Books

Bring That Beat Back: A Course in Hip-Hop Sampling 101

Image by Darwin Laganzon from Pixabay

In Bring That Beat Back, critic Nate Patrin argues that hip-hop is essentially a forward-looking evolution of black American music with a deep reverence for its predecessors.

Bring That Beat Back: How Sampling Built Hip-Hop
Nate Patrin

University of Minnesota Press

June 2020

Other

For those who love sample-based music, critic Nate Patrin's history of sampling in hip-hop, Bring That Beat Back, shrugs off the haters who would discredit the transcendence of a song like "They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)" simply because Pete Rock lifted the inimitable horn from Tom Scott's 1967 jazz-lounger "Today". Pete's partner, C.L. Smooth, once boasted that the duo could make a jam "better than the original who first made it" in the same verse that claims they're passing on the "funk legacy" of "all the pastime greats" they sample.

Patrin writes that "Pete Rock's beats blurred the borders between a weathered past and an in-the-moment present, archeology and architecture all at once." This is the book's condensed thesis, one of many lines solidifying Patrin's stance that, at its best, hip-hop is essentially a forward-looking evolution of black American music with a deep reverence for its predecessors.

A full thesis comes 82 pages into the book, fittingly enough in a section describing the genre's late 1980's peak that coincided with some of the most creative sample-based records released before or since: De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising, the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique and Coldcut's "Paid In Full" remix:

In roughly ten years, from the late '70s DJ sets to the late '80's SP-1200 soundscapes, hip-hop had created a way of recognizing, acknowledging, renewing, and transforming a collective language of musical history that massively expanded the way music itself is listened to: as a mutable object, the calling up of fragmented memories that get the hook or the beat of a song stuck in your head and then make a new world out of that memory. It was the musical equivalent of restoring an old car to run faster or bounce on hydraulics or gleam with candy-colored paint; it was consolidating the sound of a lifetime's worth of record collections into a distillation of culture or place or time; it was a DIY end run around the rules of how music was made that drastically widened the possibilities for young musicians whose schools were increasingly underfunded in the arts. Most of all, it was en route to becoming the most pervasive, popular, and revolutionary black American art form since jazz…

That's probably the most articulate overview of sampling I've read. The entirety of Bring That Beat Back is grounded in this observation, and because I like imagining nascent hip-hop fans picking up this book and reading the above paragraph, I'm tempted to give it a higher rating based on this section alone. However, Bring That Beat Back has some shortcomings that can muddle the reading experience for both the newbie and the longtime b-boy.

The book is divided into four sections, each covering a pivotal era in hip-hop's history and a DJ/producer figurehead to represent it: Grandmaster Flash, Prince Paul, Dr. Dre, and Madlib. It's a smart move, an attempt to work the narrative of four protagonists into what is otherwise a pretty conventionally presented history. Grandmaster Flash's groundwork for the art of DJing is covered in-depth, as is his indispensable live 12-inch megamix "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel" However, hip-hop moved on quickly without Flash. Patrin's willingness to keep him in the story well after his career stagnated during the genre's wave of live-band recordings feels negligible to the book's movement through hip-hop history.

Also, by the end of the section, Patrin undermines his previous discussions of Flash's technical wizardry on the turntables by stating that his "big achievements mostly boiled down to playing other peoples' records." In actuality, Flash's live recontextualization of music history was as impressive and artful as any producer sitting down to mutate a sample loaded into an MPC. Diminishing Flash's legacy here dilutes the book's argument for the significance of sample-based music.

The biggest setback, though, is that sampling begins to lose its spot as the book's main focus in the third section, which follows the narrative of Dr. Dre's career from the World Class Wreckin' Cru to the twilight of the g-funk era. It's unsurprising that N.W.A. pulls considerable spotlight here, but Patrin gets lost in the group's business ventures and post-breakup beef and neglects to mention "Jackin' for Beats", Ice Cube's frenzied battle-rap equating sampling to a street-corner stick-up while also celebrating it as an act of artistic refinement.

The weakest chapter focuses on Tupac, offering a condensed overview of his career that is both generalized and strays from the book's primary focus on sampling. In fact, aside from "California Love", the production on Tupac's records gets relatively little in-depth writing from Patrin. For readers who came for sampling, the chapter is skippable on grounds of discursion. For fans of gangsta rap in general and Tupac specifically, the chapter is skippable on grounds of redundancy; Tupac's legacy has been told and retold so many times, and in greater depth, that this chapter seems unnecessary.

The issue here is one of target audience. Those steeped in the history of sample-based music will appreciate Bring That Beat Back's positive and accurate representation of the art form, though reading through that history here will have them running into familiar tidbits and some tangents. Young rap fans looking for a starter book on hip-hop could do worse. In fact, the book is best for a general audience. At times, it reads more like a broad history of hip-hop with an emphasis on sampling than a book about sampling in hip-hop music. However, those interested in a history of a genre created by the DJ and expanded with the sampler, Bring That Beat Back is a good place to begin.

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