On September 7th, a federal appeals court in Cincinnati, Ohio, all but closed the book on sampling in hip-hop. A three-judge panel ruled that recent federal laws pertaining to the piracy of digital recordings also apply to the recycling of old songs by producers. Deviating from previous agreements that set up limits and tests for “legal” usages, the new decision aims to tighten the clamps on all lengths and types of samples, from entire riffs right down to individual snare hits. According to the new logic, “lifting” fragments of a sound recording was no different from the illegal trafficking of whole songs.
Setting the decision’s many flaws aside, perhaps the most interesting aspect of it all was the protest that followed: there was none. The few mainstream artists who sample are already put through the wringer by their labels, and independent artists learned long ago to be careful and discrete. Sure, the decision bizarrely (and unfairly) went after producers who artfully chopped and manipulated tiny, unrecognizable shards of songs into wholly new ones, but even they knew their day would someday come. When Biz Markie and De La Soul were slapped with seminal sample lawsuits in the late ’80s, it was perceived as hip-hop’s death knell. It definitely survived, but how?
Part of the answer is that sampling simply isn’t hip-hop’s signature sound anymore. Most folks forget that recorded hip-hop began with live bands re-playing fragments of popular funk and disco songs. From there, the primitive, ear-splitting clunks of drum machines took over, only to be replaced by the chops and loops of samplers. Though at one point loops exclusively defined hip-hop rhythms, the sound has come full-circle. Artists like Dr. Dre, the Neptunes and Lil Jon have ranged far and wide for their always-unusual beats, expanding hip-hop’s sonic palette in the process. Southern hip-hop has helped re-popularize the drum machine and keyboard, while this year’s breakthrough stud, Kanye West, ditches his sample-heavy style on the road, opting instead for a live band. Even perennial true-schoolers Mos Def and Q-Tip have started experimenting with rock and jazz projects, rather than conventional producers. And then there are the Roots and OutKast, groups that continue to evolve and innovate thanks largely to the weird alchemy of being a hip-hop band.
From the Sugarhill Records house band Wood, Brass and Steel to Stetsasonic, the idea of the hip-hop band is nothing new. There have always been hip-hop heads curious about the instant malleability of live players, the way a band reacts and reshapes to the sputtering, imperfect flow of an MC; there’s something exciting about replacing the infinite rigidity of a programmed beat with the band’s threat of improvisation (and error), and several recent releases offer interesting variations on the theme. Straight outta St. Paul, Minnesota, come Heiruspecs, a five-piece (two rappers, bass, keys and drums) that’s built a sizable grassroots following thanks to their unique sound, jamboree-like shows and the occasional gig backing indie heartthrobs like Atmosphere, Oddjobs or Aesop Rock. The quintet’s latest, A Tiger Dancing, is a solid collection of thick grooves and positive, swaggering rhymes that’s highlighted by the tingly, Rhodes-inflected “5ves” and the tight funk of “Get Down.”
A lot of attempts at “live hip-hop” end up being disasters because there’s no chemistry. Rather, it often sounds like a wayward MC crashing a jam session. What distinguishes Heiruspecs is that their instrumental approach doesn’t sound like that of a jazz or rock combo adopting b-boy stances; they sound like kids who grew up listening to, studying and now playing hip-hop beats, and their songs are structured accordingly. The bassist anchors the sound with short, loop-like lines while the drummer does his best to replicate the military precision of a good, sample-ready breakbeat. Through it all, the band always springs back to a fresh, organic middle-ground, never calcifying into the rigid, military loop of a producer. Check the furtive, tiptoeing bass of “Position of Strength” or the ringing keyboard refrains on “It Takes.” On “Dollar,” MC Felix asks, “What’s the difference between me and you? About thirty-two bucks, a haircut and some shoes!” That’s not all, dunny – what about those guys behind you?
One might not expect that much chemistry from the Mash Out Posse disc, a one-off collaboration between Brownsville thugs M.O.P. and sludge-rockers Shiner Massive, but it’s one of the best bits of musical miscegenation since “Walk This Way.” Though the two groups often play together in New York, the M.O.P. duo of Billy Danze and Lil Fame are used to firing their furiously brash brags over soul loops, not riffs and power chords. But there’s always been something so fiercely over-the-top about the way M.O.P. rap – they don’t just rap about the street life, they shout, scream, holler and yell about it. But in Shiner Massive, the pair has finally met its match. The cavernous kicks of “Put It in the Air” and the flying elbows of “Robbin ‘Hoodz (Ante Up)” sound even tougher read through the idiom of metal, and their remake of “No Sleep ’til Brooklyn” is louder than a bomb. At times, it sounds like the band struggles to chug along with Billy and Fame’s spirited yawps; it’s different from a traditional, programmed hip-hop song where nobody wins the slugfest between MC and beat. Here, it almost sounds like the band defers, and wilts, to the boisterous duo. “Make the church people on your block want to move out!” Fame shrieks over the band’s relentless buzz-saw assault on “Stand Up.” They might not share much in common with the mild-mannered, college-educated moves of Heiruspecs, but M.O.P. know there’s more than one way to find that perfect beat.