Nasir Jones, aka Nas, or, to those of us unwilling to let go of the past, Nasty Nas, may have actually been right. Hip Hop, the music that most of the dot-com generation has grown up with, might very well be dying -- if it's not already dead. Why? Well DJ Shadow may have answered that question almost 13 years ago on "Why Hip Hop Sucks in '96." A quiet yet echoing voice speaks after 25 seconds on the gimmicky interlude, only 41 seconds long, and says one thing -- "It's the money." Regarding the topic at hand, that response couldn't come from a better source.
Shadow's 1996 full-length debut, Endtroducing, the source of said tune, would be near impossible to make today, as it's comprised of nothing but samples -- small portions of recordings which are copied and pasted to make or add to an entirely new work. Shadow chopped, looped and played with samples to create dramatic melodies, usually backing them up with drums that were also sampled from an entirely different record (or numerous records), manipulating all the ingredients into a completely new beat. This wasn't a new practice though -- he'd learned from many of the hip hop producers that preceded him.
It's said that Shadow has cleared all the samples from Endtroducing -- meaning that the owners of the master recording and publishers of the used samples have agreed to and been paid for the usage. This is no small feat, as there are over 80 known samples throughout the LP, and if it were done today, it would cost a small fortune.
Initially stemming from a court case in 1991 where singer Gilbert O'Sullivan sued mc/producer Biz Markie for sampling his hit "Alone Again (Naturally)" without permission, sample clearance has become one of the major woes of the record industry, due to snowballing prices and lengthy wait times. One solution has been for producers to replay samples, thus allowing them to owe only the publisher; but this can still be quite costly. Even then, there remains the painstaking process of dividing the publishing rights of the new, replayed tune. Third party corporations have even been created to track down copyright holders and to broker deals between labels and artists, to aid in the clearance process. But in these tough economic times with album sales at an all-time low and labels trying to stay afloat, the glowing price tags for sampling have, in fact, given the hip hop we grew up with a less than subtle face lift.
To most average listeners of today's urban music, this trend is going largely unnoticed. Sure, there are cases of songs built on samples sneaking into the mainframe, such as Lil Wayne's recent hit "A Milli", which borrowed a vocal sample from an old remix of A Tribe Called Quest's "I Left My Wallet In El Segundo", and perhaps T.I.'s "Live Your Life," derived from the infamous "Numa Numa" song (the European group O-Zone's "Dragostea Din Tei"). But both were of a rare breed; Lil Wayne used samples to build the melodies of only 4 of the 16 tracks on the initial release of The Carter III -- and T.I.'s Paper Trail on sampled on 3 of its 16 tracks.
To many critics, the whole concept of sampling -- and therefore most hip hop -- has often been regarded as completely unoriginal, and not much better than stealing. While they may have somewhat of an understanding of the music, my guess is that most simply haven't developed an appreciation for the actual process itself. Sampling acts as an audible collage -- a challenge to build an entire production around that one part of a song, old or new (mostly old), that just feels right -- that gives us those chills we music junkies constantly seek. If the track is still missing something? Add a brass riff, a drum fill, or a synth line from an additional record (emphasis on that because it's not easy).
Numerous producers were able to meet this challenge, though, and many were able to perfect styles all their own, becoming auteurs of hip hop production. DJ Premier (of Gang Starr) was taking tiny snippets of old tracks, both well known and obscure, and while rendering them unrecognizable, turning them into astonishing new creations. Hearing Biggie's "Unbelievable" for the first time or Gang Starr's "Mass Appeal" was just flooring (both are Premier productions). The RZA garnered worldwide acclaim for his gritty and beautifully imperfect usage of vintage soul records like The Sweet Inspirations and Syl Johnson, enabling him to paint an eerie picture through Wu-Tang's one of a kind music. A Tribe Called Quest perfected the art of pairing 60's and 70's jazz samples (along with every other genre) with big drum breaks from wherever they found them -- in rock, soul, funk ...whatever sounded good.
Unfortunately, with this practice no longer being a solid option, the sonic landscape of commercial hip hop has lent itself to a much more accessible and predictable sound. Vocals have gone the way of the vocoder (T-Pain, don't have to say much else). The same airy and predictable synthesizer and clichéd drum sounds have become the industry standard, and the music has just sort of...I dunno....fallen flat? It's in a rut, a lull, and people like Nas Escobar (yep, same guy) are speaking up. Purists argue about the death of the traditional sound and the new wave of artists that are lumped into the same category as not turning out anything more than pop music -- a point that might actually be valid, since beside the rapping, little remains of what once was. A sort of quiet commotion has risen against the loss of traditionalism, with new groups like the Cool Kids and The Retro Kids wearing their golden age of hip hop influence on their sleeves (and proving that "Kids" may have replaced "Lil").
But, it's not to say that the climate we've been left with is all bad. There's a lot of risk taking and some very creative music being released -- certain artists are making do, and coming up with 100% original material that's really quite good. There are producers out there that are capable of generating the emotional integrity that sampling so easily provided. The Neptunes can certainly pull it off, and post 808s and Heartbreak, it seems that Kanye West might have that ability as well (only 3 of the 12 tracks on Heartbreak borrow from existing recordings while 12 of the 15 tracks on 2007's Graduation were built from samples).
So where does that leave the future of this music? It's quite tough to say. It's clear that financial strains have brought on this untimely identity crisis for hip hop music, but there's an uneasiness among listeners that this identity may have been lost for good (hence, the death). Many believe this is just a phase -- a rebuilding period. After all, one of the cornerstones that identified the sound is being demolished, so it's only appropriate that the culture has time for a walkabout.
What remains paramount, though, is that regardless of the quality of the material being put out, material is still being put out. The passion that created this music in the mid-seventies has been marred, but it hasn't been destroyed. While this progression has alienated many listeners, it is still a movement that is being fed by young, new acts who, because of this dry spell, have searched for inspiration elsewhere and incorporated it into their music. New comers such as Wale and Kid Cudi have mixed Go-Go and electronic music into their sound and have achieved much notoriety and even major label deals. So while sampling's presence may have made hip hop into the form that many of us miss dearly, its absence could actually start to foster a broad sound that we also may soon grow to know and love. One thing's for sure -- it'd be great to be a fan again.