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Wednesday, May 05, 2004

and these are the breaks, give it up give it up give it up ...

Back in the dark ages and without having really heard anything by him i just assumed Snoop Dogg was shit. Of course, a few years later i actually got around to listening to some of his records and realised that, well, whaddayaknow. But it was the clip for Chuuuch to da Palace that really piqued my interest, not just because it's a great video, but because Snoop seemed to be rhyming about absolute nonsense. Nothing new about this - Ghostface has made a career out of it, but there was something about Snoop's laconic delivery that killed me, and when i recently heard Batman and Robin on a mix by DJ Gilb'r from Versatile in Paris, and discovered it was from the same album as Chuuuch, it was straight down the local CD emporium to find it selling for an exceedingly pleasing $18.

Paid the Cost to be tha Boss is a good album and i'm glad i bought it, but how many times have i listened to it since that day?
I haven't.
As holds for every type of music i guess, what i find compelling within hip hop is a tiny percentage of a tiny percentage of everything that falls under that genre. But hip hop is a funny one, because no-one dislikes it, and everyone will say they listen to it all the time, and that includes me. Like most people who like music at the moment, i have a silly amount of hip hop on my shelves. I also find i'm playing more and more of it out, too, but while i love the culture that surrounds it (the nerdy, beat-digging, wax poetics-theorising culture, thanks; no guns, misogeny, bling or hand-jive posturing for me, no sir), i don't actually enjoy listening to the music all the time, and the songs that i find genuinelly incredible are by the folks completely ignored by most hip hop listeners, or dismissed for their lack of hard/realness.
This is no beef against more commercial or popular hip hop - all the rest is cool if it's your cup of milk, just don't make me sit through a Too $hort CD.

Part of this is just down to taste, but following up some record or other i chanced upon one of those incredible websites that, while their incredibleness is incredible in its own right, threw open so much information it gave me cause to think about the constructs of a culture in a way i'd never been prompted to before.

This site, and there are probably many like it, lists breaks and samples used in hip hop. It houses a huge archive of hip hop tracks and the samples they used. Searching by the sampling or original artist leads you off on some surprising tangents, but most importantly helps you discover some really good music (and impress/bore your friends by name-checking every record used to create Midnight in a Perfect World).
But it just got me to thinking about how creatively dry the genre is becoming.

Take the Synthetic Substitution break.
While the song is not in the league of an Apache or Funky President, this Melvin Bliss b-side from 1977 is a good example as it wasn't on a huge label so isn't well known outside crate-digging circles at all, but for diggers - even casual ones like myself, it's far from obscure. I knew the break from De La Soul and Pete Rock, and kinda assumed a few other people must have used it too, as i'm not really up on hip hop.
So.
The site lists over 80 different songs that use this break. Some of them are unlikely - ie. Depeche Mode - but given the ubiquity of hip hop production in pop even in the 80s, i have no reason to doubt the legitimacy of this list.

Over 80.
From the Alkaholicks through Big Daddy Kane, Dee Lite, LL Cool J, the Pharcyde, Souls of Mischef and a swag more, Synthetic Substitution has been used by pretty much everyone.
More interesting/depressing is how many producers have used it more than once. De La, Wu Tang, Public Enemy, Naughty by Nature, Ice T, Kool Keith (it's used for a couple of Ultramagnetic tracks and a couple from Dr Octagon) have all used this break as the foundation of many of their own songs.

What does this say about hip hop and what they're trying to sell us?

A couple of decades ago when sampling was exciting purely for its newness and these breaks were undiscovered, there was no argument here. People were pushing primitive equipment to its limits, creating dynamic music by doing things these samplers and drum machines weren't designed for.
But that was twenty years ago, and the MPC and similar equipment have been explored in and out and surpassed many times over by new studio gadgetry. Talented producers have shown breaks and samples can be found anywhere, not just in jazz and funk produced in the late 60s and early 70s, yet most hip hop is still being made with the same breaks used all that time ago.

You just end up pondering how alarmingly low the bar is set for hip hop production.
Pharell and Chad from The Neptunes are great producers - i think it's genuinelly interesting and cool they can make their tracks sound so heavy and fat without using kick drums but really, how good a thing is it when all your productions are instantly recognisable as yours because they sound so similar? Do they deserve the feting they get?

With so many producers finding original ways to use samples and proving how much life the genre still has left in it, the only conclusion you can come to is that the rest of these guys aren't trying anymore.

Which, when you think about it, is no surprise at all.
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