GANG STARR / “Check The Technique”
As we’ve discussed previously (check the archives for the week of March 12th, 2006), one of the reasons hip-hop heads love sampling so much is because the process is so malleable. Several DJs or producers could sample the same break from the same record, yet create pieces of music that sound very different. In this post, we’re going to take a look at three records that sample Marlena Shaw’s “California Soul.” Let’s start with “A Better Tomorrow” (from Dan The Automator’s 1996 EP A Better Tomorrow), a collaboration between rapper Kool Keith AKA Sinister 6000 and producer Dan “The Automator” Nakamura. I like the way this track begins with over two minutes of the instrumental before Kool Keith comes in. When he finally gets his chance to rhyme, Keith displays his usual (meaning, unusual) style of random word association; most of his one, brief verse is comprised of listing various brands and models of recording equipment. In terms of the track, Nakamura is looping a slowed-down version of the drum break from the beginning of “California Soul.” At times, he also seems to be playing around with the drum licks; the main loop sounds like it’s taken straight from the record, but a few times (for example, around the 4:00 mark), Nakamura doubles and triples up the snares, creating a new drum pattern in the process. Strangely enough, another left-field hip-hop producer, DJ Shadow, used this same loop and slowed it down in almost identical fashion for “Midnight In A Perfect World,” a track from his 1999 LP Endtroducing…. I’m not including it here because, as I said, it’s virtually identical to Nakamura’s track. I don’t know much about DJ Food except that, despite the name, they’re a ‘they’ not a ‘he.’ I also know they’re on Ninja Tunes, a label that’s known for attempting to bridge the considerable gap between jazz and electronica. I don’t hear much jazz in “Dark Lady” (from Funkjazztical Tricknology, reissued in 2003) but I do hear the electronica. More to the point, I also hear the sample of “California Soul.” What’s different about this sample is the way the Food crew emphasizes the hand claps. When I first heard “Dark Lady,” I hadn’t noticed that the hand claps are there in “California Soul.” They are, and of course, DJ Food couldn’t resist looping the drum break as well. “Dark Lady” is neither a great song nor particularly distinctive, but since adding it to my electronica playlist a few weeks ago, I enjoy hearing it every time it comes on. Unlike DJ Food, I do know a lot about Keith ‘Guru’ Elam and Christopher ‘Premier’ Martin, BKA Gang Starr. The combination of Premier’s unique production work and Guru’s calm, yet menacing vocal style have made the now-defunct Gang Starr duo members of hip-hop’s royalty. “Check The Technique” is a track from Gang Starr’s second album, 1991’s Step In The Arena. That album is arguably their finest moment—although I prefer 1992’s Daily Operation, but that’s just me—and it’s packed full of Premier’s tightly-constructed, sample-heavy production work. Nowadays, thanks to sites like The-breaks.com, everyone knows (or can know) the source of all the magical sounds that come bursting forth from all those Gang Starr classics. Back in the early Nineties though, the average fan had no idea what was a sample and what wasn’t. All we knew was Premier’s productions had a certain something others didn’t. Just one example of what separates Premier from so many other like-minded but lesser artists: for live performances, he presses separate dub plates of his beats and samples so that he can recreate his mixes live on stage. Compare that with just running a DAT machine while standing behind the turntables pretending to deejay. Premier’s best work depends on his encyclopedic knowledge of recorded music and his legendary vinyl collection (it numbers in the tens of thousands) as much as it depends on his actual skill as a DJ. To my knowledge, Premier was the first producer to use the “California Soul” break; and, he made the best use of it. By looping the drum break, Premier extended that great funk moment from one bar to the length of the entire song. Since he did it, others have followed suit, but Premier is still the only producer who figured out a way to use the strings as well. By doing so, he recreated the euphoric feel of the original. In all fairness, nowadays producers can’t get away with using the types of loops Premier favored in his early productions. Sampling is big business. A record like “Check The Technique” would be so expensive to release today that it would probably never get cleared. Still, even when you compare Premier to his contemporaries, there’s something about his work that stands out. For me, Premier is living proof that sampling is as much an art-form as is singing, rapping or playing an instrument. —Mtume ya Salaam It Ain’t What I Think Mtume, man, am I glad you broke this down, otherwise, I swear, my finger would have stayed on the skip button. Kool Keith is sicque, tres sicque. I've heard accidents in the canned food aisle sound hipper than this. But what do I know? The DJ Food track is only marginally more listenable, perhaps because there is a greater use of melodic elements. Now the Gang Starr, I’m down with that all the way. You are absolutely right about DJ Premier, plus I’ve always liked Guru’s sound, the timbre of his voice. I listened to these tracks long before I read your write-up and I wasn’t feeling them at all in the Marlena Shaw context, but what your insights do is cause me to pause. I hit rewind and with your roadmap in mind, I check out aspects of these tracks that I completely missed when I listened without understanding, which all goes to prove that no matter how much we know (or think we know), there’s a lot of stuff we don’t know. There’s no ignoramus as large as someone who considered themselves highly educated. Seems like the more we know, the more we think we know, when, truth be told, there is no correlation between how much we know and how much we don’t know. All three of these tracks are based on Marlena Shaw. I never would have knowed it if Mtume hadn’t showed it. Sherlock Holmes strikes again. —Kalamu ya Salaam
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