A Mixtape By Any Other Name
One of the nice things about having your own record label must be the ability to curate and release albums like Hip Hop Roots, essentially putting a corporate marketing department and international distribution behind your own mix tape. That’s what Tommy Boy founder Tom Silverman has done here, collecting a dozen 1970s and ‘80s tracks that, as he puts it, “[represent] and still [are] the cornerstone for Hip Hop”.
Fair enough, but let’s talk semantics here for a minute. On its cover artwork, Hip Hop Roots also claims to include “[t]he original soul, funk, & rock songs that inspired hip hop classics”. These songs are performed by everyone from James Brown and Bob James to The Monkees and Billy Squier. Billy Squier? Well, it’s not such a secret in hip hop circles that his ‘80s work has been heavily sampled, mostly because of its booming, ultra-compressed drums. Now let’s say I decide to build a new, ultramodern house in the suburbs. And for the front door I use a slab of wood that came from an old oak tree. Has that old tree inspired my new house? No, it’s become a component of it. It’d be more accurate to say my house has implemented the tree.
So, when Silverman tells me that a sample from Squier’s “Big Beat” is the “cornerstone” of Jay Z’s “99 Problems”, I’ll buy it. But did the Squier song inspire Jay-Z? I doubt it. What’s the difference, you ask? The difference is in giving Squier and his producer Eddie Offord too much credit, because “Big Beat” is the same dumbed-down, ultra-polished take on Robert Plant and Led Zeppelin as nearly all Squier’s tracks from the era. The only thing it inspires me to do is roller skate. And, as much a classic as David Bowie’s “Fame” may be, was it really the impetus behind Sir Mix-A-Lot’s classic “My Posse’s On Broadway”? Or did it happen to include some beats that were ripe for sampling?
You see, this whole “roots” concept is messed up, anyway. You could, for instance, argue that hip hop’s true roots lie in dub reggae, but nothing of the sort is featured on Hip Hop Roots. Furthermore, while it’s fun to listen to these tracks and play the “spot the sample” game, many times it’s the hip hop producers who are more responsible than the artists for incorporating a certain sample. For example, it wasn’t really Run-DMC who made James’ “Take Me to the Mardi Gras” the foundation for their own “Peter Piper”. Rick Rubin, who produced the ‘DMC track, is more responsible. But Silverman’s liner notes make no mention whatsoever of producers or their role.
Here’s my suggestion: Just enjoy some of the ultra-funky gems that Silverman has assembled—songs that really did inspire hip-hop in one way or another. I’m talking about the slicing hi-hats and near-rapping of Jimmy Castor Bunch’s “It’s Just Begun”. Or Ly Collins and the JB’s’ “Think (About It)”; which, if it weren’t from 1972, you’d swear included samples itself, what with those breakbeats and all the “Oooh! Yeah!” interjections. Or how about that insinuating bassline on Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band’s “Express Yourself”? Or the multi-tiered, NY skank of Cymande’s “Bra”. You can’t deny that hip hop as we know it wouldn’t exist without James Brown and his funky drummer, and a live “Give it Up or Turnit Loose” is a great reminder of that.
As for the wildcards like Squier, Bowie, and the Monkees’ “Mary Mary”, they certainly do add some diversity to the proceedings, illustrating how sampling has allowed hip hop production to become about as all-inclusive as you can get. The only real unwelcome track is ESG’s “UFO”. Regardless of how many times it’s been sampled, it sounds like a Can outtake, and not a very interesting one in 2005.
Ultimately, Hip Hop Roots is a mixtape from Tom Silverman to you. That’s about as deep as the philosophy needs to go. And, if this is what happens when Silverman rifles through his record collection, let’s hope he does it again.