cartwheels into your heart

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Another piece for Squeezed.

(Because of both length constraints and the nature of the audience, some of this may seem elementary. My two regrets: 1. That I gloss over the history of sampling pre-Paul's Boutique and thus give the Beastie Boys too much credit. 2. That I couldn't incorporate mash-ups/bootlegs into the piece [though I did include "Smells Like Booty" and "A Stroke of Genie-us" on a mix CD I made for the occasion, to much general amusement].)

Robert Rauschenberg, Retroactive II

The idea of sampling -- appropriating previously recorded music into new contexts -- has existed almost as long as recorded music itself. In the 1930s, John Cage was writing symphonies for twelve record players, and in the 50s he created mixes of environmental noise. But it wasn't until the second wave of hip-hop in the late 80s that a popular record was so purposefully built around gathering eclectic source material; Paul's Boutique by the Beastie Boys became famous for layering nonstop clips of the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Sly and the Family Stone, and James Brown under the rappers' nasal rhymes. Here, the sample wasn't just a hook, as it was with other hip-hop records, it was a barrage of noises bumping against one another: it was texture. And it stood as a promise that a hip-hop song could be something like the pop artist Robert Rauschenberg's visual collages, where photos of army helicopters in Vietnam are juxtaposed with 17th-century engravings and actual paint smears in a busy, colorful display.

Because of the vast potential that groups like the Beastie Boys and De La Soul hinted at, many consider Gilbert O'Sullivan's successful 1991 lawsuit against Biz Markie, for sampling without permission, to have put an end to an art form that was just getting started. Certainly, having to pay for samples meant fewer recognizable songs in the mix; something from the Beatles catalogue, after all, now cost millions of dollars. But I like to think it also forced hip-hoppers to be more judicious with their appropriation, to find even more unusual sounds to build raps around. Even those who could afford expensive samples looked further afield -- in 1998, Jay-Z scored a hit with "Hard-Knock Life," with a chorus from the musical Annie.

In the mid-nineties, three of my favorite records were Soul Coughing's Ruby Vroom, Cibo Matto's Viva! La Woman, and Beck's Odelay, and what I loved most were the left-field samples: empty spaces were crammed with Warner Bros. cartoon music, 1940's girl groups, Duke Ellington big band, spaghetti western soundtracks, and obscure funk, not to mention squeaky doors and braying donkeys. The fact that none of these albums were really hip-hop albums, either, was even more exciting. Though the artists certainly drew inspiration from hip-hop, it was less a framework and more just another style, an added element in the mix. Any sense of a framework at all was rapidly disappearing: it was all just sound.

As a budding musician myself, this was all immensely appealing to me. When I began writing my own songs in 1995, samples were very much part of my musical M.O. Without the proper technology, however, this mostly consisted of cueing a record to play for the duration of the song, underneath my voice and Yamaha keyboard, and relying on happy accidents of synchronicity -- the climax of a keyboard solo, for instance, coinciding with a shrill, hissing violin from a ragtime record.

A couple years later, I started to focus exclusively on the samples. I had already taught myself a basic wave-editing program so I could loop sound through my computer speakers; now I got interested in manipulating the samples in more interesting ways, especially mixing several samples together. For my very first entirely electronic composition, I spliced the guitar riff from Blur's "Song 2" with some meandering jazz piano and a WXRT radio promo. Another track featured Malcolm X shouting over the intro to "Girlfriend in a Coma" until interrupted by a Ben Folds Five drum break.

Soon I was creating three-minute collages with, like, a dozen samples, Sonic Youth's dissonant guitar waves bleeding into Branford Marsalis noodling on the sax, and then suddenly, a Korean newscast I taped off the TV, set to a funk beat. Of course, it was all incredibly sloppy, but I didn't care. Interestingly enough, my friend Chris was also making audio collages at the time, but in a completely different style -- he would take very small bites of music and then speed them up, slow them down, reverse them, do whatever he could so that they were basically unrecognizable: the mix became either abstract noise or fucked-up beats. I was impressed with his technique, but I had a hard time enjoying his music. I realized that the potential I saw in this art lay in matching different kinds of sounds, different genres of music, to create new combinations -- but part of the fun in that was that these elements were also distinct, could be picked apart and identified. I liked being able to marvel at how well the puzzle pieces fit.

This seems to be a key distinction between different types of sample-based music: whether the seams are visible or invisible. But I'd argue that musicians need not even process their samples as thoroughly as Chris did to merit inclusion in the invisible-seams camp. What's remarkable about someone like DJ Shadow, whose 1996 record Endtroducing is said to have been the first hip-hop record composed entirely of samples, is that we hear the funky drumming and spooky piano as distinct entities yet feel as if they were made for each other, not culled from two separate sources. Shadow's tastes are wide-ranging enough that he's as likely to sample Tangerine Dream as he is James Brown, but his interest in creating moods and soundscapes -- his music is often described as "cinematic" -- means that you'll rarely hear "wacky juxtapositions" on his records. Listening to artists like DJ Shadow, you don't so much wonder, "Where'd that sample come from?" You wonder, "How'd he create that whole sound?"

On the other hand, listening to a song like "Frontier Psychiatrist," by the Avalanches, you're constantly conscious that the sounds are found material, scrounged from piles of vinyl. Part of this is because the juxtapositions are meant to be somewhat incongruous and therefore funny, as in a horse whinnying alongside alarming mariachi horns. Part of it's also because so many of the samples are speech-based, and when we're used to music with a single lead voice, hearing a dozen random blips of dialogue automatically seems fragmentary -- even if the Avalanches do make them rhyme: "He was white as a sheet / And he also made false teeth." One reason a sampling artist might make the seams visible like this is to use sound as signifiers. I get the impression that the Avalanches are interested in the actual words "frontier psychiatrist" and what such a concept might entail; they use samples as a means of suggesting it through association: the call of the nebbish doctor, for instance, answered by the Yosemite Sam-like sheriff. It's an excellent example of collage, although I sometimes think of the Avalanches' whole album, Since I Left You, with supposedly over 900 samples strewn throughout, as more of a bright, messy painting -- each color separate but streaking and jumping over the whole canvas, filling every last corner with cherry-red or lime-green or gold.

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Keith Harris now has a blog. This is very good news, as he's one of the funniest and most dead-on music writers I've read lately. If you don't believe me, check out this piece, and especially this one, which describes Jimmy Eat World thusly: "You know, the sort of post-Blink pop-punk bounce so tuneful, disposable, and insistent that, as it fades out, you expect to see Tara Reid packing up stuffed animals and exclaiming, 'Can you believe we're finally graduating from college?'"

More soon, I promise.

Monday, November 03, 2003

1. Last night, I watched Style Wars, a great documentary on the whole graffiti scene in early 80s NYC, and one thing that struck me was how multicultural the movement was. Because it's so tied to hip-hop culture -- it's one of the original four elements of hip-hop (along with rapping, DJing, and breakdancing) -- you think of graffiti as a predominantly black (or Hispanic) art form. But not only did whites participate in subway bombings, they sometimes, as in the case of Min One, joined crews with black kids. I'm especially curious about this historical moment, when these kinds of cross-racial assocations were no longer a big deal, politically, and so cultures had room to clash, merge, and disappear in more interesting ways. For me, Min One stands out as probably the earliest "wigger" I've seen on film.

2. In Jonathan Lethem's new novel, The Fortress of Solitude, Dylan Ebdus, a white kid in mid-1970s Brooklyn, runs around bombing the city with his black friend, Mingus Rude. (Their common tag, "Dose," echoes real-life tagger Doze.) But by the end of that decade, Dylan's given up graffiti and gotten into punk, into Devo and the Talking Heads. When he becomes a music journalist later in life, it's not rap he's nostalgic for, but the soul and early funk records that Mingus's father recorded. If the birth of graffiti culture can be dated to 1971 (when Taki 183 was written about in the New York Times), and the birth of rap to 1979 (when the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" was released), is that window meaningful? (Or is it erased by people like Dylan's friend Arthur Lomb, probably the earliest "wigger" I've encountered in fiction?)

3. I wish that Sasha Frere-Jones had made good on his promise to write more about the music in The Fortress of Solitude -- mostly because I suspect that hip-hop played a more integral role in his childhood than in Lethem's (if we can assume that Dylan is, at least somewhat, a stand-in for the author), and I'd be curious to see how their experiences compare. (Frere-Jones also grew up in Brooklyn and is three years younger than Lethem; this gap doesn't seem that wide, except it's the difference between hearing "Rapper's Delight" when you're fifteen and treating it like a novelty record, and hearing it when you're twelve and not being able to remember much before it.) I guess there's just something disappointing about the adult Dylan Ebdus turning into a boomer critic like Nick Hornby, romanticizing black music but never anything after 1980. (And disappointing not in a moral sense so much as I just want to read serious fiction that mentions Kurtis Blow!)

Sunday, November 02, 2003

Is it just me, or do those oh-oh-oh's in the chorus of "Shake Ya Tailfeather" sound like the Atlanta Braves' "Tomahawk Chop"?