Alex Stevenson, Leeds Metropolitan University
Author keywords: Hip hop, Authenticity, Live, Sampling
Authenticity and the role of live musicians in hip hop production
ABSTRACT: Despite hip hop music’s origins as a live performance-based art form, utilising turntables and sound systems, the incorporation of digital sampling technologies gave rise to a sample-based aesthetic within hip hop production which traditionally rejected the use of live musicians. In his ethnographical study of hip hop production, Schloss goes as far as stating that as a hip hop producer ‘…it is the lack of samples – the use of live instrumentation – that must be justified’ (Schloss, 2004, p.67).
This sample-based aesthetic is strongly linked to the notion of authenticity within hip hop production (Schloss, 2004; Williams, 2010), however use of live musicians has been evident throughout the history of hip hop; from live hip hop band The Roots , the use of session musicians to re-play samples in Dr. Dre’s Chronic 2001 (1999) to the self-sampling approach of Portishead’s self titled album (1997). More recently in the UK, the formation of bands such as Introducing Live whose debut project in 2009 was to recreate note for note the entirety of DJ Shadow’s exclusively sample-based album Endtroducing (1996) with a 10-piece live band and the Abstract Hip Hop Orchestra who, inspired by Miguel Atwood-Ferguson orchestral tribute to J-Dilla (2010), perform live versions of classic hip hop tracks with a 16 piece ensemble, demonstrate the integral role that live musicians can occupy within hip hop performances that were once the reserve of the DJ and MC.
The role of live musicians in the field of hip hop production has often been ignored by scholars and these apparent contradictions in the pursuit hip hop authenticity are explored in this paper through analysis of interviews with musicians and producers active in the field, adding to the discourse around the role live musicians can play in an art-form and culture so engrained within a sampling-aesthetic.
Schloss, J.G. (2004) Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-Hop. Wesleyan University Press.
Williams, J.A. (2010) Musical borrowing in hip-hop music: theoretical frameworks and case studies. PhD Thesis. Nottingham, University of Nottingham.
DJ Shadow, Endtroducing [CD] FFRR, 1996
Dr. Dre, Chronic 2001 [CD] Interscope Records, 1999
Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, Mochilla Presents Timeless: Suite For Ma Dukes – The Music Of James ‘J Dilla’ Yancey [CD] Mochilla, 2010
Portishead, Portishead [CD] Go! Beat, 1997
Alex begins with some background and context, siting hip=hop as a live cultural practice in 1970s New York, and he quotes Grandmaster Flash’s dismay when he was given the opportunity to ‘put his record on a record’. He plays some of the classic Rapper’s Delight:
The interpolations are noted (Good Times by Chic and Here Comes That Sound Again). These were replayed by live musicians, so were not actually samples. [JB note – an interesting copyright conundrum – what exactly has been copied here and is is a ‘substantial part’?].
We now move to technology and look at the introduction of the SP12/1200 and MPC. The way these technologies handled triggering and microtiming leads to a wider exploration of early sampling aesthetics. Our next musical example is The Roots’ Do You Want More?!!!??! The album opens with a verbal discussion of the hip-hop aesthetic – a mission statement for sonic reappropriation as art.
Next we hear Questlove’s Couch Wisdom interview with live drums – see below. “I was thinking ‘What if the musicians laugh at me?’ The producer told him to ‘Use The Force’. I’d never seen Star Wars…”
Dr Dre tries to use musicians where possible, stating that ‘I don’t really dig working with samples‘. Bumpy’s Lament is contrasted with Dre’s XXplosive. Alex observes that this is Dre’s attempt to create new authenticities and aesthetics in hip-hop. He notes (from Williams 2010 the ‘origins and romaticization of a pre-recording hip-hop aesthetic’. This leads us to reappropriation in DJ Shadow’s ‘Number Song’ and thereafter the Abstract Orchestra’s performance of DelLa Soul’s Stakes is High.
Alex’s recent case studies include The Abstract Orchestra, who rearrange tunes for live band rather than sampling them. He calls it ‘crate digging (in reverse)’. ‘It’s like when CDs went back to vinyl – Abstract Orchestra are takign samples back to live music’. The AO perform Planet Rock to Afrika Bambaataa – who joins in, giving his seal of approval to the reappropriation of his original. Here’s the AO’s showreel.
Alex ends by citing Krims (2000) who notes that reappropriation [of prior works] is a constant and ongoing force in music culture.