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Sampling: A History, and A Present

By Zachg, 05/19/2011 - 12:00pm
For those who don’t know Jel is a founding member of Anticon, old school Mr. Dibbs collaborator, one half of Themselves, and a member of both Subtle and 13 & God. He also does his own solo material. I think because of his association with Anticon, Jel has missed out on a lot of the shine that should have been coming his way. Yes, Anticon. The sordid bastard child of hip hop. Before Tyler and OFWGKTA were making a fuss Anticon was disrupting an iteration of hip hop that was far less sympathetic to criticism, let alone outright dissent. In 2000, when most folks hadn’t realized that hip hop was about to serve ten years in a shit storm of ad money, and media detention Anticon was making self-branded Music for the Advancement of Hip Hop. People lost their shit. As hip hop was trading in its vigor for a paycheck, it was a group of outsider ass white-skinned dudes doing the most to keep it real, and pretty much everyone was shitting on them for it. “It’s not real hip hop,” was the resounding claim. It didn’t take long for Anticon to become the whipping post of hip hop. Anticon identified themselves as dissenters, unsatisfied with where hip hop was headed, and intent on sticking to their own interpretation of the roots. It’s actually a pretty valorous move. These dudes passed on the path, and stuck to their guns because for them selling records always came after making music they believed in. But, through all the nay-saying and name calling, Jel would remain a bridge back to the hip hop mainland. I got into tons or arguments both online, and offline with folks about Anticon over the years. But, 9 times out of 10, the most hardcore myopic hip hop heads acknowledged Jel’s skill. It’s tough to deny, but it can also be tough to grasp if you don’t have the right context for it. So, before I can tell you anything about Jel, I gotta go off on this really long tangent about the history of sampling, and samplers. I got a degree from a “presitigous” university (that will go unnamed in my persistent disdain for said university) in an obscure field that allowed a lot of flexibility, and used my time there to do research on the history of sampling, the phenomenology of listening, and sampling as a musical praxis. Basically that’s a bunch of academic mumbo jumbo to tell you that I spent a whole lot of time reading, and thinking about how sampling works as an instrument, and I have a piece of paper in my closet that will testify to it. More importantly, I’ve been making beats for a long time (it’s more than Malcolm Gladwell’s ten years, so what else matters?), and I’ve used a lot of different means, so I’m not some inexperienced hack. I get how sampling works, so pardon the jargon moments, and please join me as I elaborate on an element of one of the United States of America’s most glorious contributions to the world: Hip Hop.
Sampling is at the root of hip hop. Sampling is the moment when the world of sound around you, the objects that populate the soundscape you live in, suddenly become malleable. Sounds change from immovable objects in the world to the movable substance of composition. Recorded sounds go from static documents that wash over us, to the primary material of music making. The recorded sounds of instruments become instruments themselves. From something that talks at us, to something we talk through—sampling changes the game. And if you go back and look at when sampling first became an instrument, you’re looking at Kool DJ Herc busting down the merry-go-round. In the midst of a world that had forgotten them, under rule of a state that had abandoned them, trapped by a city that was ready to efface them the youth of the South Bronx did something amazing in the creation of Hip Hop. They created a rift in the history of humanity, a moment for which all things either come before or after. And out of this riff emerged a force that, when harnessed had the power to change the world in dramatic ways. This group of young folks used an avant garde art practice to transform the world around them, and not in some bougie mindtstate bullshit sense. We’re still feeling the effects of Hip Hop. There is no music to come after it that is not affected by it. There is no music that came before it which Hip Hop has not breathed new life into. Sampling is a relay point in space and time, it reopens the past, and allows us to change the way the past affects the future. Recordings are broken open, and rearranged, restructured to depict an imagined world. A better world. And at the helm of this fantastical rearranging of time and space is the sampler itself. Sampling came along long before hip hop, but it was hip hop that turned sampling into an instrument. Pierre Schaeffer began experimenting making music entirely from recordings in France in the late 1940s. There were many instances before Schaeffer’s work in Musique Concrète that relied on sampling, but his was the first to focus on sampling itself as a complete means for making music. In the end Schaeffer felt his music failed, and I would agree. I enjoy listening to some of his stuff, and his ideas are rad, but on the whole it’s inaccessible intellectual music. It is music produced through incredibly mechanical means, and lacks the nuance of human articulation. That shit does not go. I get into it because I intellectualize music, not because it affects me at a human level. But, where Schaeffer conceded that his music failed, hip hop succeeded. Hip hop has shown the world a different way to think of sound. It employs the same radical tactics that Schaeffer used, but it’s designed to make you shake your ass, instead of shake off your existential shackles. Feel me?
The early 80s saw the advent of the Fairlight CMI by two dudes out in Australia, which marked the first sampling workstation to emerge in the world of music technology. But, the Fairlight was prohibitively expensive (in the hundreds of thousands). By 1986 though the E-MU SP-1200 had emerged, and this was to be the departure point for the future of music. Every ounce of ableton was distilled from the E-MU and how it was put to use by hip hop pioneers in the 80s. These hip hop pioneers were carrying the torch for the American avant garde. Their experiments with this new music technology led to the codification of a practice that we now call “Makin Beats.” In the beginning, people were figuring shit out as they went. The makers of these technologies had no way to anticipate how they would be used, and the users had no way to influence the production of the equipment. So, what were simply byproducts of the manufacturing process, came to be known as characteristics of the sound. You can see this in E-MUs compression, and AD/DA Conversion. The crunchy, boomy sound of its 12 bit sampler has come to define the sound of hip hop drums. Notedly, the Roland 808, and Bernard Purdie et cetera have also contributed to hip hop drum sounds, but that’s a whole other conversation. That gap between the conception of these music technologies, and their use slowly closed over time, and Ableton is where the two met completely. But, that too is another conversation, and in this case we’re gonna stay on the SP 1200. So, back in the day dudes were taking this machine, and filling it with sounds sourced from records. They were incredibly limited by the machine’s capabilities, but those limitations produced some truly incredible creative leaps. For instance, the SP only had ten seconds of sample time. Ten seconds is not a lot to work with, but producers developed a technique to increase the sample time by 50%. By playing 33 1/3 rpm records at 45rpm they were able to condense the sounds by 50%. Using the SP’s pitch shifting feature they then pitched the sped up samples down, and played them back at their normal speed. This may seem simple, and ordinary (because we live in the age of incumbency, when all predecents are always already established), but you have to remember that this was a massive feat at the time. There was no real forebearer for this kind of musical praxis because it was happening in tandem with brand new technology. They weren’t able to look to anyone else in this sense, they were a true Avant Garde, they were on the front lines, they were blazing new ground. And when you break it down and look at it, it takes some pretty complex thinking to figure out how to actually bend time and space with this machine. It’s fucking incredible.
Slowly the practice of making beats became codified, and at the same time the technologies used for making beats began to conform to this new way of making music. As Hip Hop began creating a feedback loop that informed the manufacture of sampling workstations, those sampling workstations then began to allow beatmakers to flesh out their praxis more and more. You gotta figure this was like a call and response between producers and manufacturers that played out over a number of years. Gear wasn’t coming out as frequently, R&D as well as manufacturing took years. So, as manufacturers realized that producers were using the sampling workstations not as boxes with buttons, but as instruments, they began to manufacture devices that were more instrument-like. Now, the SP 1200 had created a way for people to manipulate sounds. It was the rudimentary basis of a language. It relied on samples—selected for their peculiar capacity to excite the listener—and the machine’s controls which could manipulate the sound. A major advancement came in the form of the Linn 9000. Not often cited as an important piece of gear, this was the first sampling workstation that Roger Linn created, and it was the first to utilize his now eponymous grey rubber pads. These pads would then be utilized in the Akai MPC 60, and later in their most known form the Akai MPC 2000. With the creation of the MPC the sampling workstation itself suddenly became a very musical device. Just as Kool Herc tossed the beat back and forth from one record to another, the MPC allows for the same beat-tossing, only with much greater accuracy in editing, and dexterity in execution. Herc’s merry-go-round was an incredible idea, but on the technology of the time its execution was incredibly cumbersome. Herc’s only means to align the two records and pass the beat between them were his turntables, and a mixer with no headphone monitor. That’s a tough way to go about doing it when you consider that the margin of error is a matter of milliseconds. Using turntables and a mixer to align waveforms would be like using a fucking backhoe to work at a molecular scale. The fact that someone in a world of backhoes even conceived of pushing molecules around is crazy. When you translate Herc’s same idea to the technology of the MPC 2000 though, you’re able to work well within those milliseconds. Each sound’s start and stop point can be tuned down to an infinitesimal degree. And, the playback of sounds is controlled through a tactile trigger that is very percussion-friendly. Passing the beat between the 16 pads of the MP became an exercise in percussion. Now, as much as the use of the sampler had become musical, it never really picked up steam as an instrument used in performance. Occasionally you’ll see someone use an MPC—or similar pad controller—in a live setting, but it’s usually a novelty. That is, the performance rarely hinges upon the proper performance of the musician. If the person playing the MP fucks up it usually just leads to an off snare or kick note, or in some cases a missed note in a lead solo. Rarely do musicians use sampling workstations—or more commonly pad controllers—to play music in a live setting. But, it does happen, and there are some people who have found ways to make these instruments do incredible things.
So, this is where we come back to Jel. Jel is one of the most important people there is when it comes to using a sampler as an instrument. He got his start on an SP, and when he did, there was no one before him who had done what he was doing. There was no such thing as playing a song out with your sampler, you make your sampler play a song, and maybe freak a little deaky deak on top, but there was no using the sampler to play music. No freaking it on the MPC. It all started when Jel formed a group called Green Think with Why? and Dose One. Jel wanted to get down at the shows, so he started playing the SP live. Just like a drummer would use a drum kit, Jel used the sampler to keep the beat going. But where a drummer keeps the beat going by passing it back and forth from the different cymbals, snares, toms, kicks, et cetera Jel keeps the beat going by passing it back and forth between the pads of the sampler. Each pad triggers a brief section of a musical phrase—say 1/4, 1/8, 1/16, or 1/32 of a bar. These sections of the phrase are the notes. Each of these notes is “chopped” out from the source recording (which is essentially discarded afterwards). The notes are chopped out according to the meter of the source recording. So, if the original recording is in 4/16 time signature, notes can be chopped out on 16th notes. If the original source recording is in 4/4 time signature, notes can be chopped out on quarter notes. Thus, when the notes are being played back they are played back on the appropriate corresponding time division which brings the beat back to life. Through the sampler Jel breathes life back into the static recording. He reaches into the break and pulls out the spirit of the whole band, using the pads of the sampler to re-direct their playing, taking Herc’s merry-go-round to truly dizzying heights. Whereas Herc was able to extend the break into infinity, it was like setting off into infinity on a gigantic battle ship. Jel takes that line into infinity in a manner more similar to a speed boat. It’s the same infinity, there’s just a whole lot more room to play in it now.
When Jel set about doing all of this there weren’t any videos on youtube to guide him. The reason why I’m harping on this is because Jel’s is the classic story of the uncredited artist. The way that Jel reinterpreted hip hop is crucial to the way that tons of people are making music now. I’m not gonna attempt to quantify it and say that Jel is responsible for this or that, but you really gotta wonder when you start to look at it. How many people started playing an MPC (or similar sampling workstation, or midi controller) because of a video they saw on the internet? Now, of all the videos that those people may have watched, how many had Jel in them? And further, if Jel wasn’t in them, did Jel inspire the people in them? Using an MPC to make music is nothing new, but using an MPC as an instrument, really using it as an instrument (not just a glorified trigger a la Kanye’s “Runaway” performance at the 2010 VMAs) is a new thing. With the advent of Akai’s MPD series, and all of the other pad-centric controllers, along with Ableton, making beats has come a long way since the days of the SP 1200. Today, you can really do anything with sounds. The reason why you can do what you can do though, is because of people like Jel who blazed a path and figured out what these machines are capable of. I just wanna see people recognize how monumental dude is while he’s still alive. Seeing Jel do his thing is really incredible, and he’s out on tour for most of the rest of the year with 13 & God. So, if he shows up in your town, I encourage you to go check him out with the band and hound him to play a solo, it’s incredible. And if you make beats of any sort then there is no question that you should go see dude. What he’s done for the craft is incredible and undeniable.
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