Kudos to EMI
EMI deserves serious props. If you aren’t willing to dish out a small fortune on Discogs or search the world over for an original pressing of Joël Vandroogenbroeck’s Birth of Earth (Coloursound, 1980), you can go on KPM’s website and listen to a high-quality digital version, complete with a detailed breakdown of the genre, mood, instrumentation, and recommended use. The original liner notes are listed below each track, in case you want a brief summary of the planet’s synthesized metamorphosis from Pre-Cambria to Cro-Magnon (e.g., “‘Dinosaurs’: Jurassic, 200 million years ago, heavy walking, pachyderms in prehistoric jungle”). You can now soundtrack your neighborhood jog with the Carboniferous synth-bass pulse of “Volcanic Activity” or the shimmering harp melodies of “Marine Fauna”. Proof the world is a wonderful place, Mastodon extinction notwithstanding.
The search engine is meticulously detailed, much like the back covers of the original LPs. If you’re in the business of soundtracking films or want to soundtrack the story of your life, you can search by label, era, key, tempo, dynamics, meter, minimum and maximum bpm, lyric theme, and more. A search for a KPM record with a “bumbling/clumsy” character, a “disturbing” mood, and a fast tempo from the 1980s brings you to one of Richard Myhill’s 30-second commercial jingles of “musical mayhem with crazy effects”, complete with pizzicato strings, slide whistle, Hammond organ, staccato technique, “mechanical/transport: car” sound effects, and “angular/disjointed” movement.
A search for KPM releases with a sexy mood recommended for daytime TV brings up titles like “Lounge Lizard”, “Funk Junk”, “Future Lover”, and “Eat My Cheese”. There’s a good chunk of output from the past couple years, proof that production music – which is generally associated with its heyday from the late ’60s through the mid-’80s – is still being churned out at an impressive rate.
The sheer awesomeness of EMI’s preservation efforts cannot be understated. You can flit through the entirety of Alan Hawkshaw and Keith Mansfield’s classic action-film funk record Beat Incidental (KPM, 1969) or the b-boy-friendly instrumentals on Alan Parker’s The Sound of Soul (Themes International, 1976), or the heavily saturated wah-wah strut of Brian Bennet’s “Boogie Juice” (KPM, 1976). Funk flavors abound. Delving into EMI’s digital archive of the KPM 1000 Series is like discovering lost volumes of Ultimate Breaks & Beats. The veneration hip-hop DJs have for these records is well-deserved.
“[KPM] is the perfect catalog for DJs and producers,” Damu says. “Most of it, ninety-plus percent of it, is instrumental and groove-based.”
Jared Boxx, a deep-crates aficionado who worked for renowned NYC record stores Big City Records and A1 Records, explains that part of what draws producers to library records is their readymade quality.
“When you’re beat digging,” Boxx says, “you’re always looking for stuff that’s almost already done for you. You drop the needle on an album and you’re like, ‘Oh my goodness, I don’t need to do nothing to this.’ Those are rare. I think sound libraries were so desirable, were so mind-blowing, because they were readymade.”
Deca agrees. “A lot of that stuff is like readymade proto hip-hop,” he says. “Alan Hawkshaw and Alan Tew’s work on a lot of the records on [Themes International] are good examples of that. You could just loop pieces of some of those tracks and call it a day.
“And all three labels, Conroy, Themes, and KPM have a little bit of everything. Heavy Breaks, beautiful melodies, grimy sounds, horn stabs, percussion loops, solo instrumentation, b-boy breaks: all the elements producers look for.”
Still, the KPM library hasn’t been sampled in hip-hop nearly as often as the average head might expect.
Del tha Funky Homosapien dispensed rhymes like Pez dispensers over a beefed flip of Nick Ingman’s “Tense Preparation” (KPM, 1976), repurposing alleyway haunts for praying mantis techniques that wreck beats. Battle rappers have long boasted of defiling instrumentals à la Krylon throw-ups, or demolishing them altogether, crumbling stained concrete structures and disappearing the wildstyle graffiti stuck to their façades. DJs build up beats to get knocked down. Yesteryear’s freshest sounds are subjected to ruination for the sake of mutation.
Dilated Peoples sped up Johnny Pearson’s string section, looping a thin sheet of melody now unrecognizable from its source. “Busy Aggregation” (KPM, 1974) gains in pitch and unsettling vigor. Ninety-nine percent of the track is lopped off. The sampled sliver gets compressed, stained, rushed through a gerbil wheel of perpetual agitation. All so a three-man underground rap crew can “Amplify, magnify, broaden [their] reach / Expand, exercise, extend, increase.” The same goes for Pearson’s original. Defiling the sonic past is rap’s prerequisite for launching dusty sounds into the now.
Drake’s production squad stretched the glockenspiel on Brian Bennet’s “Glass Tubes” (KPM, 1975) to sparkle beneath pressurized trap bumps, over which Drake proclaimed he’s “got a bigger pool than Ye.” A champion of capitalism with a prolific body of work and a vantage from the presidential suite, of course Drake would search out samples on Industry Volume 2, a compilation of “modem industrious scores depicting power, experimentation, expectancy, waste and staticity.”
Let’s be honest: Drake didn’t dig for that sample. He probably has a shadowy clique of record collectors at his bidding, the kind of highly connected vinyl hunters who snoop around overstuffed basements, U-Haul storage blocks, and private collections housed in Tribeca lofts, all while wearing trench coats and sunglasses and lugging briefcases crammed with bricks of $100 bills. For serious crate diggers, part of the appeal of library records is how hard they are to find. Those in the know have surely felt the thrill of coming across a crinkled greensleeve in a stack of garden variety pop LPs.
“I think there’s the aspect that it’s a bit of a hidden gem,” says Clarke on the appeal of library records for hip-hop DJs. “Obviously this stuff wasn’t released commercially, so the vinyls aren’t out there as much. If you do find them, it’s a bit more rare than some commercial works.”
So what does digitization mean for the future of crate digging? By digitizing as many records as humanly possible, will KPM actually lessen the impact these records have on hip-hop culture even as they become more accessible? Could this be a case where so much treasure is unearthed that it’s not considered treasure anymore? Or will this intense digitization project, paired with the KPM Crate Diggers series, expand the influence of library records on hip-hop culture in directions that couldn’t have been foreseen years ago, when this music was far less accessible?
Jason Attwater, aka DJ Credit One, a true-school crate digger and the DJ for the 2010 KPM/EMI Music Awards, has mixed feelings.
“Digitizing is definitely the way forward for producers and DJs of today,” he says, “but personally I feel the digital age has killed a part of hip-hop culture which is the backbone of the artform. For me, the DJ has always been the father of the culture, digging the drum breaks for the dancers and MCs to go off to. I do understand that it is 2021 and the art form has to progress, but for me personally, I will always keep with the tradition of the original hip-hop DJ, which is doubling up those hard-to-find drum breaks on vinyl.”
Boxx shares another perspective. “I think it’s a win-win. What I mean is it’s going to be a win for EMI because people are going to sample [the records] more. It’s going to get used more because thankfully they have been preserving them. But there’s always going to be that community of people who want to find the original [vinyl] if it’s out there.
“The good ones will always be desirable, and the good ones are definitely harder to find than they were 15 or 20 years ago. Even in Europe – because it seems like there were just a lot more over in Europe than there were in America – I think even in Europe they’re hard to find now.
“The style of music speaks to a specific era,” says Damu. “A lot of what went into making those [KPM] records is lost. It’s antiquated. Preserving that, and going back and celebrating that, is only right.”