ERIC B. & RAKIM / “In The Ghetto”
Last week, we posted three funk classics: Bill Withers’ “Kissing My Love,” Labi Siffre’s “I Got The” and The Meters’ “Just Kissed My Baby.” This week we’re going with three hip-hop classics, Eric B. & Rakim’s “In The Ghetto,” Jay-Z’s “Streets Is Watching” and Public Enemy’s “Timebomb.” Extra points if you’ve already figured it out, but we selected these three records for a specific reason. More on that later.
“In The Ghetto” is a track from 1990’s Let The Rhythm Hit ‘Em, the third of Eric B. & Rakim’s four albums as a duo and arguably the weakest. There’s nothing weak about the track itself, however. All of Rakim’s trademark skills are on display. There’s his penchant for abstract or philosophical concepts: “I learned to relax in my room and escape from New York / Then return through the womb of the world as a thought.” Internal rhyme schemes and frequent alliteration: “Any stage I'm seen on, or mic I fiend on / I stand alone and need nothing to lean on.” Then there’s my favorite aspect of Rakim’s style, the extended metaphors and visual imagery. Here, he rhymes about the many places and methods in which he’s left his mark, from his stomping grounds to foreign lands, from the stages to the streets and even with the ladies:
People in my neighborhood, they know I'm good
From London to Hollywood, wherever I stood
Footprints remain on stage ever since
Sidewalks and streets, I leave fossils and dents
When I had sex, I left my name on necks
My trademark was left throughout the projects
* * *
“No more props,” Rakim begins the third verse of “In The Ghetto,”
“I want property.” There’s a sentiment that Jay-Z, ever the capitalist’s capitalist, never had a problem understanding.
“The Streets Is Watching,”
a track from Jay-Z’s second release, 1997’s In My Lifetime, Vol. 1
, is a song-length examination, explanation and justification of Jay’s all-consuming desire for financial gain. Although the song details Jay’s reasons for switching occupations from drug dealing to MCing, his thought process indicates neither remorse nor morality. In fact, his primary reasoning seems to be that he’s so good at what he does (whether rapping or dealing) that notoriety follows him like bad credit. But while fame equals money in the entertainment business, fame equals problems in his former profession. So right from the start, Jay gets to the point: “Look, if I shoot you, I’m brainless / But if you shoot me, you’re famous / What’s a nigga to do?” Hence, early retirement.
But the only thing that’s really changed, Jay says, is methodology. His goal—to secure to capital—remains the same:
My street mentality? Flip bricks forever
You know me and money / We’re like armed co-defendants, nigga we stick together
Shit, whatever for this cheddar / Ran my game into the ground
Hustle harder to see if indictment time came around
Now you can look up and down the streets and I can't be found
Put in twenty-four hour shifts but that ain't me now….
Not on the streets, at least. Because as Jay-Z has proven over the years, he has a gift for being where the money is, for staying just enough ahead of the curve to always have options. A decade later, he’s still writing songs about retirement from ‘the game.’ Only now, he’s trying to make the move from the studio to the board room. And you’d best believe it’s still all about money.
* * *
a track from Public Enemy’s 1987 debut release, Yo! Bum Rush The Show
, is the oldest of this week’s classics and it shows. By today’s standards, Chuck’s direct style and basic rhyme schemes sound antiquated. Still, of the three, this is my favorite track—it may be a twenty-year old record, but it still hits me as hard as it ever did. Chuck’s delivery is so animated that it’s hard to listen to this record without feeling some of his excitement. “Timebomb”
(and the entire Bum Rush The Show
album) predates Public Enemy’s intense focus on the political. So although Chuck makes a few political references (“I’m a South African government wrecker”), this is essentially a freestyle. Chuck simply grabs the mic, rips it up and stops when he’s done. There’s not even a chorus.
* * *
You’ll notice that so far I’ve only talked about the MCs. I haven’t mentioned the instrumental tracks at all. The reason, for those who haven’t yet caught on, is these three hip-hop classics are based on samples (or interpolations in the case of Jay-Z’s record) of last week’s three funk classics. We didn’t plan it that way. What happened is, after Kalamu checked out my write-up for the A.R.C. Choir’s “Walk With Me,”
we decided to do a week where we focused on sampling. During the conversation, I remembered that the three funk classics from the previous week had all been extensively sampled.
Of course, the method of sampling the artists use for these three tracks is very different from what Kanye West did for “Jesus Walks.”
In sampling “Walk With Me,”
Kanye appropriates so much of the song structure and the overall vibe of the original that “Jesus Walks”
is a virtual cover version. This type of sampling was more prevalent years ago, before sampling became the strictly regulated and almost prohibitively expensive proposition that it is today. Older records like Heavy D’s “Mr. Big Stuff,” Salt N Pepa’s “Get Up Everybody,” Eric B. & Rakim’s “I Know You Got Soul” and more recently, something like Coolio’s “Ghetto Paradise” were dead-ringers for the songs they sampled. (That would be Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff,” Parliament’s “Up For The Down Stroke” (vocals) and “All Your Goodies Are Gone” (rhythm), Bobby Byrd’s “I Know You Got Soul” and Stevie Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise,” respectively.) One big clue that you’re listening to one of these sample/cover records is when the MC copies not only the rhythm and/or melodic hook of the original, but also the chorus. Often too (as is the case with all of my above examples), you’ll find that the ‘remake’ borrows part of the title of the original.
What Eric B. & Rakim, Jay-Z and Public Enemy do is something different. They sample one specific and brief portion of the original recording, then loop that small part to create a new instrumental track over which to rap. It’s a fairly basic idea, both in concept and execution. It’s been done for decades now and, as long as hip-hop exists, it will continue to be done. The reasons this type of sampling has remained so popular for so long are numerous. First, looping provides the MC with something funky to rap over without those pesky problems of either: a) being drowned out by vocals and guitar solos and other foolishness (none of which any real hip-hop fan wants to hear anyway—we just want drums and loops), or b) having to secure the services of a band (who’d never be able to play the exact
same groove for the required three to six minutes).
A second reason for the prevalence of loops is they provide the all-important aspect of atmosphere. I suppose producers could simply program basic (or complicated, for that matter) rhythms on drum machines or, they could even sample live drummers…and both techniques have been done. (The Golden Age DJ and producer Mantronik specialized in the former and both Dr. Dre and Organized Noise are said to do quite a bit of the latter.) The problem with both drum machines and samples of live drummers is the lack of variance. Every song ends up sounding like the previous and the next. Loops provide a handy and effective way for the MC to add context, interest and atmosphere to his or her recording without actually remaking someone else’s record.
“In The Ghetto,”
for example, uses a slightly muffled, but otherwise unchanged sample of the opening drum licks from “Kissing My Love” to create a sense of claustrophobia. The drum licks are densely repetitious—the sample becomes almost a metaphor for towering tenements and overcrowded spaces. Of course, nothing about Bill Withers’ record suggests that feeling—hence, the power of sampling. A producer or DJ can use a literal copy of a portion of someone else’s record, in this case, a drum lick, yet create something that gives the listener a vastly different feeling from the original.
Ski (the producer of Jay-Z’s track) doesn’t create a different feeling as much as he makes able use of the feeling that’s already there. The guitar (or is that a keyboard?) hook from the first half of “I Got The” has an epic, cinematic feel in the original, and by looping it, Ski effectively transfers that same feel to Jay’s ‘up from the streets’ narrative. (Well, it’s a narrative of sorts. The sort in which the protagonist never actually changes.)
Public Enemy actually does something a little different. First, instead of keeping the tempo the same (as in the former two examples), they speed up the Meters’ hook to create the appropriate backdrop for Chuck’s driving, intense style. One other interesting, but subtle, thing they do is they make no attempt to clean up the audible static in the source record. Instead of being a distraction, the static actually has a purpose—it’s the aural equivalent of glue, something which serves to hold together the sparse elements of the rest of the track. The entire track is made up of nothing but the Meters sample, a live drummer and Chuck and Flav’s voices. A mix like that leaves a lot of open space to be filled. The static does just that.
There’s a third reason that the loop remains such a popular form of sampling, and it might be the most important reason. That reason is, it’s just plain fun. There’s a bit of a homemade, karaoke aspect to looping that makes the listener feel like they’re part of some minor, but thrilling, heist job. For hip-hop fans, it’s exciting to hear an MC use someone’s else record to tell a story, to make a point or to simply talk shit. A lot of hip-hop (including b-boying and graffiti, if you think about it) is about using ‘found’ things, things that may not actually be ‘yours’ to create something new of your own. Surely, this ethos can be traced back to the way hip-hop was born. It was created by inner-city kids who had no creative outlets: no music classes, no dance studios, no art instruction. They had to make something out of what little they did have.
I’ve heard it said, pejoratively, that hip-hop has made it this far despite its ‘dependence’ on sampling and its lack of ‘musicality.’ It’s more like hip-hop has made it this far, and will continue to make it, because
of its use of sampling and its lack of musicality. (I remember my brother once attempting to explain to me why he hated a rap record that was popular at the time. “It’s so musical
,” he said. And he didn’t mean that in a good way.) In truth, sampling—and looping in particular—has become its own reason for existence. The slightly jerky, ripped-from-reality feel that most loops have was initially due to technology limitations. Today, of course, it’s possible to ‘fix’ these ‘problems.’ A producer could easily make a loop sound as clean as a live drummer. But generally speaking, hip-hop ears don’t want ‘clean’ or ‘perfect.’ Even before there was either analog or digital sampling machines, the DJ created a similar ‘lengthening the break’ effect with nothing but manual dexterity and two copies of the same record. Of course, no DJ, no matter how well-coordinated, could do it ‘perfectly.’ And even if he could, no true hip-hop fan would want him to. An MC rhyming over a funky loop is an essential part of the art, it’s what the listeners want. True hip-hop fans don’t need a six-piece band or complex orchestrations. All they need is a funky loop that keeps on looping until the MC is finished doing their thing.
* * *
There is a third major category of sampling—that is, sampling used as a way to collect, process and re-use raw sound (as opposed to an entire loops or hooks), whether it be ambient noises, a single drum lick or a minute snippet of voice or instrument. That form of sampling is the most complex, if not necessarily the most enjoyable. Check out this weeks ‘Contemporary’ selection for more.
So why yall keep calling them “songs”?
Mtume, I fully agree with you that rap is a different category altogether and that rap is not trying to be music like the music of years gone by. But my question is: why do they keep calling what they’re doing “songs,” like as if a rap and a song were synonymous when, in fact, they are two separate genres?
I can “hear” rap but I don’t “feel” it the way you feel it. Some of my peers wonder how come I listen to any of it at all. All I can say is that I was fortunate to have curious and articulate children.
Mtume, remember how you would instruct me on what rap records to buy whenever one of my frequent out-of-town trips would take me to the East Coast? (Yeah, that’s how long ago that was—rap wasn’t even happening on the West Coast back then.) I never will forget literally getting down on my hands and knees in some hole-in-the-wall shop in D.C. looking for a Schoolly-D 12". I found it. Mtume, you were quite happy when I gave it to you. I believe I heard a few seconds of it as I walked away. But as the years went on, I would listen a lot to some of what you listened to, and thanks to you I remained both curious about and conversant with the breath of the new music called rap. Hey, remember when I took you back stage and we met Public Enemy? I wasn't just treating you, I was truly interested in what they were doing.
All of which is to say, I totally respect rap as Black music but raps are not songs, and guess what, they don’t have to be. It’s great that we have both singers and MCs doing the damn thing. It’s great that our music is so expansive that it includes both song and what some people would consider anti-song.
Finally, I guess it’s the poet in me. I’m more impressed by Rakim than by Chuck, even though I agree with Chuck way more often than I do with Rakim. And as for Jay-Z, I still can’t hear what the fuss is all about. I understand that he has skills but to what end? I don’t believe his heart is in it. It’s all just business and thus none of it means squat to him. It’s all about the money. As far as I am concerned any art which is mainly about the bottom line will never rise to the heights of great art because such art lacks heart.
Now, to get to this sampling stuff. Again, I start with a memory. I can’t recall what year, but it was a good while back, probably in the early nineties. I invited Mtume up to the WWOZ radio studios for my show the “Kitchen Sink.” He and I had a royal ball playing a rap “song” and then right behind it playing the song the rap sampled, especially some of the more popular songs that sampled obscure but easily recognizable Soul music.
Old heads, of course, reactively point to sampling as evidence that the root is better than the fruit, that the original outshines the derivative. I don’t believe it’s that cut and dry.
One shorthand analysis that maybe will bring a little understanding is this simple equation: song = analogue / rap = digital. This equation pertains not simply to the outcome, but also to the process and to the ingredients in the process.
The process of sampling is possible because of the development of digital technology. Although technically you can sample using tape, the process is so laborious and so time consuming that it becomes counter-productive. But beyond that, the sonic equations have philosophical and aesthetic ramifications.
Until the advent of aural recording technology (circa the 20th century), there was no way to concretely present Black music in the absence of the creation of the music. In order to hear modern Black music, one had to be present when the music was being produced because there was no way to reproduce the music, no way to “write” down the music. From the get go, modern black music was tied to technology.
The first sound recordings were analogue. It’s the 21st century now, and technology is digital. Music is also digital. What we mean by music and what we mean by musician, all of that has changed.
These classic recordings represent the eclipse of analogue and the rise of digital technology as the dominate characteristic of music production. Although the emphasis is on the MC, what’s happening underneath is the other major part of the sonic revolution. Rhymed words chanted (AKA flowed) over a rhythm replace melody and harmony as the form’s dominant characteristic. This shift is why I believe rap and song are different categories of music. Neither one is better than the other, they are two different parts of the same whole. But there is more… go to this week’s Cover selection to get to “more.”
—Kalamu ya Salaam
"Lookin' at my Gucci, it's about that time..."
Baba, the year was 1987 and that wasn't a 12", that was an LP. (Jesus, was that really twenty years ago?!) It was Schoolly-D's self-titled and self-released debut album. Six tracks strong and 100% the shit! "P.S.K. - What Does It Mean" and "Gucci Time" are the classics, but the whole album is quality material. How can you not like a album with a song named "Freestyle Rapping" and another one named "Freestyle Cutting"? Lovely. Anyway, I don't know how many copies of that album were ever pressed, but it couldn't have been many. None of them ever made it to record store racks in New Orleans, I know that. Today, that first Schoolly-D album is virtually impossible to find. I know where to find my copy though. Good lookin' out, Baba!
—Mtume ya Salaam
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