These Are the Breaks: The Motown Sound’s Influence on Hip-Hop Sampling

Talking about the art of sampling without including Motown is like talking about soul music without Otis Redding or rock ‘n’ roll without Elvis — it just doesn’t quite complete the puzzle. The house that Berry Gordy built has been integral to the conception of hip-hop, its implementation of sampling, and the growth patterns of a music that advanced the urban streets of New York and slowly but surely took over the streets of the world.

While sampling has held its niche in the underground of hip-hop, legal problems have forced it out to the forefront, unless an artist with stature like Kanye West or Q-Tip takes the time to get his samples cleared. For any influential group in the hip-hop game, specifically in the early 1990s, Motown’s stamp of approval and its variety of subsidiaries were undeniably influential. Everyone from alternative groups such as A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul, to critical darlings like Common and the Roots, to mainstreamers like Tupac and Biggie have all had their hands in Hitsville U.S.A. This is partly due to the volume of records Gordy’s empire was pressing by the late ’60s — enough for every beat digger to get his fair share of obscure breaks.

Although said obscure breaks often dominate, some of Motown’s best sellers would go on to provide the foundation for some of the most well known breaks. If it was a big seller the first time around, might as well try it again, right? The originators of mainstream hip-hop, Run DMC, found chops in the Temptations’ classic “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”, while Public Enemy used some of the band’s lesser known cuts, such as “Psychedelic Shack” and “I Can’t Get Next to You”. There are a number of reasons why these prominent hip-hop artists found comfort in the grooves of the Motown sound.

For one, Motown always stuck to the K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Stupid) philosophy. One of the most important aspects of a legendary break comes from its ability to be used in repetition; if it becomes too complex, then it is less likely to work its way into the mind of its listeners. A strong backbeat begets an optimum break, and Motown had strong backbeats in spades. The Motown Sound always revolved around the backbeat of drummers like William “Benny” Benjamin, Richard “Pistol” Allen, and Uriel Jones to carry everything else forward, and it was typically accented by Jack Ashford’s tambourine and the rhythmic basslines carried by the legendary index finger of James Jamerson.

The collective of musicians known as the Funk Brothers forever changed the face of music up until Motown’s move from Detroit to Los Angeles in the early ’70s. Both throughout their heyday and through the art of sampling, the Funk Brothers’ style of layering several guitar lines atop a syncopated drummer affords their records a sound unlike anyone else’s. When sampling drums, the feel and volume are of utmost importance — this is why John Bonham has always been one of the legendary sampled drummers. Though Benjamin, Allen, and Jones didn’t pound the kit, they played it with a pure finesse that, when syncopated with an overdub of the same break, truly comes to life. For example, the drums on the Four Tops’ classic “Reach Out I’ll Be There” are crisp and at the front of the mix, something that legendary producer Norman Whitfield had a golden ear for.

The orchestral arrangements used to elaborate many of the classics on Motown became another backbone in the hip-hop sound. Providing atmospheres to a beat unlike any guitar or bass could ever achieve, the sweet sound of strings layered behind thick beats led an entire new generation of hip-hoppers to different sonic territory. Elements like the string arrangements on Motown records, the horn arrangements that followed James Brown, and the sparseness found in jazz contemporaries such as Miles Davis, Charlie Mingus, and Sonny Rollins helped put hip-hop on a new scale. It allowed the beats to take on a life of their own, creating atmospheres to get lost in behind the lyrics. This may have been what opened up a world of beat records and gave labels like Stones Throw a lifelong supply of influence. It was about getting past drums alone and into a world of atmospheres where the beats no longer needed lyrics to be a creative force.

While we could go into a book-long discussion on the quintessential samples used by artists of Motown songs and artists, that could become irrelevant to a certain extent. What’s important to realize is how the aesthetic territory explored by the Funk Brothers, Whitfield, Gordy, and the wonderful recording artists for the beloved Detroit label and its subsidiaries influenced the aesthetic process in the world of sampling. The sonic territory explored in the Motown lab is a cornerstone in the similar territory explored decades later by a new generation of African-American innovators. For one, the late J Dilla, producer of classics by A Tribe Called Quest, the Pharcyde, and countless other underground icons, is a man of Detroit blood and holds the sounds of Motown near and dear to his heart and sound. It may not have been his samples per say, but his aesthetic approach is very similar to that of the Motown Sound. His beats have always been based on the K.I.S.S. method, and his drums always crisp (even when they were raw-sounding drums).

Motown will forever stand on its own as a timeless entity in the realm of popular music. For a younger generation, knowing about Gordy’s legacy may not be at the top of one’s priority list. But for a generation of hip-hoppers that have been exposed to the music of Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, Stevie Wonder, et al through a new styling of music suited to their tastes, the sound of the cut-up beat is one that sends them headlong into a world of wax. Through this, they are exposed to a sound unlike any other, a sound that is gracing the radio each and every day and staying relevant through a new medium — one method sustaining another.