Sounding Race in Rap Songs explores the production of musical identity in hip hop’s first two decades as a commercial genre. Although I don’t ignore lyrics or visual imagery, my main purpose is to analyze rap music as music, to understand how specific artistic decisions contribute to racial meaning in particular songs. My methods revolve around the study of how producers manipulate breakbeats, also commonly known as “breaks.” Initially understood as short, percussion-heavy passages that appear in many songs recorded in the 1960s and 1970s, breaks have been central to hip hop from the music’s earliest days in the South Bronx when DJs began isolating and looping them on their turntables to the delight of dancers. Since then, producers have tried out new approaches to working with breakbeats: hiring studio musicians to re-record them; programming drum machines to imitate them; and using sampling-sequencing technology to capture and rearrange them.
Throughout the book, I describe how producers use breaks and give rise to musical-racial codes that can be manipulated to project a variety of identities and attitudes. The following excerpt from the third chapter of Sounding Race, explains how the style of beat making popularized by the New York-based Bomb Squad (Public Enemy’s production team) provided a blueprint for pioneering west coast gangsta rap group N.W.A’s depiction of Compton, California. By layering multiple loops into a dense, cacophonous mix, N.W.A transposed Public Enemy’s “too black, too strong” sound onto the world of Los Angeles’s postindustrial streets.
N.W.A and its former members have been in the news recently thanks to the biopic Straight Outta Compton. Yet one aspect of the group’s development downplayed in the film is the way that its members formulated their identities in relation to east coast rap. In the mid-1980s, New York was the undisputed center of the industry, and its influence on L.A.-based acts is easy to see and hear. Ice Cube’s first group C.I.A. ( Cru’ In Action) used a nasal, hocket style approach to rapping cribbed directly from the Beastie Boys 1986 album License to Ill. And the cover of N.W.A’s first album N.W.A and the Posse, features numerous group members posing with the giant clock necklaces made famous by Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav. In similar fashion, the beat Dr. Dre produced for “Straight Outta Compton” (the title track to their breakout 1988 album) followed the Bomb Squad’s potent formula for signifying militant blackness. —Loren Kajikawa
The following is an excerpt from Chapter Three “‘Let Me Ride’: Gangsta Rap’s Drive Into The Popular Mainstream,” of Loren’s Kajikawa’s Sounding Race in Rap Songs, with thanks to The University of California Press. Any notes have been included in the text to conform to Sounding Out!‘s style sheet.
We [Public Enemy] were in Vegas and they [N.W.A.] were on tour with us, and I had just got the vinyl in. That’s what this is all about. Because Run-DMC and LL Cool J gave me energy. And if our energy happened to be transferred to N.W.A., then that’s what this whole thing is for.” Chuck D as quoted in Brian Coleman, Check The Technique: Liner Notes For Hip-Hop Junkies (New York: Villard Books, 2007), 354.
According to Chuck D, Public Enemy’s musical style directly influenced Dre, and he recalls giving the first two copies of It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back to Dr. Dre and Eazy-E prior to the album’s official release. The recorded evidence supports Chuck D’s recollection. For many of the tracks on Straight Outta Compton, Dr. Dre seems to have borrowed from the “loops on top of loops” style of Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad.
In fact, when Ice Cube left N.W.A. in 1989, he hoped that Dre would continue to make beats for his solo project. When this proved impossible due to Dre’s contractual obligations to N.W.A., Ice Cube began collaborating with the Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad, which served as the production unit for his album Amerikkka’s Most Wanted (1990). N.W.A.’s breakthrough was finding a way to put a distinctive spin on these influences, and the artistic strategy that they arrived at for their first Ruthless Records release was designed to put themselves on the map—both literally and figuratively.
Rather than shout out the multiplicity of neighborhoods where their members were actually from (as they had done in “Panic Zone”), N.W.A. chose to center their identity around Dr. Dre and Eazy-E’s hometown of Compton, California. The sound of Compton as Dr. Dre imagined it, however, drew on musical practices and artistic decisions similar to those found in Public Enemy’s “Rebel Without a Pause.” To construct the rhythmic foundation of “Straight Outta Compton,” Dre looped the breakbeat from The Winstons’ “Amen Brother” (1969), one of the most sampled beats in hip hop, that also served as the foundation for dozens of songs in the UK’s “jungle” (aka “drum and bass”) genre.
Like other heavily sampled breaks from this era, the one-measure loop features a syncopated interlocking of snare and bass hits that is reminiscent of James Brown’s “Funky Drummer (featuring Clyde Stubblefield’s famous beat). As if he were following the Bomb Squad’s exact formula, Dr. Dre layered a drum machine (Roland TR-808) over this break.
The 808 was programmed to add its characteristic bass boom to the first two drum kicks of the “Amen” loop, and to tick off a 16-count hi-hat pulse with a closing hi-hat clasp on the downbeat of every other measure. The “Amen” break and the two hi-hat parts, provide the rhythmic foundation around which Dr. Dre places numerous other repeating sounds. Two other ingredients stand out in this beat: a guitar ostinato and a low drone on what sounds like a baritone sax or trombone (or perhaps a downwardly pitched sample of another instrument). The guitar ostinato, which plays straight eighth-notes on E-flat except for a one step descent to D-flat on the “and” of every fourth beat, churns out tight 1-measure units of sound.
The horn drone (also on E-flat) has a raw, muddled quality, and casts an ominous cloud over the track.
By combining these layers with the dense percussion track, Dre created a tightly packed funk groove with many sonic similarities to Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad. Like “Rebel Without a Pause,” the track to “Straight Outta Compton” features tight 1-measure loops stacked on top of one another to create a thick and intense groove.
Except for the drone, most of the elements in the track have a punchy feel, full of rhythmic stabs and staccato attacks, including the automatic gunfire that Dre samples to follow Ice Cube’s reference to an AK-47 assault rifle. Due to the “noisiness” of the beat, the way sonic space seems filled to maximum capacity, the members of N.W.A.—similar to Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Flavor Flav—practically yell their verses, as if they must raise their voices in order to be heard over the cacophony. Even before the actual words to “Straight Outta Compton” are digested, the sound of the track and the group’s vocals evoke the palpable tension of imminent conflict, which reinforces the theme of violent confrontation in the song’s lyrics. For the chorus of “Straight Outta Compton,” Dr. Dre strings together a series of samples with rapid-fire precision. The sound of screeching car tires from Davy DMX’s “One for the Treble” is followed by turntable scratching; the scratching leads directly to a choppy sample of the words “City of Compton” from Ronnie Hudson’s “Westcoast Poplock,” which is then followed by more scratching. The whole chain of musical events is deployed over the breakbeat from Funkadelic’s “You’ll Like It Too,” which Dr. Dre splices into the beat just for the chorus. The rapid cutting from one sample to the next exemplifies the “rupture” Tricia Rose identifies as fundamental to hip hop’s post-industrial aesthetic in Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (39).
Thus, the music and lyrics for “Straight Outta Compton” depict the city as a place of extremes, where things happen fast and change is sudden and complete. It is a place where one is either equipped to deal or left behind. In this way, Dr. Dre exploited the spatial characteristics encoded in Public Enemy’s music to depict Compton as place. The sonic characteristics that animated Public Enemy’s militant blackness were rerouted and effectively transposed onto N.W.A.’s depiction of Los Angeles gangstas.
Loren Kajikawa has served on the faculty at the University of Oregon’s School of Music and Dance since 2009. His main area of research and teaching is American music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and he offers a variety of courses in music history, ethnomusicology, and musicology. Kajikawa’s writings have appeared in American Music, Black Music Research Journal, ECHO: a music-centered journal, Journal of the Society for American Music,and Popular Music and Society, among others. His recent book Sounding Race in Rap Songs (University of California, 2015) explores the relationship between rap music’s backing tracks and racial representation.
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
This is article 2.0 in Sounding Out!‘s April Forum on “Sound and Technology.” Every Monday this month, you’ll be hearing new insights on this age-old pairing from the likes of Sounding Out! veterano Aaron Trammell along with new voices Andrew Salvati and Owen Marshall. These fast-forward folks will share their thinking about everything from Auto-tune to techie manifestos. So, turn on your quantizing for Sounding Out! and enjoy today’s supersonic in-depth look at sampling from from SO! Regular Writer Primus Luta. –JS, Editor-in-Chief
My favorite sample-based composition? No question about it: “Stroke of Death” by Ghostface and produced by The RZA.
Supposedly the story goes, RZA was playing records in the studio when he put on the Harlem Underground Band’s album. It is a go-to album in a sample-based composer collection, because of the open drum breaks. One such break appears in the cover of Bill Wither’s “Ain’t No Sunshine”, notably used by A Tribe Called Quest on “Everything is Fair.”
RZA, a known break beat head, listened as the song approached the open drums, when the unthinkable happened: a scratch in his copy of the record. Suddenly, right before the open drums dropped, the vinyl created its own loop, one that caught RZA’s ear. He recorded it right there and started crafting the beat.
This sample is the only source material for the track. RZA throws a slight turntable backspin in for emphasis, adding to the jarring feel that drives the beat. That backspin provides a pitch shift for the horn that dominates the sample, changing it from a single sound into a three-note melody. RZA also captures some of the open drums so that the track can breathe a bit before coming back to the jarring loop. As accidental as the discovery may have been, it is a very precisely arranged track, tailor-made for the attacking vocals of Ghostface, Solomon Childs, and the RZA himself.
“Stroke of Death” exemplifies how transformative sample-based composition can be. Other than by knowing the source material, the sample is hard to identify. You cannot figure out that the original composition is Wither’s “Ain’t No Sunshine” from the one note RZA sampled, especially considering the note has been manipulated into a three-note melody that appears nowhere in either rendition of the composition. It is sample based, yes, but also completely original.
Classifying a composition like this as a ‘happy accident’ downplays just how important the ear is in sample-based composition, particularly on the transformative end of the spectrum. J Dilla once said finding the mistakes in a record excited him and that it was often those mistakes he would try to capture in his production style. Working with vinyl as a source went a long way in that regard, as each piece of vinyl had the potential to have its own physical characteristics that affected what one heard. It’s hard to imagine “Stroke of Death” being inspired from a digital source. While digital files can have their own glitches, one that would create an internal loop on playback would be rare.
There has been a change in the sound of sampling over the past few decades. It is subtle but still perceptible; one can hear it even if a person does not know what it is they are hearing. It is akin to the difference between hearing a blues man play and hearing a music student play the blues. They technically are both still the blues, but the music student misses all of the blue notes.
The ‘blue notes’ of the blues were those aspects of the music that could not be transcribed yet were directly related to how the song conveyed emotion. It might be the fact that the instrument was not fully in tune, or the way certain notes were bent but others were not, it could even be the way a finger hit the body of a guitar right after the string was strummed. It goes back farther than the blues and ultimately is not exclusive to the African American tradition from which the phrase derives; most folk music traditions around the world have parallels. “The Rite of Spring” can be understood as Stravinsky ‘sampling’ the blue notes of Transylvanian folk music. In many regards sample-based composing is a modern folk tradition, so it should come as no surprise that it has its own blue notes.
The sample-based composition work of today is still sampling, but much of it lacks the blue notes that helped define the golden era of the art. I attribute this discrepancy to the evolution of technology over the last two decades. Many of the things that could be understood as the blue notes of sampling were merely ways around the limits of the technology. In the same way, the blue notes of most folk music happened when the emotion went beyond the standards of the instrument (or alternately the limits imposed upon it by the literal analysis of western theory). By looking at how the technology has evolved we can see how blue notes of sampling are being lost as key limitations are being overcome by “advances.”
First, let’s consider the E-Mu SP-1200, which is still thought to be the most definitive sounding sampler for hip-hop styled sample-based compositions, particularly related to drums. The primary reason for this is its low-resolution sampling and conversion rates. For the SP-1200 the Analog to Digital (A/D) and Digital to Analog (D/A) converters were 12-bit at a sample rate of 26.04 kHz (CD quality is 16-bit 44.1 kHz). No matter what quality the source material, there would be a loss in quality once it was sampled into and played out of the SP-1200. This loss proved desirable for drum sounds particularly when combined with the analog filtering available in the unit, giving them a grit that reflected the environments from which the music was emerging.
On top of this, individual samples could only be 2.5 seconds long, with a total available sample time of only 10 seconds. While the sample and conversion rates directly affected the sound of the samples, the time limits drove the way that composers sampled. Instead of finding loops, beatmakers focused on individual sounds or phrases, using the sequencer to arrange those elements into loops. There were workarounds for the sample time constraints; for example, playing a 33-rpm record at 45 rpm to sample, then pitching it back down post sampling was a quick way to increase the sample time. Doing this would further reduce the sample rate, but again, that could be sonically appealing.
An under appreciated limitation of the SP-1200 however, was the visual feedback for editing samples. The display of the SP-1200 was completely alpha numeric; there were no visual representations of the sample other than numbers that were controlled by the faders on the interface. The composer had to find the start and end points of the sample solely by ear. Two producers might edit the exact same kick drum with start times 100 samples (a fraction of a millisecond) apart. Were one of the composers to have recorded the kick at 45 rpm and pitched it down, the actual resolution for the start and end times would be different. When played in a sequence, these 100 samples affect the groove, contributing directly to the feel of the composition. The timing of when the sample starts playback is combined with the quantization setting and the swing percentage of the sequencer. That difference of 100 samples in the edit further offsets the trigger times, which even with quantization turned off fit into the 24 parts per quarter grid limitations of the machine.
Akai’s MPC-60 was the next evolution in sampling technology. It raised the sample and conversion rates to 16-bit and 40 kHz. Sample time increased to a total of 13.1 seconds (upgradable to 26.2). Sequencing resolution increased to 96 parts per quarter. Gone was the crunch of the SP-1200, but the precision went up both in sampling and in sequencing. The main trademark of the MPC series was the swing and groove that came to Akai from Roger Linn’s Linn Drum. For years shrouded in mystery and considered a myth by many, in truth there was a timing difference that Linn says was achieved by delaying certain notes by samples. Combined with the greater PPQ resolution in unquantized mode, even with more precision than the SP-1200, the MPC lent itself to capturing user variation.
Despite these technological advances, sample time and editing limitations, combined with the fact that the higher resolution sampling lacked the character of the SP-1200, kept the MPC from being the complete package sample composers desired. For this reason it was often paired with Akai’s S-950 rack sampler. The S-950 was a 12-bit sampler but had a variable sample rate between 7.5 kHz and 40 kHz. The stock memory could hold 750 KB of samples which at the lowest sample rate could garner upwards of 60 seconds of sampling and at the higher sample rates around 10 seconds. This was expandable to up to 2.5 MB of sample memory.
The editing capabilities made the S-950 such a powerful sampler. Being able to create internal sample loops, key map samples to a keyboard, modify envelopes for playback, and take advantage of early time stretching (which would come of age with the S-1000)—not to mention the filter on the unit—helped take sampling deeper into the sound design territory. This again increased the variable possibilities from composer to composer even when working from the same source material. Often combined with the MPC for sequencing, composers had the ultimate sample-based composition workstation.
Today, there are literally no limitations for sampling. Perhaps the subtlest advances have developed the precision with which samples can be edited. With these advances, the biggest shift has been the reduction of the reliance on ears. Recycle was an early software program that started to replace the ears in the editing process. With Recycle an audio file could be loaded, and the software would chop the sample into component parts by searching for the transients. Utilizing Recycle on the same source, it was more likely two different composers could arrive at a kick sample that was truncated identically.
Another factor has been the waveform visualization of samples for editing. Some earlier hardware samplers featured the waveform display for truncating samples, but the graphic resolution within the computer made this even more precise. By looking at the waveform you are able to edit samples at the point where a waveform crosses the middle point between the negative and positive side of the signal, known as the zero-crossing. The advantage of zero-crossing sampling is that it prevents errors that happen when playback goes from either side of the zero point to another point in one sample, which can make the edit point audible because of the break in the waveform. The end result of zero-crossing edited samples is a seamlessness that makes samples sound like they naturally fit into a sequence without audible errors. In many audio applications snap-to settings mean that edits automatically snap to zero-crossing—no ears needed to get a “perfect” sounding sample.
It is interesting to note that with digital files it’s not about recording the sample, but editing it out of the original file. It is much different from having to put the turntable on 45 rpm to fit a sample into 2.5 seconds. Another differentiation between digital sample sources is the quality of the files, whether original digital files (CD quality or higher), lossless compression (FLAC), lossy compressed (MP3, AAC) or the least desirable though most accessible, transcoded (lossy compression recompressed such as YouTube rips). These all result in a different degradation of quality than the SP-1200. Where the SP-1200’s downsampling often led to fatter sounds, these forms of compression trend toward thinner-sounding samples.
Some producers have created their own sound using thinned out samples with the same level of sonic intent as The RZA’s on “Stroke of Death.” The lo-fi aesthetic is often an attempt to capture a sound to parallel the golden era of hardware-based sampling. Some software-based samplers by example will have an SP-1200 emulation button that reduces bit rates to 12-bit. Most of software sequencers have groove templates that allow for the sequencers to emulate grooves like the MPC timing.
Perhaps the most important part of the sample-based composition process however, cannot be emulated: the ear. The ear in this case is not so much about the identification of the hot sample. Decades of history should tell us that the hot sample is truly a dime a dozen. It takes a keen composer’s ear to hear how to manipulate those sounds into something uniquely theirs. Being able to listen for that and then create that unique sound—utilizing whatever tools— that is the blue note of sampling. And there is simply no way to automate that process.
Featured image: “Blue note inverted” by Flickr user Tim, CC BY-ND 2.0
Primus Luta is a husband and father of three. He is a writer and an artist exploring the intersection of technology and art, and their philosophical implications. He maintains his own AvantUrb site. Luta was a regular presenter for Rhythm Incursions. As an artist, he is a founding member of the collective Concrète Sound System, which spun off into a record label for the exploratory realms of sound in 2012. Recently Concréte released the second part of their Ultimate Break Beats series for Shocklee.
REWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:
“SO! Reads: Jonathan Sterne’s MP3: The Meaning of a Format”-Aaron Trammell
“Remixing Girl Talk: The Poetics and Aesthetics of Mashups”-Aram Sinnreich
“Sound as Art as Anti-environment”-Steven Hammer