I was on a boat with family reading Bring That Beat Back by Nate Patrin. As we hit turbulence I looked at my wife and said “I might be able to interview this guy. I should try.” She looked unmoved and agreed, “Sure, why not?” By the end of that day I had an agreement with Nate to do an email interview on his book about the history of sampling. It is further proof that trying, while not undefeated, is a powerful first step.
He really pulls apart moments and careers in this book and never in a way that steps in with sick burns while people are down. By picking key producers to follow through chapters and use as historical threads he builds empathy for everyone’s struggle through a career in this evolving musical space. Check out what he had to say below:
Q- Hip hop history is more covered than it ever has been before but like all collective historical memory; it thins and summarizes into a few key events. Were you consciously seeking to contrast bigger names against smaller (Public Enemy and Ultramagnetic, Dre and Above The Law) to expand that or did you just go where your interests took you?
A- I wanted to be as holistic as possible, where I could go in whichever direction seemed right, while still being able to form a coherent narrative based around the historical elements of the music. Some of it leaned a bit towards wanting to highlight and emphasize a few names that didn’t always get their due, but I wasn’t too high on doing some kind of kill-your-idols iconoclasm (though I do think some Kanye fans might think I’ve downplayed him a bit too much compared to Dilla, which, eh). What I really felt like focusing on was writing about hip-hop in a way that’d entertain and inform both entry-level folks and longtime heads, and I’ve gotten some good response from both camps, so I’m glad it seemed to click there. I could have definitely gone into even more depth if I was given free reign wordcount-wise, but I’m definitely an advocate for seeing other writers take their own perspectives on the subject. It’s not the last word, just the first.
Q- Whether Grandmaster Flash, D.O.C., or Jungle Brothers I found myself lost in the alternate careers of the dazzling talents who never got longevity or the full stage. I credit your authorial focus for pulling back the camera so we can look at the lesser known careers that really changed the culture. Can you think of anyone specifically you were researching who had you digging and getting lost in what could have been?
A- The sad version of this answer is Paul C — he had so much up his sleeve to contribute, he was a great engineer as well as a sharp-minded producer and even though we wound up with an all-time legend heir apparent in Large Professor I still wonder what kind of Organized Konfusion or Eric B. & Rakim albums we could’ve gotten out of him into the ’90s. J Dilla’s another one, too, of course, though his influence has lingered long enough that we’re getting glimpses of what could’ve been via producers like knxwledge and Black Milk. But it’s also strange how much good music actually came out of artists not being given their due — how Prince Paul was able to channel his feelings of rejection into Gravediggaz, or MF DOOM emerging out of the personal tragedy of his brother’s death and Elektra’s shelving Black Bastards. Inversely you’ve got Dre, who was given all the opportunity to be successful, and kind of burned himself out multiple times — so it’s a double-edged sword, really.
Q- Reading Bring That Beat Back sent me into a full discography dive of Chic. I realized they were one of those groups I’d heard all the hits but none of the albums(I really liked the 80’s into 1992 post-Good Times era). Do you have any picks for sampled artists or albums from the book that people should dig deeper into?
A- Wow, that’s a really open-ended question considering how much I’ve found just from sample-tracing and so forth. James Brown’s the big gimme, of course; his late ’60s material and the J.B.’s-driven ’70s work is just boundless. I’d also highly recommend just going through the Blue Note catalog from around ’66-’76 or so, when soul jazz and funk/fusion crossover really went off. Donald Byrd alone provides hours of listening enjoyment.
Q- I recently heard the theory that if Drake goes indie that would be the death of major record labels. I have no idea if that is true BUT a lot of the greatest talents in rap were ruined by their labels (De La Soul is a painful example). I never feel comfortable making the label era seem like it was great. The budgets were bigger, the videos were cool but we have so many more choices now. Was the label era better than now or worse? What is the fair historical way to frame it?
A-Seeing as how major labels didn’t entirely know what they were doing more than half the time, and even the cool indies like Tommy Boy could drop the ball on keeping artists protected and properly compensated, I’m of the mind that if an artist can make money off the Run the Jewels model — which seems like a super-lucky rarity but could still hold a lot of promise for younger acts if they maintain an amount of autonomy — then fuck a label. Start your own imprint and get a Bandcamp page and you could get something going that’s just wholly self-contained and beholden to nobody but the artist(s). That was the whole ecosystem for niche underground scenes from punk to dance music to early hip-hop, and if the reliable record-store-driven sales of the previous generation aren’t really there, the barrier to entry’s even lower. No more mountain-climbing electric guitarists needed.
Q-The era of sampling we will definitely never see again is the layered era. I remember (long time ago) looking up how many samples were on each song for Fear of a Black Planet and being shocked. I always knew The Bomb Squad used multiple samples that interlock but when you see it all laid out…it’s something else. What album dazzled you the most in terms of pure sampling volume while weaving those disparate samples into coherent songs? Is it one you would have expected when you started the book (Paul’s Boutique)?
A- Even if we don’t necessarily get a 1989 where there’s a litany of albums that just bust out all the “quick, nobody’s looking” creative freedom ideas with the budget to back them up, there’s still a sample culture out there that’s not quite thriving per se but at least has a sense of normalcy to it — you’re less likely to deal with a super-litigious Turtles situation now that the process of clearance issues is fairly standardized. I feel like many of the great sample records are a pretty known quantity by now — all those PE records, Paul’s Boutique, 3 Feet High and Rising, DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing, Madvillainy, J Dilla’s Donuts — all the way back to “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” and the Double Dee & Steinski “Lessons”. But they’re still coming out, whether it’s beats by Ka or Alchemist or Tyler, the Creator or whomever. People who make music are almost always going to be people who really love digging deep into their influences and playing around with them, so I feel like there’ll always be this eagerness to recontextualize music in ways that sampling does best.