Pickin’ Up the Pieces: Sampling from the Great Producers

A guitarist plays within minor pentatonic scales and writes a blues composition. A composer draws upon recognizable themes and scores a film. Four men dress like another popular rock group, enact each member’s onstage persona, replicate the music note-for-note and consider themselves “a band”. On the other hand, a man loops four bars of a recording and must defend the permissibility of his work in court. Although each of these cases involves for-profit music performance, digital sampling takes exception for facing a litigious challenge to its existence.

While sampling cases have touched down across genre lines, the eye of the storm has centered on hip-hop (see “Copyright and Music: A History Told in MP3’s” by Madeleine Baran on Illegal-art.org). Understandably so, considering that more than any other medium, it can claim to have records in its DNA. Whether a DJ mixed it, an MC rhymed over it, or a producer manipulated it, the recording has been at the root of hip-hop music. So when the precedent-setting Grand Upright v. Warner case in 1991 deemed rapper Biz Markie’s use of ’70s pop star Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally)” outright theft — Judge Kevin Duffy superceded the consideration of legal parameters to sampling in commercial music and instead established Biz’s sampling as copyright infringement — the ensuing existential crisis was understandable (see referenced Opinion by Judge Kevin Thomas Duffy). Without access to its life source, how could hip-hop music flourish? When record label lawyers subsequently took for granted that samples had to be cleared to avoid legal headaches, hip-hop’s relationship with music changed from confrontational (“I’ll do it my way”) to conditional (“Uh, may I please…?”).

Referenced Albums

Various Artists, The Edge: David Axelrod at Capitol Records — 1966-1970 (Blue Note)
US Release Date: 13 September 2005
UK Release Date: 19 September 2005

Various Artists, Mizell: The Mizell Brothers at Blue Note Records: 1972-1976 and Beyond (Blue Note)
US Release Date: 13 September 2005
UK Release Date: 19 September 2005

However, Duffy was no Roberts or Alito — the decision did not completely clamp down on the reproductive rights of hip-hop music. Oddly enough, the legal parameters surrounding wholesale sampling may have helped artists by forcing a reevaluation of sampling’s meaning; by affixing a price to a particular sound, artists now had to consider its literal worth to the song. Prior to the ruling, there is evidence that many a producer had not dug too deep into either his crates or creativity. As writer Courtney Bryant reminds us in “Biz Markie — I Need a Pay Cut”, during the apparent “Golden Age” (or Silver, depending on when you were born) — a period from the late ’80s to early ’90s prior to much of the sampling litigation that is frequently cited for being a creative and cultural apex of hip-hop — both mainstream and amateur artists often resorted to the same, popular drum loops and samples (SoulStreet.com). According to The Breaks.com, a comprehensive listing of known samples, close to 80 of the 117 documented uses of the Honeydrippers’ “Impeach the President” comes from this halcyon era. Funny how even during such an artistic wellspring, so many would choose to use the same material, hmm? On the other hand (and more seriously), the unique bar set by sample-savvy and sample-dense records like Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, De la Soul’s Three Feet High and Rising, and the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique should not suggest that quantity is the prime indicator of quality, especially when such voluminous sampling today would require the bankroll of Bill Gates. Rather, today’s critique of production begs for more than a that-sample-was-ill slap-on-the-back, but for an assessment of the whole composition.

So, while these legal parameters have the pundits either decrying sample restrictions as legally/morally wrong or towing the court’s line as proof of hip-hop’s illegitimacy (“Thief’s Theme”, anyone?), artists have been pushed to consider the fundamental question: what makes a hip-hop song dope? The topic is vibrant, because the answer is in perpetual motion; it keeps in step with technologic capability and human creativity. However, the constant is that the composition as a whole must be structurally sound. That Dr. Dre, one of the most renowned producers in contemporary hip-hop, can now state, “I don’t really dig working with samples because you’re so limited when you sample”, is positively encouraging (Dr.Dre Interview With SCRATCH Magazine, 23 May 2005). His comment reminds artists, listeners, and critics alike that attention should be paid to the myriad other aspects involved in music production, like song structure, rhythmic patterns, sound quality, and so forth. It’s not just about the hook, it’s not just about the drops, it’s not just about the scratch chorus, and it sure as hell ain’t about a salary; it’s about a totality. Little surprise, then, that many of the strongest hip-hop producers have looked to arrangers and producers of the past for more than just a little sample clearance. After all, articulating a unified vision through multiple musicians, instruments, parts, and/or tracks remains a rare ability in any generation.

This month, we’re in luck because help is on the way from some old school masters: David Axelrod and Larry and Fonce Mizell. The subjects of two new retrospectives, The Edge: David Axelrod at Capitol Records: 1966-1970 and Mizell: The Mizell Brothers at Blue Note Records: 1972-1976 and Beyond, as well as frequent sampling, they can also be viewed as role models for our conversation. Both compilations highlight the staying power of these men’s work, but the timely release also provides an opportunity to draw parallels with the men’s contemporaries. Fortunately, there are some strong keepers of the faith.

I picked three modern songs that sample Axe and the Mizell Brothers, and will discuss the unique production affects of these “before” and “after” works. The songs are: Main Source’s “Lookin’ at the Front Door”, produced by Large Professor, which samples the Mizell production of Donald Byrd’s “Think Twice”; DJ Shadow’s “Dark Days Theme”, self-produced, which samples the Axelrod production of David McCallum’s “House of Mirrors”; and Dr. Dre’s “The Next Episode”, also self-produced, which samples the Axelrod production of McCallum’s “The Edge”. The common thread in all of these works transcends clever sample selection, a catchy hook, or a dope beat; each song demonstrates composition, arrangement, and production at admirable intellectual and soulful levels.

On the surface our first pair appears to be an odd couple. Mizell Brothers productions often feature a mellow tone and gentle attention to detail. For example, the Mizells open Donald Byrd’s “Wind Parade” with layers of high, reedy pitches to create a feint tension before the main melody is eased in. An unusual blend of chimes, staccato piano stabs, berimbau, and Ghanaian bell creates a dramatic entrance for the conventional strings and guitar that provide the familiar warmth and suppleness. Although the varied instrumentation appears kitchen sink, it is in fact deliberate and well organized. In this manner, the Mizells slowly unfold each of their songs, allowing players to solo at select moments, but always keeping the song moving forward with accents at key junctures. It is strictly foreplay, a patient, strategic build towards climax. Even uptempo numbers like Bobbi Humphrey’s “Uno Esta” and Donald Byrd’s “Design a Nation” gradually build steam with grains of crescendos and layers of horns and strings. The music cruises the open Hart to Hart highway more than twisting through narrow Shafts. Though Mizell does not display the full extent of the brothers’ diverse faculty — the focus here is on their largely instrumental and vocal-lite jazz, though they stretched into mainstream fare with Marvin Gaye and Michael Jackson — this compilation captures their fine, refined qualities.

First album (and Golden/Silver Age!) Main Source, on the other hand, is deliberately smart and rough. Where the Mizells gradually revealed their goodies, Main Source’s debut Breaking Atoms flaunted its flashy trove of crate digger nuggets, from funk staple “90% of Me Is You” to dancehall “Bam Bam” to oddball ’60s jam rock “Season of the Witch”; and these were just some of the sources for one track. However, in spite of producer and MC William “Large Professor” Mitchell’s rugged nerd-thug flow, Breaking Atoms is more about a solid first achievement like a B.A. degree than a bad ass’ attitude. The album’s samples are neatly layered, its subject matter is modest, and its overall tone is simply well executed fun.

In this sense, “Lookin’ at the Front Door” exemplifies the symmetry between the Mizells and Mitchell. Both the Main Source track and the source cut layer hooks galore within a concise structure. The hooks for both songs involve dialogue: “Lookin'” pairs a catchy vocal from the Pazant Brothers and the Beaufort Express’ “Chick-A-Boom” (in a recent interview between the writer and Ed and Al Pazant, both brothers simply responded with baritone intonations of the goofy chorus and chuckles when asked about the origins of the song) with the bridge of Byrd’s song; “Twice”‘s call is your girl hanging on the telephone and its response is your whispering bass profundo. Both pairings are unusual, somewhat lopsided, but completely in key with each song’s respective theme of lover’s remorse. Respectively added to the crisp Detroit Emeralds breakbeat propelling “Lookin'” and the snappy drummer promoting the rollerskater’s hustle in “Twice”, neither song overstays its welcome; in fact, the Mizell Brothers’ extended remix of “Twice” on Mizell is so subtle that it only further embellishes the original’s simple profundity and makes it ideal for a spin around the rink. As such, both the Mizells and Main Source are akin to champion middleweights — Hank Mobleys of their respective fields, with all due respect — producers with a big yet easy touch.

If we extend the boxing analogy to our next two cases (as this article is being written, Eothen Alapatt’s cover feature on Axelrod, which also features an extended boxing metaphor, has just been published in Wax Poetics #14), then Axelrod, Shadow, and Dre would undoubtedly be heavyweights. Axe and Shadow share this status for the sheer emotional density of their work. With spare instrumentation and sound, the two dramatize the listener’s headspace. Throughout The Edge, Axelrod emphasizes mood over melody in both his “solo” work and production and writing for other artists. He lays out shards of violins and shines vibes on the thin broken pile, shivering a reflection of “A Divine Image”. Like orchestrated Coltrane he builds sonic barricades, but with careful patience instead of frantic energy; sharp, piercing space shimmers before being offset by a fit of violence, be it a busy Earl Palmer drum fill or an H.B. Barnum arranged brass outburst.

The images are vivid and the effect explicit. What little melody that exists becomes melancholy, as on “The Human Abstract” where three notes drag their feet to a funeral dirge. Similarly, Shadow establishes a distinct atmosphere before attacking with accents. He hurtles breaks into the void over the saddest nonhuman human voice on “What Does Your Soul Look Like? Part 1”, elongating time and lulling the listener before the sudden cacka-lacka pumps a fist in slow motion. They are unassuming artists with big records.

Perhaps then Shadow’s “Dark Days Theme” and Axe’s “House of Mirrors” draw the closest parallel of the three pairings. Both tracks are incredibly visual, allowing spare yet exaggerated music movements to establish the atmosphere of the song. “House” threatens to veer out of control, its beat swinging so hard through the one and yet dropping to a dead halt on the two. Axelrod guides the bad drunk’s swagger with a guitar line stumbling up…then awkwardly down, while David McCallum (or Barnum?)’s hollow voice warbles on about empty woes; it is a scotch-soaked two-step in the midnight hour of Gotham.

Shadow sticks to the script in terms of melody, but changes the scene completely. He emphasizes the syncopation of Axe’s drummer by mostly looping an exceptionally swinging segment, thereby establishing a smoother ride. He nods to “House”‘s contained rage by pushing tympani-like bass tones upon the original kicks, but the cleaner, lower tone makes “Dark Days” a cooler affair. A hollow-body guitar (or an amplified koto? and is this the credited sample?) finalizes the whiteout to a high noon stroll through a dusty landscape; it’s a new old frontier, perfect for the accompanying film’s subject matter. However, both tracks build their respective images by carefully applying layers while maintaining a level volume, allowing the listener the time to create the image. So when Axe’s brass hoots and Shadow’s crying piano suddenly come crashing through, the break in monotony is both jarring and exhilarating. Like puppetmasters, like master auteurs, these two demonstrate a mastery of control and vision. These are not just songs; they are three-minute (or less!) thrill rides.

Although parallels largely bring the aforementioned together, the contrasts between the final pair make for the most exciting example of excellent production, in addition to clearly illustrating how a sample can be dramatically altered from its source. Axelrod and Dre have seemingly few musical commonalities: for every abstract atonality Axe embraces, Dre has a clear P-/G-funk melody; for every languid passage in piano that Axe coaxes, Dre has a nail-biting synth that screams bloody murder; and for every esoteric title Axe waxes, Dre will simply put a dick in your mouth. However, these differences almost guarantee vastly unique compositions. Axe’s “The Edge” opens with a cinematically sinister quality, complete with sustained orchestra accents and dun-dun-dun-duh patterns, before gazing inward to an Arthur Lee-like Lovefest. A flute over a crisp beat carries the momentum of the opening melodrama and moves the song to its resolution.

Dre, on the other hand, carves and whittles away “The Edge” and leaves only the raw exposed badness for “The Next Episode”. He speeds up the orchestra accents, removes the string fades and the guitar plucks, reducing the original 14-bar overture to a dynamic four-bar bumrush. Instead of patient drama-resolution, drama-resolution, the listener is shoved over the cliff, expects a valley of twisted metal and carved rocks, only to be met with the emptiness of the afore-clipped guitar line. The effect is intentionally chilling, because the track is meant to be solid G; after all, how can Snoop “step up in this motherfucker just a’swingin’ [his] hair” to the tune of some Donovan flutes? Although Axe’s hook is especially prominent, Dre’s craftsman-like details — from his ambient keyboard tweets to his signature casket rattling kick-snare, kick-kick-snare — refine the track and set the tone. Go ahead, try to throw that Nate Dogg acapella over “The Edge”; I’ll bet the mash-up won’t inspire you to “smoke weed everyday”.

Certainly, these producers represent the cream of the crop, so a certain hyperbole comes with discussing their work. Part of the fun of listening to a star is the epic drama surrounding him or her. However, as we have discussed, each of these producers also understands the importance of a cohesive song. The only differences are the times and the tools; while some work with pens and orchestras, others work with MPCs and drum machines. Sampling is merely one facet of a larger movement in music. Although we did not discuss the influences of the influencers, it certainly does not require a great stretch of the imagination to get an idea of what that may be like. Now, there’s an idea for next time…

RATING 9 / 10