Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-Hopby Joseph G. Schloss
Based on ten years of research among hip-hop producers, Making Beats was the first work of scholarship to explore the goals, methods, and values of a surprisingly insular community. Focusing on a variety of subjects—from hip-hop artists’ pedagogical methods to the Afrodiasporic roots of the sampling process to the social significance of
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Based on ten years of research among hip-hop producers, Making Beats was the first work of scholarship to explore the goals, methods, and values of a surprisingly insular community. Focusing on a variety of subjects—from hip-hop artists’ pedagogical methods to the Afrodiasporic roots of the sampling process to the social significance of “digging” for rare records—Joseph G. Schloss examines the way hip-hop artists have managed to create a form of expression that reflects their creative aspirations, moral beliefs, political values, and cultural realities. This second edition of the book includes a new foreword by Jeff Chang and a new afterword by the author.
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The Art of Sample-Based Hip-Hop
By Joseph G. Schloss
Wesleyan University PressCopyright © 2014 Joseph G. Schloss
All rights reserved.
Joe: I wanted to get you to tell that story about when you were talking to your mother-in-law about painting. ...
Mr. Supreme: Oh yeah, and we were arguing, 'cause she was saying I didn't make music. That it's not art. ... She really didn't understand at all, and we argued for about two hours about it. Basically, at the end she said ... if I took the sounds, it's not mine — that I took it from someone.
And then I explained to her: What's the difference if I take a snare drum off of a record, or I take a snare drum and slap it with a drum stick? OK, the difference is gonna be the sound. Because when it was recorded, it was maybe a different snare, or had a reverb effect, or the mic was placed funny. It's a different sound. But what's the difference between taking the sound from the record or a drum? It's the sound that you're using, and then you create something. You make a whole new song with it.
And she paints, so I told her, "You don't actually make the paint." You know what I'm saying? "You're not painting, 'cause you don't make the paint." ... But that's what it is; it's like painting a picture. (Mr. Supreme 1998a)
Some people make beats. They use digital technology to take sounds from old records and organize them into new patterns, into hip-hop. They do it for fun and money and because their friends think it's cool. They do it because they find it artistically and personally fulfilling. They do it because they can't rap. They do it to show off their record collections. Sometimes they don't know why they do it; they just do. This book is about those people and their many reasons.
Beats — musical collages composed of brief segments of recorded sound — are one of two relatively discrete endeavors that come together to form the musical element of hip-hop culture; the other element is rhymes (rhythmic poetry). This division of labor derives from the earliest hip-hop music, which consisted of live performances in which a deejay played the most rhythmic sections of popular records accompanied by a master of ceremonies — an MC — who exhorted the crowd to dance, shared local information, and noted his or her own skill on the microphone. When hip-hop expanded to recorded contexts, both of these roles became somewhat more complex. MCs began to create increasingly involved narratives using complex rhythms and cadences. And although deejays continued to make music with turntables when performing live, most also developed other strategies for use in the studio, and these eventually came to include the use of digital sampling. As these studio methodologies gained popularity, the deejays who used them became known as producers.
Today, hip-hop is a diverse and vibrant culture that makes use of a variety of techniques and approaches to serve many communities throughout the United States and, in fact, the world. There remains, however, a surprisingly close bond among producers regardless of geographical or social distance. They see themselves as a breed apart, bearers of a frequently overlooked and often maligned tradition. This book is about these hip-hop producers, their community, their values and their imagination.
I have relied heavily on ethnographic methods such as participant observation to study these questions. As a result, the picture that emerges in this study expresses a rather different perspective from that of other studies of hip-hop or popular music in general. It does no disservice to previous work to say that it has tended to focus on certain areas (such as the influence of the cultural logic of late capitalism on urban identities, the representation of race in popular culture, etc.) to the exclusion of others (such as the specific aesthetic goals that artists have articulated). Nor is it a criticism to say that this is largely a result of its methodologies, which have, for the most part, been drawn from literary analysis. We must simply note that there are blank spaces and then set about to filling them in. Ethnography, I believe, is a good place to start.
Due to the approaches I have employed, common issues of poststructuralist anthropology — such as the social construction of "the field," the effect of the power relationships that exist between a researcher and his or her subjects, and the subjectivities of academic writing — have exerted a decisive influence on the way my study is framed. Conveniently, these are also issues that are rarely addressed in studies of popular music simply because most academics who study it do not use ethnography. But I believe that — beyond self-critique — such questions have much to contribute to our understanding of the social world from which popular music emerges. The recent ethnographic work of scholars such as Harris Berger (1999), Kai Fikentscher (2000), Dawn Norfleet (1997), Norman Stolzoff (2000), and especially Ingrid Monson (1996) have been particularly influential on me in this regard.
In preparing this study, I have spent time with a variety of producers (as well as MCs, deejays, businesspeople, and hip-hop fans). Although I have tried to collect a wide range of opinions on the issues I address, most of the producers I interviewed tend to hold certain qualities in common. Though some of the artists I spoke with are well known to hip-hop fans, most are what could be called "journeymen": professionals of long standing who are able to support themselves through their efforts, who have the respect of their peers but have not achieved great wealth or fame. Virtually all are male, a fact which exerts a huge, if underarticulated, influence on the musical form as a whole. Although my consultants include a relatively small number of women, I believe that their representation in these pages is actually disproportionately large when compared to their actual representation in hip-hop (at least in the capacities with which I'm concerned).
Another significant demographic aspect of my sample is its ethnic diversity, which I feel accurately reflects the diversity of the community itself. That said, however, one of the foundational assumptions of this study is that to the extent that one wishes to think in such terms, hip-hop is African American music. Hip-hop developed in New York City in neighborhoods that were dominated by people of African descent from the continental United States, Puerto Rico, and the West Indies. As a result, African-derived aesthetics, social norms, standards, and sensibilities are deeply embedded in the form, even when it is being performed by individuals who are not themselves of African descent.
Scholars such as Robert Farris Thompson (1996), Kyra Gaunt (1997), and Cheryl Keyes (1996) have demonstrated this in very specific terms on both abstract and practical levels. Thompson (1996: 216–218), for example, traces the intervening steps between traditional dance forms in the Congo and b-boying or b-girling (also known as breakdancing), and Gaunt (1997: 100–112) connects rap's rhythms to those of "pattin' juba," a tradition that goes back centuries. As I will demonstrate, traditional African American aesthetic preferences, social assumptions, and cultural norms inform producers' activities on many levels.
Geographic diversity is another significant factor affecting the producers' sense of community. I interviewed individuals from Atlanta, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York, Oakland, Philadelphia, and Seattle for this study. Virtually all of them knew each other, either directly or indirectly. This is a small community held together by phone, the Internet, and regular travel. Although such abstract communities have always existed to some degree, the increasingly global nature of communication and the international flow of labor and capital has made the nonlocal community an increasingly common affair (see Clifford 1992, Appadurai 1990, Slobin 1992). Benedict Anderson (1983), in fact, convincingly argues that even such an accepted political formation as the nation-state constitutes an "imagined" community. While this may have its practical difficulties for the ethnographer, it means that relationships are driven by the needs and sensibilities of the individuals in question more than by their proximity to centers of traditional power.
The ease with which such relationships can be maintained still surprises me. When I travel, I am regularly asked by hip-hop artists to deliver records and gossip to individuals in other cities. And as I write this, the Rock Steady Crew, a legendary b-boy/b-girl collective, is preparing to mark its twenty-fifth anniversary with a weekend of parties and performances here in New York City; two of my Seattle-based consultants will be deejaying there. And, of course, the Internet is probably the most powerful tool for communication between individuals and dissemination of general information; new Web sites appear every day.
In order to reflect this state of affairs, my research took a path that was unusual but entirely organic to the processes that I was studying. I began by interviewing hip-hop artists in Seattle, Washington, because I had preexisting ties to that community and because I believe that Seattle is exemplary as a node of the national network I am trying to portray. It is both large enough to support a substantial community of musicians and small enough to be constantly aware of its place within the greater social context. My consultants in Seattle introduced me to producers in other cities, allowing me to explore the network in a fashion similar to that of any other community participant, moving from the local to the universal. This is a practical example of the way the process of performing fieldwork can have a very abstract influence on the way a study is structured.
In other words, my fieldwork was very similar to the educational process that a hip-hop producer would undergo, the primary difference being that I was producing a book rather than music. But the experience of meeting producers, convincing them of my sincerity, going digging and trading records with them, communally criticizing other producers' beats, learning about production techniques and ethical violations through discussion and experimentation, and eventually being introduced to nationally known artists parallels the common pedagogical experience of hip-hop producers themselves in many important ways. I would argue that the shape of the knowledge expressed in this book — what I know and don't know — is largely the result of this approach, and thus reflects the epistemological orientation of hip-hop production — or at least my own experience of it. A researcher setting out to interview the "great producers of hip-hop" or to produce a formal history of hip-hop production may well produce a different picture.
Finally, most of my consultants share a somewhat purist attitude toward the use of digital sampling for hip-hop production. While digital sampling has historically been the primary technology used for making beats, it is not the only one; some forms of hip-hop use synthesizers or live instrumentation as their foundations. One of the major premises of this project is that the distinction between sample-based and non-sample-based hip-hop is a distinction of genre, more than of individual technique. Hip-hop producers who use sampling place great importance on that fact, and — as I will show — find it difficult to countenance other approaches without compromising many of their foundational assumptions about the musical form.
In fact, as I complete this book, sample-based production — once the central approach used in hip-hop — is becoming increasingly marginalized. This, in turn, has led some producers to become more open to other approaches, while others, in response, have become even more purist than they were when I began my research. There are two major reasons for these intertwined developments. First, due to the growing expense of sample clearance (i.e., securing permission from the owner of a copyrighted recording) as well as a general aesthetic sea change, many major-label hip-hop artists are increasingly rejecting the use of samples in favor of other sound sources. While many producers have embraced this change, it is seen by others as a threat to their aesthetic ideals and has caused them to redouble their efforts to emphasize sampling in their work. Second, the increased availability of PC- and Macintosh-based sampling programs has allowed large numbers of individuals who have not been socialized into hip-hop's community or aesthetic to become involved in its production. This, too, has led those who already used sampling to articulate the previously unstated social values of the community, a trend which can be seen, for example, in the founding of Wax Poetics, a journal devoted entirely to various aspects of the search for rare records to sample (a pursuit known as "digging in the crates" — see chapter 4). Ultimately, then, this work — like all ethnographies — reflects the way a particular community defined itself and its art at a particular time.
Ethnography is well suited to address these and many other issues in popular music. It can ground general theoretical claims in the specific experience of individuals, lead the scholar to interesting questions that may not have arisen through observation alone, and call attention to aspects of the researcher's relationship to the phenomenon being studied that may not be immediately apparent. This can deeply affect the work that is produced. And, perhaps most importantly, it can help the researcher to develop analyses that are relevant to the community being studied. This is especially valuable in the case of hip-hop, as the culture's participants have invested a great deal of intellectual energy in the development of elaborate theoretical frameworks to guide its interpretation. This is a tremendous — and, in my opinion, grievously underutilized — resource for scholars. Engaging with the conceptual world of hip-hop via participant observation has been one of the most rewarding aspects of this project, and I have tried to reflect that in the pages that follow.
Another benefit of using participant observation to study popular music is that it allows the researcher to exploit the huge body of critical work on scholarly subjectivity that has emerged from the discipline of anthropology over the last thirty years. Critiques of reflexivity, the abstraction of human activity, and the idea of a discrete and bounded "field" are largely absent from writings on popular music because they are simply not relevant to the theoretical approach of most popular music scholars. Ethnography can bring these issues into the discourse.
I am particularly indebted to a recent piece entitled "You Can't Take the Subway to the Field" (Passaro 1997), which discusses the definitional problems that arose when a researcher chose to do fieldwork among New York City's homeless population. As Passaro suggests, the primary difficulty in this endeavor was maintaining a distinction between the subject of one's study and the other aspects of one's life, including the analysis of one's data. The origins of this distinction, its nature, and its use as an instrument of postcolonial power have been discussed at length in the anthropological literature (most notably Said 1978, Fabian 1983, Marcus and Fischer 1986, Gupta and Ferguson 1997) As Johannes Fabian (1983) in particular has convincingly argued, the idea of an objective and distinct "field" removes the culture of the researcher from the study's purview, despite the fact that it is often a deep and abiding influence on the processes being studied.5 One of the aims of this work is to use the particular nature of my own experience, particularly moments of social discomfort or awkwardness, to implicitly question the value of the distinction between "home/academia" and "the field." In short, I feel that a researcher's self-conscious confusion over the nature of social boundaries can help to highlight the extent to which the researcher imposed those boundaries in the first place. With that in mind, I would like to address briefly some of the factors that came into play in this study.
Excerpted from Making Beats by Joseph G. Schloss. Copyright © 2014 Joseph G. Schloss. Excerpted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
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Meet the Author
JOSEPH G. SCHLOSS is an adjunct associate professor of Black and Latino studies and sociology at City University of New York. He is the author of Foundation: B-Boys, B-Girls and Hip-Hop Culture in New York. His writing has appeared in URB, Vibe, The Seattle Weekly, The Flavor, and the anthologies Classic Material and Total Chaos. JEFF CHANG is the executive director of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts + Committee on Black Performing Arts at Stanford University. He is the author of Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, winner of the American Book Award and the Asian American Literary Award.
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