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Did the Decline of Sampling Cause the Decline of Political Hip Hop? - Erik Nielson - The Atlantic


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Short answer: YES. 

As a result, landmark albums such as De La Soul’s Three Feet High and Risingand Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, built upon a dizzying array of samples, soon became all but impossible to produce because of the costs involved (according to Spin the average base price to clear a single sample is $10,000). To this day, sample-based rap remains a shadow of its former self, practiced only by hip hop’s elite—those with the budgets to clear increasingly expensive samples or defend lawsuits when they don’t. 

Some of the consequences for rap music as a genre are clear, the most obvious being that the sound of the music has changed. The relatively sample-free soundscapes of producers like Timbaland or the Neptunes are a testament to that fact, as are the songs that rely on just one or two samples rather than 20 or 30. 

But might there be subtler, thematic implications of the decline in sampling? 

It’s notable, for instance, that at the same time sampling was curbed by new copyright enforcement, we also witnessed the sunset of rap’s “golden age,” a time when dropping socially or politically engaged lyrics didn’t automatically relegate artists to “the underground.”  As someone who studies and teaches about hip hop (and who’s been listening to the music for 25 years), I'm not sure that’s a coincidence.  After all, sampling provided an important engagement with musical and political history, a connection that was interrupted by Grand Upright and the cases after it, coinciding with a growing disconnect between rap music and a sense of social responsibility.

That’s not to say sampling always resulted in the lyrics that educated, even during the “golden age.”  The Beastie Boys’ 1989 album Paul’s Boutique, a sampling classic, wasn’t exactly concerned with social edification.  But as Hank Shocklee, pioneering member of Public Enemy’s production team The Bomb Squad, told me, having open access to samples often did significantly impact artists’ lyrical content:  “A lot of the records that were being sampled were socially conscious, socially relevant records, and that has a way of shaping the lyrics that you’re going to write in conjunction with them.”  When you take sampling out of the equation, Shocklee said, much of the social consciousness disappears because, as he put it, “artists’ lyrical reference point only lies within themselves.” 

When that lyrical reference point can be rooted in previous compositions, the creative possibilities become astonishing.  Take the first 30 seconds of Public Enemy’s song “Can’t Truss It,” off their 1991 album Apocalypse 91: The Enemy Strikes Black.   Lyrically, the song argues that in order to understand the present, African Americans have to understand the past—they’ve got to “get to the roots” and grapple with the historical legacy of slavery.  To reinforce the song’s message, there’s an entire storyline of samples underpinning the lyrics, beginning with Richard Pryor’s voice saying, “It started in slave ships.” Then, immediately following, is a distorted sample of Alex Haley, author of Roots(hence the connection to the song’s focus on “roots”), describing the horrors of the Middle Passage.  That clip then cuts to a sample of Malcolm X’s voice, arguing for violent resistance, which ultimately foreshadows Chuck D’s vengeance later in the song when he raps, “Still I plan to get my hands around the neck of the man with the whip.”  All throughout these opening moments, we hear churning helicopter blades, providing a sonic connection to the present and a reminder of the ways in which police and military power are still used to maintain the hierarchies that trace back to slavery.

The complex use of samples to comment on and reinforce the song’s message continues throughout; at one point, there’s a sampled bass line from the groupSlave, an obvious connection to the lyrical content, and a subtle call to collective action with a recurring but not immediately identifiable sample of James Brown’s “Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved.”  Calling and responding to one another, the samples and the lyrics create complementary, interconnected narratives that take listeners on a historical tour through music and politics, in the process offering a reminder that rap music resides within creative, intellectual, and communal traditions that are, in the words of Dead Prez, “bigger than hip hop.” 

In today’s hip-hop climate, dominated by the likes of Drake, Nicki Minaj, Rick Ross, and 2 Chainz, it has become difficult to find evidence that these traditions are informing mainstream rap.  Earlier this year when Young Money boss Lil Wayne was skewered for his offensive reference to Emmett Till on “Karate Chop,” people weren’t just responding to his callous indifference to the lynching of a young boy; they were responding to his utter disregard for, and mockery of, the historical struggles that made his career possible. 

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