Various Artists: Droppin’ Science: Greatest Samples from the Blue Note Lab

[12 February 2008]

By Thomas Hauner

Public Enemy once proclaimed, “Mail from the courts and jail / Claim I stole the beats that I rail”. Though some sentiments of rap’s violence and vulgar degradation linger amongst detractors, at its onset, hip-hop’s criminal perception was only further diminished by myriad copyright infringement lawsuits for unauthorized sampling. Responding to such claims through music was only natural for Chuck D and others, but their resistance raised an important, though sometimes asinine, question: Is hip-hop musical innovation or intellectual property thievery?

Since then, hundreds of thousands of rhymes have been laid down to hundreds of thousands of chopped up beats, but still a legal understanding that the “existing stock of ideas and expressions is, to a great extent, the raw material from which new intellectual property is fashioned,” (Posner, 2002) has yet to be widely accepted. Fortunately, Blue Note’s acknowledgement and lauding of its contribution to hip-hop, as celebrated in Droppin’ Science: Greatest Samples from the Blue Note Lab, is reassuring to the future of the genre and musical progression as a whole. And, more fundamentally, the album serves as a competent syllabus for a history in hip-hop sampling.

Not to be mistaken for simply hold music, “Think Twice” is also future hip-hop. Fair enough that Donald Byrd’s first track on Droppin’ Science suggests quintessential muzak: Jackson 5 light funk, meandering verses, the occasional bridge, and confident yet overlooked soloing. But this is one of the underlying characteristics of Droppin’ Science: Inviting, catchy riffs and melodies that linger in each track—and the listener’s ear—through extended cadences and whimsical soloing.

Instantly the most recognizable sample in this collection, “The Edge” evokes a definitively milder emotion than yearning for money, clothes, and weed as essentials. It’s alluring that the sample maintains its form in Dr. Dre’s “The Next Episode”. Its original sound serves well in creating a subdued setting, before the inevitable corruption by the sinuous rhymes of Snoop and Nate Dogg, similar to the bellicose brass interrupting “The Edge”‘s melancholy horn lines.

A Tribe Called Quest’s storied sound and sampling first manifested itself on one of the group’s first singles, “Can I Kick It”.  Though the obvious and dominant sample belongs to Lou Reed (“Walk on the Wild Side”), the interludes preceding each chorus are distinctly Lonnie Smith’s “Spinning Wheel”, from his 1970 Blue Note release Drives. What’s interesting is that the Tribe more or less used the sample for the same function in their track as Smith did in his, as a turnaround.

Brother Jack McDuff’s recording of “Oblighetto” is reminiscent of the pulsating energy of the contemporary jazzmen of Soulive—but energy juxtaposed by ghoulish howls and cries. Soulive’s sound would also draw comparisons to Smith’s “Spinning Wheel”. Naturally, Soulive is a Blue Note hip-hop liaison of sorts, having played with Talib Kweli and others. Soulive guitarist Eric Krasno has taken his producing a step further, forming production team the Fyre Department. Its jazz-laden production has most recently contributed to “My Gun Go Off” on 50 Cent’s latest effort, Curtis, and numerous tracks on Kweli’s Eardrum—further evidence of jazz’s inarguable importance to hip-hop. Moreover, Droppin’ Science as a whole is a testament to and recognition of hip-hop’s ancestry and confounding influence.

On “Get Out of My Life”, the progressive horn sound embellishing Joe Williams’s viscous voice is a case of Dixieland meets the Dap Kings. Thad Jones/Mel Lewis’s Jazz Orchestra resonates with earthy baritones and bounce, and yearns for the smooth delivery of Biggie or Snoop to forge hip-hop gold. Neither does deliver, but Biz Markie’s production and rapping on “Funk Is Back” do the laid-back groove justice.

Not all of the samples included are as pronounced in their application as those noted.  Many, like Lou Donaldson’s “Who’s Makin Love (To Your Old Lady)” as sampled in Biggie Small’s “One More Chance (Remix)”, simply add subtleties and texture to the sonic collage created by each producer.

Droppin’ Science accomplishes two notable feats. First, its introduction to the tastes of hip-hop’s most innovative and influential producers, like Dr. Dre, Q-Tip and Tribe, Prince Paul, and Large Professor, is comprehensive. However, there are some notable omissions, like the Bomb Squad. Second, it induces the listener to recognize the ingenious ability to identify potential beats within the most inconspicuous tracks and, through metamorphosis no doubt, shape them into unique soundscapes. So what was once a capricious flute solo in Jeremy Steig’s “Howling for Judy” becomes the Beastie Boys’ hard anthem, “Get It Together” instead of another Harlem Globetrotters theme.

The very creation of this collection is significant, per se. Despite hip-hop’s rocky legal history with sampling, from the Beastie Boys, De La Soul, and Biz Markie to Jay Z and Birdman, Blue Note tacitly makes an important statement in releasing this album by harmoniously promoting jazz and hip-hop and leading the way to a fruitful relationship down the road. Who knows, it may even accomplish unthinkable things, like converting a hip-hopper into a bopper, or vice-versa.

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