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At AES: Honoring the Development of Hip-Hop

Top engineers discuss the building block of hip-hop: the sample.

New York, NY (October 18, 2019)—This year’s AES convention is showcasing the musical vernacular of hip-hop and R&B with a new educational track, whose focus was celebrated by hip-hop pioneer Grandmaster Flash’s keynote address on the first day of the show.

The Hip-Hop and R&B track kicked off on Thursday morning with “Chopped and Looped—Inside the Art of Sampling for Hip-Hop,” a discussion moderated by Paul “Willie Green” Womack, and featuring Breakbeat Lou (Afrika Bambaataa, Biz Markie), Hank Shocklee (Public Enemy, Mary J. Blige), Ebonie Smith (Hamilton, Sturgill Simpson). Just Blaze (Jay-Z, Kanye West) was working in the studio and unable to attend in person, though he joined by telephone halfway through the discussion.

AES: Back in the New York Groove

Celebrating the art of the audio collage, panelists discussed the production technique that launched a genre, illuminating some significant waypoints on the journey to the way hip-hop sounds today.

Womack began the discussion with a statement of purpose that he said applied to himself, the panelists and the AES at large. “Why a hip-hop and R&B track? It’s important to understand how important representation is. In a world that revolves around the wants and needs and comfort of certain groups, to never see yourself reflected in positions of power and respect is incredibly limiting for young people,” Womack said.

He continued, “If you have no heroes you can identify with, who you can look up to, it is much harder to dream. These ideas also appear in the audio industry, and diversity. in race, gender identity and genre is a goal that must be reached for our industry.

Womack got the conversation started by providing a definition of sampling and asking the gathered experts for feedback. “I define sampling as using parts of previously recorded songs in the creation of a new composition,” Womack offered.

While the definition is loose enough to satisfy most, Breakbeat Lou countered with his thoughts on how sampling production differs from sampling, particularly emphasizing the way in which sampling has been criticized as unoriginal or not a creative musical endeavor. “Because we used a sample, because we take prerecorded material, people don’t feel that we are being creative.” He believes the opposite. “We create something brand new out of something that was written” by chopping it up, rearranging it and putting it in a different context.

Womack added to the idea, “Because the process itself of sampling, of the chopping, that’s the art. It’s like a photo collage. Take a number of photos, put them together to create a new image.”

Breakbeat Lou went even further, saying that more than simply a collage of parts, sampling and hip-hop is akin to “taking color and creating a brand new painting.” Highlighting the influence of artists like Just Blaze and Bomb Squad, he said, “These buys, by layering and taking snippets created a brand new sound that defined an era of music that was significant in making this genre what it is now, the top genre ever in music history.”

He and panel members returned several times to the idea of ownership of sampled material, whether the owner should be considered the original artist or the re-mixer.

Womack asked the panelists, all of whom are DJs or have been at some point in their career, how they know what will make a good sample. The answer for Shocklee is whether or not people respond to it. “When I was DJing, I would find records that nobody could find, and then I would figure out a way to weave them into the party and make [the people] keep moving. You start to experiment, and it starts to open you up and you start to see how people respond to different frequencies, different ways something is being projected at them,” Shocklee said. “The idea is taking your art form and getting it in front of as many people as possible to see if it works.”

Shocklee noted that people respond to what they know, music they’re familiar with.

Womack wondered about exclusivity versus familiarity. An artist may want to find the most obscure sample that nobody has—how can he do that, yet keep a sense of familiarity that’s going to hook somebody and make them want to put the record on again?

Breakbeat Lou replied with a paraphrased quote from Grandmaster Caz—“Hip-hop did not create anything. It reinvented everything.”—and walked through some history.

“Hip-hop, the way it started in the beginning stages was with familiar records,” Breakbeat Lou said. “Good Time” and “Funky Drummer” were familiar records that were being cut up. You first grab listeners with a familiar hook. “When you have their ear, then you can incorporate [new sounds] and expose some new textures, but you have to catch them first.”

This is the same way he crafts his DJ sets. First you give the crowd what they’re looking for, then you feed them your take. “I try to tell a story from the beginning to the end when I’m playing music. And there’s three things that I want to leave a crowd with: That’s sore feet, wet clothes and a memory.”

Shocklee agreed with the sentiment. “When you’re making your beats today, when you’re looking for sources, it doesn’t matter where a source comes from. It could come from anywhere. But the idea is it has to be something that’s going to grab the ear of, not you as a beatmaker or a producer, but of an MC. Any record that I’m making, I’m thinking about the MC who’s going to get on it.”

The rest of the panelists agreed as well. According to Breakbeat Lou, “It doesn’t matter the source. It’s all in the creativity of the person who’s doing it. I can use YouTube, I can use vinyl—I’m known for vinyl more than anything else—I’ll use whatever is inspiring to me at that particular time.”

Womack added, “Anything and everything is a sample if you flip it right,” and Just Blaze contributed, “It’s really about what’s in your head. That’s your most important tool, no matter what.” No matter if you’re on Studio or you’re on Logic, it’s about the user, not the machine.

Ebonie Smith explained that her first synthesizer was a Yamaha Motif ES6, a device built for composition that happened to have a sampler function. She used it because it’s what she had, though it had its share of limitations. She noted her progression to Pro Tools and into Logic. On picking up Logic, she said, “That’s when I really started to think about sampling as a compositional tool. I was able to really start to be creative because there were fewer technical limitations for me.”

While technology has improved, she echoes the common sentiment among panel members, “It really doesn’t matter what tools you’re using. It’s about your own creativity.”

Discussion eventually turned to the groundbreaking Public Enemy album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, produced by Chuck D, Rick Rubin and Hank Shocklee and known as much for its political message as its extensive sampling.

Womack recalled, “I remember hearing it for the first time, I’m like, I’m hearing sounds and I don’t know how these sounds came to be what they are, but I gotta hear it again. I want to understand this. It’s moving me to hear it again. But to create a mosaic like that, just from a production standpoint, from a sampling standpoint, is heavy lifting because you’re bringing together disparate sounds, disparate vibes to make one thing.”

Smith and Shocklee discussed the notion of politics in hip-hop, leading to talk about the importance of reaching back to those coming up behind you. Shocklee believes hip-hop is even more political today than it was back then. “You have to understand that when we were doing this, we were trying to break into an industry that wasn’t allowing any of us in. So we had to be loud, we had to be aggressive, we had to talk about things that were going on in our community. We had to almost turn you off to turn you on. But today, everything’s about one thing now: Gotta get that skrilla. That to me is the most political you can possibly get because it’s right down to the bone. If you don’t have that money, guess what, you can’t do nothing. You die today.”

After the applause died down, Shocklee added, “We have to understand that things move, things progress, times change. The only thing that we can do today is support our young brothers and sisters making this music.”

Womack said, “Reach out, lift them up and support their ideas, and not just ‘Get off my lawn. We used to do it this way.’ It’s important to reach back.

Describing the panelists and other pioneers in hip-hop, he added, “As innovators, there wasn’t necessarily someone before you to show you a path and give you opportunities and give you that knowledge, but now we have that responsibility to reach back and say, ok, you’re up and coming, let me give you some game, but to apply to what you do.”

“That’s why we’re doing things like this panel here, and having things like the hip-hop and R&B track or the EDM track, to say, ’We see what you’re doing, we see where the young folk are coming from and what you want to do and we’re going to be there to give you that assistance and bring you along because that’s how music progresses,’” Womack noted.