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Wednesday, June 30, 2004

some horns to lock
Some weeks ago i had a bit of a muse about sampling, after chancing upon a site listing well-known hip hop samples. i didn't really think the argument through, partly because in my naivety i didn't expect anyone would read it, so just wrote what it was i was thinking about, and put it up here.
As i should have known, just as hip hop don't stop, neither do hip hop bloggers. A couple weeks after the post, i noticed a few fresh comments from Jay Smooth.

Tamas, who other Melbournites no-doubt know for providing the muscle in the love and the rough sound system (as well as being as well-rounded a renaissance man as one could hope to meet), was interested to see Jay hadn't acknowledged the fact that i was making the comments as someone - unlike him - pretty removed from the culture i was commenting on, and thought he was leaping to the defence of hip hop producers a tad, well, defensively.

At that time it hadn't occurred to me to think critically about Jay's points. Truth be told, i was just chuffed he'd found my post (altho' i still haven't asked him how he happened upon it - Jay?), and bothered to respond in such a constructive (as opposed derisive) manner.

So i checked out his site, something i unreservedly recommend everyone does, and noticed a comment from Oliver Wang referring to my comment as 'dumb ass'. I didn't particularly have a problem with this - you put things on the web, you take your criticism - but i was curious as to why someone so intimately involved with and knowledgable about hip hop would bother to post a permalink on Jay's site to something they were so dismissive of. So because i didn't want to think someone i admire and respect is an arsehole, i wrote him an email to ask if he could shed some light on a throwaway comment he made. I also felt the need to defend myself by using Tamas' point that us honkys out here in Australia come at hip hop from a rather different standpoint to the him and Jays of the world.
And here's what he wrote back:


Hey Tim,

Don't take my "dumb ass" comment personally. Wait, ok, it's kind of hard NOT to. I was being off the cuff in that "it's only the internet" sort of way which means I act like a complete asshole in ways that I don't at all come off in person.

So my apologies on being an asshole.

To lend some context to where my head was at in particular though (i.e. the constructive criticism element that you were asking for)...what bothered me about your post was this thinly hidden layer of derision. I mean, you weren't calling people who sampled dumb asses, but you were making a general comment on how creatively exhausted hip-hop has become simply b/c people keep using "Synthetic Substitution." Ideologically, I find that opinion to be problematic, especially b/c your explanation of how you arrived at said conclusion is quantitative rather than qualitative.

It's importnat that you should have listened to some of these songs before passing judgment on them or the people who created them. It's not like most producers remake the same beat twice in all its entireity. Marley Marl did it when he made LL Cool J's "Pink Cookies in a Plastic Bag," - basically a remake of Big Daddy Kane's "Ain't No Half Steppin" which he also produced. But examples like those are few and far between.

Most people who are not the most uber of uber-nerds will never notice if Prince Paul flips the same break twice. Partially b/c often times, the same samples will get engineered differently from use to use. Other times b/c producers will chop up drums and create a new pattern even if they're using sounds that possess a unique timbre (Premier, for example, uses the same snares ALL THE TIME). But the re-use, in and of itself, is not a sign of creative absence and I think to accuse it as such reflects a tired high culture/low culture binary about how "art" should be properly produced.

More than that though, your logic doesn't quite hold. Is a drummer who uses the same kit and plays some of the same basic patterns creatively dry? Or how about an artist who records with the same group of studio musicians on several albums, thereby creating a consistent sound?

So why then would a hip-hop producer be any less creative for working with some of the same sounds more than once?

Like I said, what it really comes down to is that you should listen to these songs first and then pass judgment. Here are two that are relativley easy to find online:

Gang Starr's "Dwyck" and "Code of the Streets." Both use the Melvin Bliss break.

Again, apologies on my lack of decorum from before.

Sincerely,

Oliver


I take all points, and said as much in my reply. Having been prompted by Tamas though, i find it interesting that in both Jay's comments on the original post and Oliver's reply, they don't see my argument holding any water. Sure, they may well've moved beyond it and in their contexts it may seem facile, but there was no acknolwedgement of the point i was making, which is this: with the entire history of recorded music avaliable to them, it's interesting/disappointing that so many hip hop producers return to the same source material.
Yes, i take the point that they use the original sources in different ways, and yes, i have gone away and listened to more examples. But in my own small way, i stand by the thought that this was worthy of at least a blog entry. Tamas, on the other hand, was really put out that Jay and Oliver choose to ignore the idea that how an Australian - who hasn't grown up with hip hop but nevertheless appreciates and loves it - comes at the culture can be as relevant as how they do. So when he writes his response, i'll publish it here.
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