Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Remembering our history through samples

Although some people believe that a piece of art is to be experienced on its own, I feel so much art is enhanced by understanding where it came from. Music has a very long history, and although much of it is inspired by other works and genres, a good portion of modern music is created with the help of sampling other works.

When done properly, this practice takes prior art and creates something new that goes beyond the original. A new work of art that brings older works into a new light. However, ignorance and carelessness can devalue an original work. Much as when forgetting a nation's history can devalue its current state of affairs.

In an effort to make others aware of where their music comes from, I've decided to share some interesting examples of a real history in samples.

Many people have heard the song "Doin' Time" by the group Sublime. Few have any of the music's origins. In the early 1930's George Gershwin wrote the music to the opera Porgy and Bess. In the opera there is a song entitled "Summertime." That piece was later arranged by Herbie Mann and recorded in 1961 during live performance at the Village Gate. This particular recording happened to be instrumental. Years later, Sublime sampled that recording and used their own lyrics. However, they pay homage to the original lyrics and begin with "Summertime and the livin's easy," which is how the original begins.

What is amazing about sampling is that it need not be limited to the original source to be sampled. If we begin with the groovy and rather repetitious song "Take Me To The Mardi Gras" as performed by Bob James (it was originally written by Paul Simon), we see the funky bell and drum groove that comprises most of the song appear in a number of hip hop tracks. One of the performers to sample this song is Run-DMC in their song "Peter Piper." Their DJ, Jam Master Jay, cut up the original on his turntables. Although well known by hip hop fans, "Peter Piper" has been generally forgotten by the public. A few years ago Missy Elliot released a song entitled "Work It." This song could be easily added to the list of songs that sampled "Take Me To The Mardi Gras," however, if one listens more closely one would notice that she didn't sample Bob James, but rather sampled some of the cuts that Jam Master Jay created for "Peter Piper."

Sometimes a song goes above and beyond a simple sample or loop. MC Hammer took the instrumental version of Rick James' "Super Freak" and laid his own lyrics over it. When I was a child my mom swore up and down that she'd heard "U Can't Touch This" years before, but couldn't place it. It wasn't until I was older that I heard "Super Freak" and realized that she wasn't crazy, she'd heard Rick James do his thing long before MC Hammer was rapping.

Knowing the history of the music I listen to not only gives me an appreciation for the original artists, but it adds new value to the new songs I hear as well as broadening my knowledge of music. So go ahead, enjoy that new song, but remember it has a history too. Perhaps one more intricate than you'd imagine.