DJs, Therapists, and Preachers: The Books and the Art of Sampling

For all their eclecticism and all their mixmanship, electronic duo Paul de Jong and Nick Zammuto, a.k.a. the Books, elude the label ‘DJs’. The schizophrenic sonic adventure of their new album The Way Out evokes images of dusty crates of forgotten media and mad sound engineers doing experiments on inscrutable metal interfaces, but neither looks so familiar as they do emanating from contemporary hip hop classics like J Dilla’s Donuts or DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing… The samples feel different. They often land in the mix with a strange intensity, as though they carry the weight of their history a bit more conspicuously. And why shouldn’t they? The Way Out includes sounds and voices from sources as mundane as weight loss and self-help tapes.

Something more, however, than the stamp of unmitigated obscurity makes the Books’ samples distinctive, a quality magnified, though far from originated, on the new album. They are more assertive than the subjugated, ambient sounds of albums like the KLF’s Chill Out, more cohesive than the disruptive noises of outrageous producers like Lee Perry, and more purposeful than the exotic experiments of dissonant noise groups. They don’t contribute to a pastiche of styles or lend a flavoring of genre. Nor are they meant solely to illustrate a point or explain a lyric. The Books’ samples, which include everything from bits and pieces of everyday noise to extended recordings of Hebrew stenography, are somehow more essential and more secondary at the same time–used for their own sake to create something utterly unrelated.

Most often, the music appropriates them without missing a beat. Even “Group Autogenics I”, which features weird snippets of consciously profound phrases like “We will continue this pattern until we have reached the infinite everything”, adopts the soothing prescriptions of its opening—”On this recording, music specifically created for its pleasurable effects upon your mind, body, and emotions, is mixed with a warm orange-colored liquid”—with a measure of sincerity that is admittedly difficult to gauge. Certainly the meditative groove which tinkers in the background could be imagined to produce such “pleasurable effects”, and one can almost feel the calming liquid dripping from the man’s avuncular voice.

Diced and spliced as the old recordings are, much of the original intended meaning is lost or refashioned. But there is never the sense that Zammuto and de Jong want to eradicate it completely. Enough of the songs take one source or one body of sources as their inspiration that the collage doesn’t become a random mess. “A Cold Freezin’ Night”, for example, rearranges fragments of tapes made by children with toy recorders into a giddy diss-fest bizarrely reminiscent of violent hip hop passages like the opening of “Method Man” from Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). The feeling of bitterness accompanied by naivete is tangible, but the children’s voices, accelerated and synced, do more than foster atmosphere or drive the song forward. It is irresistible to picture, if only for a moment, the kids themselves, especially when one of them refers by name to the girl he’s chewing out. The impulse is encouraged even further by the song’s video, which combines footage of frolicking kids at summer camps and in front yards with scrawled, handwritten captions.

Such an emphasis on the origins of the source material is also clear from the Books’ blog. Zammuto writes clearly and engagingly about the process of each song’s construction. A good chunk of the posts are about different samples’ discovery and how individually they informed his songwriting. One song, the mournful “We Bought the Flood”, was even written in dialogue with video footage. Once you know the story behind the samples, it’s that much harder to resist singling them out for interpretive speculation.

The Way Out proves though, even better than the Books’ other releases, that the music is more than a sterile museum case for sonic artifacts of the past. Zammuto explains the ways that he and his partner are interested in pushing the conventions of meaning in his post about “Free Translator”–the song’s lyrics are a traditional folk song, run through translation software until the words are nearly unrecognizable. It’s just this sort of transposition, a disavowal just short of abandonment, that colors the unsettling fragments of phone messages in “Thirty Incoming” and the ridiculous, random prescience of the bedtime story sampled in “The Story of Hip Hop”. An otherwise unremarkable tale about a grasshopper and his grasshopper family is recycled into an absurd meditation on the popular genre, complete with explosive, motley breaks made of horn blasts and vocal samples. If the music at moments supersedes the storyteller, he returns the favor, furnishing his story, as if irrepressibly, with irrelevant details about flowers.

The Books give their samples room to make such petulant gestures; so maybe rather than the banality or the anonymity of these forgotten voices, it’s the relative freedom they have that makes them striking. Without becoming dispassionate, the production and musicianship on The Way Out give the patronizing therapist from “Group Autogenics I” and the seething, adamant evangelist from “I Am Who I Am” a new space (however manipulative) in which to play out their causes and agendas. The final product is thus all the richer and more suggestive for the range of moods and attitudes it incorporates. Simplistic and somehow presumptuous as it is, the album’s closing sample, given center stage without the interference of other sounds, is poignant: “And it feels so good. So relaxed, and so at ease. And you’re becoming the world, and everyone in it”.