” as an almost completely unaltered loop. Yet another song on the same album, “The Traitor,” was the driving force for Kid Cudi’s trademark “Solo Dolo (Nightmare).” “There’s been stuff that we’ve discovered that we’ve been sampled on,” Sugarman said. “But most of the stuff, just like so many scenarios, you have to [ask], ‘What is the time and energy worth of putting a cease and desist on a song that is not selling that many records anyways as opposed to something really big?’ All the big artists with money are clearing their samples because the stakes are too high.”
The label has also time and again confronted the intersection of artistic integrity and commercial viability in their decision to clear samples or not. “I’m gonna be completely honest with you,” he said. “There’s a few big things—in fact there’s one in the making that I would loved to have turned down—but financially, it just would have been not a great move. It may end up being a lot of money, and it’s a pretty big artist who hasn’t had a record out in a while. When I listened to the song, I had a really hard time telling him ‘yes,’ but the guys in the band have kids to feed, and there’s certain opportunities that we have to take.”
Live From Somewhere: Meant For The Taking
The Menahan examples lie somewhere in-between. It’s hard to imagine they could have expected a song like “Roc Boys” to come out of their first single, but the number of samples—cleared and otherwise—pulled from their debut is proof they struck an early chord. Other musicians have taken a more aggressive step in this direction with records explicitly meant to be sampled. Will Sessions, the Detroit band that provided the live backdrop for Elzhi’s Elmatic and replayed a host of famous breakbeats for their “Mix Takes” fits this mode.
Starting as a sample-heavy Hip Hop producer in his youth, Sam Beaubien, the band’s trumpeter/keyboardist and frontman, says that finding one in their own music is part of the allure. “We’re always looking for that moment that could be a sample,” he said. “That type of stuff gives us more energy and makes us kind of happy to hear, because we get excited that someone may sample us.”
The “Mix Takes” effort in particular shows off an approach that ends up permeating throughout the rest of their music as well. “[That] stuff was a mixture, some of those beats were Black Milk or Dilla beats where they may not have been using a break, but we had to mimic the actual drum machine sound,” he said. “Some of those songs, like Nas’ ‘Made You Look,’ that sample of The Incredible Bongo Band, we were interested in recreating that break also.” Beaubien is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Jazz Studies in his native Michigan, and the fact that he can talk with professors about the viability of a live drummer recreating one of J Dilla’s programmed drum patterns is proof that the walls of convention continue folding.
While Sam and Will Sessions have yet to break a sample like Menahan’s, he brought up similar names in the hypothetical. “Personally, the way I feel is people can sample all my stuff, and I wouldn’t care. I grew up listening to Hip Hop, so that was a part of my culture and a part of the generation. I would be honored,” he said, before checking himself with a laugh. “Now, obviously if it’s someone like Jay Z or Eminem, if they sample a track and it becomes huge and they’re winning Grammy’s with it, I might care.”
“We wanted to make music that people could sample,” he later said. “I’ve heard records where I’m like, ‘Oh shit, that’s that snare drum from [our] Bobo Break.” This seems to be one of the most obvious distinctions between the contemporary artists being sampled and their counterparts from decades past. As long as it’s on the up-and-up, and sometimes even when it’s not, there’s less disdain for the recycling. For Beaubien, and apart from the business, being sampled is something to be coveted. “I’m pretty sure—I haven’t asked him yet,” he started, “but on Black Milk’s new album [No Poison No Paradise] there’s a track that I’m pretty sure he sampled the Bobo Breaks.” He added, “And that’s what it was made for.”
Jay Balfour is a Philadelphia based writer and editor. In addition to HipHopDX he’s written for a variety of websites and the print magazines Bonafide and Applause Africa. Follow Jay on Twitter @Jbal4_.