Last night I saw the excellent Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest.
I’ve always been fascinated by the creative process of hip-hop, and the rare glimpse into that process unfolding is among the most pristine pleasures of this film. It also relates to the game of figuring out the root of a sample, and opening your world to a genre or era of music otherwise forgotten.
It may come as a surprise, but I’ve never thought of the reasons behind hip-hop sampling as simply as the way the members of Tribe state it in the film. Describing how they couldn’t afford instruments, they explain that it was at first exciting to try rhyming over another artist’s music. And once they realized how easy that was, it was the logical next step to start creating these beats themselves.
The most quietly exciting scene comes in the middle of the film, in which we get to watch Q-Tip recreate the way that he found and created the basic drum beat for “Can I Kick It?” An avid record collector, he first explains why he picked up the record Drives by Lonnie Smith: the album cover (pictured above) was sexy. He was attracted to the clothing, the Kangol-style hat, the woman, the Lincoln. Once he heard the drum beat on the song “Spinning Wheel,” he said that he knew it had to be in one of his songs. In a moment of music geekery both recognizable and kindred, Q-Tip’s eyes light up as he recounts this discovery. Then, we continue to peek in his studio as he places the record on his turntable and shows us exactly how he cut and looped that beat. Voilà. Add that Lou Reed bass groove, and the classic song is practically created before our eyes. It’s exhilarating to watch.
This idea of sampling has been on my mind lately because of the new Kanye and Jay-Z song “Otis” off Watch The Throne. Upon first listen, I was thrown off by the straightforward use of Otis Redding’s classic “Try A Little Tenderness,” over which Ye and Jay take turns rapping. I know Kanye is a talented producer; using Bon Iver’s “Woods” on MBDTF‘s “Lost in the World” drew new depths of loneliness and sorrow from Justin Vernon’s original. So it struck me as odd that “Otis” should be so underwhelming. I find it almost cloying that the sample builds and builds without diving into Redding’s ecstatic chorus. It makes me want to turn off “Otis” and turn on the original. I’m not sure if Ye and Jay are necessarily trying to be provocative by not allowing us to hear the place where we expect the song to go, but in sampling a song that is so recognizable and well-loved, they detract from their own collaborative effort.
And now, after watching the new video for “Otis” — in which Kanye and Jay torch, decapitate and destroy a very expensive looking car — I’m tempted to say that it’s over the top braggadocio that’s really at work here. “Try A Little Tenderness” is possibly one of the most expensive samples ever used — and Kanye and Jay-Z seem more preoccupied with the swagger of that than with the song just having a really solid drum beat.