From my musicology thesis, University of Edinburgh, Summer 2011:
III. PERSONAL HISTORY
“People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm”
– title of A Tribe Called Quest’s debut record (Zomba, 1990)
“Hadn’t I just been a special white boy?”
– William Upski Wimsatt, Bomb the Suburbs
My interest in sample-based hip hop’s use of older music started, as many musical fascinations do, in a bedroom, though not my own.
In 1985 I was 15 years old, well into my sophomore year of high school and entering a friendship with Seth Boyd, a boy in the year before me. We had found common ground in a love for hip hop, and since we lived in neighboring towns—he in Cambridge and I in Somerville—we started hanging out and listening to music together.
Seth and I attended the Cambridge School of Weston, whose ponderous name charted its origins, 100 years ago, in Cambridge to its current location in Weston, an affluent suburb about 45 minutes outside of Boston. CSW sat high on the list of expensive high schools in the United States, and far left on the continuum of educational and political philosophies. Our athletic teams were comic, our dance and theatre programs epic, and we cleaned up in the Boston Globe Scholastic Art Awards every year. Teachers and headmasters were known by their first names, and most campus rules were debated in weekly schoolwide assemblies, presided over by a Student Moderator.
Though Seth and I played on the school basketball team’s starting lineup all four years, this had nothing to do with our heavily subsidized status at CSW. Teachers certainly encouraged our efforts at writing fiction and essays—we were each told we were gifted at points—but I don’t imagine that our funding had to do with outstanding academic brilliance (or mine certainly didn’t). We simply needed help if we wanted to continue at the school. Seth’s mother was a technical writer, mine a graphic designer; his dad was a Harvard researcher and mine was a Boston public high school teacher. Many of our classmates’ parents seemed to have had similar jobs, but many others were high-tech entrepreneurs, architects or bankers, and a few were old rock stars, or psychic healers and such.
I quickly realized that my familiarity with hip hop was thoroughly pedestrian compared with Seth’s. His explorations in the genre were fearless and omnivorous, and his record collection dwarfed mine. While I was still dismissing artists on the basis of un-serious stage names—the Fat Boys were about as far as I would tolerate in what I considered a sternly cutting-edge musical phenomenon—Seth would bring home records by artists who called themselves things like Ice-T, the Fresh Prince, and Son of Bazerk, or had suspiciously electro-oriented names like Mantronix. Stuff you’d play in a dance club, I reckoned, not the b-boy battlegrounds I fantasized about breakdancing in. I admired his faith in the genre’s resilience, though it appeared to me that in the new rap marketplace, buffoonery was rapidly overtaking quality.
Two years later I was still in search of the pan-racial dance party roller-skating promised and sometimes delivered, but felt further from it in ways I was barely able to name. I’d left Somerville public schools for the shaded quadrangle and teachers-on-a-first-name-basis arcadia of the Cambridge School. I began to spend less time with my old friends in Somerville, and most of the rules I’d hoarded in order to pass for normal there faded away too.
Increasingly, Seth and I would spend weekend afternoons in his bedroom, listening to his latest finds before heading out to Harvard Square to play video games, eat pizza, and eventually look at more records. The swoony noir of Roxy Music, Prince’s horny funk-rock, and Kate Bush’s art-pop operas held no appeal for my friend, but I realized I was getting the best exposure I could to music I would likely never buy for myself, so I listened hard and didn’t push for reciprocal consideration for New Order.
One afternoon Seth did something that made me realize I was not listening to rap records nearly as hard as he was.
“So check this out.” Seth pulled out a black LP with yellow circles scattered across it, each framing a cut-out of different singers’ heads. Blocky capitals read “James Brown’s Funky People.” The design looked crappy as a supermarket-sale banner (the cover, I told myself yet again—another sure gauge of a record’s quality) and the Godfather of Soul’s involvement appeared to be nominal. I was as ready to believe James Brown liked this record as I was to accept that the British legislative body smoked Parliament cigarettes, or Roy Rogers ate fast food at truck stops. This was the kind of record my Dad made me listen to—just what I’d escaped from before coming over!
“OK. What’s this?” I asked. He took the vinyl disk out and handed me the sleeve. A crackle came over the speakers, then; horns, the hiss-hush-crack of high hat and snare, and a delicious bass lick. “James Brown, right. Cool. Why am I listening to this?” I asked.
Was there supposed to be some kind of revelation here? Metalheads worshipped guitar solos, punks hated acoustic instruments, hippies loved them, and rappers sampled James Brown; these were truisms of the tribes.
“Nope, the J.B.s. You don’t recognize that?”
“The J.B.s? Is that a James Brown cover band? ‘Cause they sound like wanna be one. This song is OK. What else ya got?”
“No—the beat. Here.” Seth was the only person I know who touched records as much as he did. Or record players. The tone arm, the platter, the needle, even the belt drive underneath, which I didn’t know existed before he told me he had dismantled and reconfigured his. Now he lifted the tone arm and placed it back toward the beginning of the record; again, the tight, clean rhythm and bassline. “It’s from Eric B. and Rakim. ‘I Ain’t No Joke.’ You know this one. Here.”
Seth pulled Eric B. and Rakim’s classic debut from a nearby milk crate (glimpse of ludicrous Gucci tracksuits, “dookie” gold chains, reams of dollar bills, ice grills), whipped it out and dropped it on the platter.
For the tenth or twentieth time, that peculiar shift occurred when the musical vestige overtook its source, and the association between the two pieces of music came clear. There it was, of course; slightly obscured, but clearly legible. A meaty James Brown-style break, perfectly chopped and looped, motivating the rhymes.
It was a fun kind of audio prestidigitation, nothing wildly significant. But what struck me then, for the first time, was that Seth had picked out and identified music neither one of us could’ve been expected to know anything about.
James Brown was then (as now) an acknowledged titan, though by the early 80s he was drifting into ridiculousness; he made a cameo in Rocky IV (itself a dogged revival of a spent franchise) reminding us he was indeed still “Living in America,” and Eddie Murphy played Brown as an addled, incomprehensible loon in Saturday Night Live skits. But you would still hear “I Got You (I Feel Good)” on the radio and so JB remained a presence. Like the portrait of long-dead President Jackson on the 10-dollar bill, he was part of the blur of significant cultural personages, someone you knew of but hardly knew anything about. You felt he was probably important, but that he didn’t really matter.
And though the J.B.s were plausible—their affiliation with Brown was musically obvious, and there was Soul Brother Number 1’s titular co-sign, and they definitely got the initials right—no one really thought about James Brown’s band, they thought about James Brown. And no one had heard this music since what, 1973? The J.B.s were a hidden treasure to us, and if by pursuing their work we were vicariously shuffling through DJ Eric B.’s record crates (and perhaps even his earliest inspirations; his parents’ record collection), that felt like a worthy quest—what Eric B. knew was clearly worth knowing. Finding music like this was an act of will, creativity, resourcefulness, and, crucially, recovered memory, made more exciting if the memories happened not to be our own.
Discovering James Brown’s Funky People was a small but significant turning point in my relationship with Seth. As I drifted further into more predictable waters of the pop music ocean, on to romantic sad-boys like the Smiths and the Cure and yacht-rockers Steely Dan and Sade, Seth kept blindsiding me with feats of sample-spotting. His subsequent purchases took in jazz, musicals, novelty records, children’s music, film soundtracks, and many arcane tributaries of soul and funk.
In the last few years I’ve started thinking about those afternoons; two white kids, friends from a suburban private school, holed up in a bedroom in Cambridge, Massachusetts— hometown, of course, to Harvard, Radcliffe, and MIT— listening to generation-old Black music that our parents may have heard although it wasn’t marketed to them, or to anyone our parents really knew. Some of this music scarcely registered within its intended market. How did we develop an interest in these B-sides, chart also-rans, and nearly-forgotten songs from 15 or 20 years ago? Why did we mythologize the artists, hunt their records down, scrutinize liner notes, album-core text and grill record-store clerks to glean clues for further searching?
When we considered it intellectually, our love for rap music and its stories of sex, violence, and deprivation sounded bizarre, but it felt just right; rap voiced some of our unexpressed fantasies, it was music which no one before us could claim because it hadn’t existed before us. This was our rebel music; and within the microclimate of the Cambridge School of Weston, punk and hippie rock were default options, but hip hop worked better for us not only because it felt more “authentic” but also because we felt it was never intended for us.
Even as hip hop expounded on experiences we couldn’t relate to at first hand, the crack-fuelled fires raging within the inner cities smouldered at the edges of our own neighborhoods and its residual effects were never very far. We felt some of that heat, the swelling power of the new cocaine derivatives poisoning the neighborhoods we skirted. Some of it was reflected in the impossibly glamorous clothing, cars, and jewelry the rappers we loved wore—thrilled but guilty, we knew this. But also, we lived in the city. Few of our classmates did, and as city kids on scholarship we often felt like outsiders around them.
But claiming old soul as one’s own would have been a lame, conservative move in our estimation. Krush Groove and Wild Style were cool movies whose soundtracks announced them as hip hop to the core; The Big Chill, with its cherry-picked roster of Motown hits, was not cool. Not that the music wasn’t good, it was—but nostalgia? No. Plus Motown didn’t really belong to you. Michael Jackson wasn’t even on Motown anymore. Motown belonged to our parents.
At around the same time Seth started hitting me with vinyl obscurities, I started seeing breaks compilations appearing in stores; Ultimate Breaks and Beats, unlicensed collections of songs recently sampled by hip hop producers, were put out on vinyl by New York DJ Lenny Roberts’ Street Beat Records, and marketed, to the degree they were marketed at all (as he was distributing illegal bootlegs, Roberts understandably kept their existence at a fairly low profile), to other hip hop DJs and producers. Then came sampled artists’ responses to their work being used in hip hop; collaborations and/or musical admonishments, as in Jimmy Castor’s “Tellin’ On the Devil,” and James Brown’s “Rapp Payback (Where Iz Moses).”
The genesis comes full circle with hip hop DJs like DJ Shadow forming Cali-Tex Records and Eothen “Egon” Alapatt with his Now-Again imprint on the hip hop label Stone’s Throw, re-releasing sampled artists’ records packaged the same as when initially released, but in deluxe editions which might include extensive liner notes, new interviews with the artists, new photos, outtakes, B-sides and additional rarities. These efforts, though exceptional and which the compilers can’t expect to sell in volume, are clearly carried out by virtue of love for the artistry, and in the spirit of homage.
The instigating force for the bizarre scene in Cambridge, and in hundreds of other bedrooms, basement recreation rooms, and record stores in the US and abroad, was hip hop. It’s not that no other force in our lives would have brought that music to our attention—we were reasonably broad-minded musically, and where I wasn’t I had my Dad to insist I give due diligence to an even broader musical range—but nothing else would have made us as intensely interested in older music in those genres, or challenged us to discover, analyze, and decipher it.
I dropped out of touch with most of my high school friends after my first or second year of college, and Seth was one of them. With leaving home and entering college we were entering a new stage in our lives, but we also happened to choose schools that created, and by virtue of their geographic isolation almost enforced, an intensely insular social environment.