Music: Sampling as a means to time travel and rewrite stories

There are folks who only listen to music that make the top of the charts. Some only download hit songs from artistes and don’t bother about the albums. I for one don’t rely solely on the radio as there are songs out there that don’t make the radio or don’t stay long on the charts if they are lucky to get on. There are also those who couldn’t care less about who produced a song or the creative process that led to it, they just consume till there’s something new, or a times, something old.

And so I found Bobby Caldwell’s 1980 song “Open your Eyes”, which is a song where he tries to convince a woman that she doesn’t have to be alone and that she should let go of the past. Might you have wondered how I found that song which wasn’t even an album single? Well it was easy after J Dilla did.

Who’s J Dilla?

Real names: James Yancey

The late, great revered hip-hop producer. Maybe he wasn’t as popular as the Dres, Diddys and Timbalands, he still was in a class of his own. He was the producer of Common’s 2000 Grammy nominated single, The Light. He was the one that reinvented (sampled) Bobby Caldwell’s record.

Now sampling was, according to Lord Jamar of Brand Nubian in the documentary The Art of Rap (Something from Nothing) by Ice T, necessitated at a time when musical instruments were removed from schools and they had no other option but to turn their only source of music, the record player, into a musical instrument.

Sampling started out from borrowing drums, horns, keys and other musical elements to actually recreating them and even referencing lyrics as is common of recent in rap music. Ever heard a ‘new’ song that sounded too similar you get confused as to if the song was being played for the first time or if you had heard it previously without paying attention. Or maybe it contained a subtle sound or speech that seemed too familiar? Well that’s because the song is likely a remake of something old you’d heard before. Same way I heard an old song a times and realise that’s were a young artist got his words from. There’s nothing new under the sun yeah?

Well common’s song was eccentric at the time as it dealt with very personal feeling with his then girlfriend Erykah Badu who happen to be in the video as well. He was speaking about his hopes, his convictions amongst other things. A lot different in concept from what Bobby Caldwell did. Why eccentric? Because it was a period when gangster rap was in vogue. It was an emotional song without sounding effeminate (did someone say Drake? Lol), which reminds me in some way of LL Cool J’s 1987 song “I Need Love”.

The Light is a song that always make it back to my playlist, I remember first hearing it around 2007 for the first time and a friend wondered why I liked it. He didn’t appreciate the lyrics or the beat and couldn’t understand why a 7-year-old song would excite me.

It’s the same reaction when I play old songs for people and they wonder why it appeals to me at all. The simple fact is most people compare those old songs to what we have now which is an evolved and mostly watered down version of those old records. People never realise they are comparing vinyls and tape to CDs. They don’t consider how hard live music is and how many hours a band has to rehearse before they can make that one perfect take that gets recorded in history. They don’t consider how hard one has to work to come up with meaningful lyrics, unique wordplay, metaphors, and the likes. They don’t consider how microphones and music production techniques have evolved. They forget some of those songs are mono analogue records.

But once you sit and listen to an old song and have those in mind, you would truly appreciate what it was that enabled what we have today before it was all commercialise and repackaged to our taste. If it weren’t so then we wouldn’t have people still sampling today.

An example is the last verse on Drake’s 6 Man from his “If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late”. It was taken from Erykah Badu’s hook in The Roots’ 1998 song “You Got Me”.

If you like you could always check to find out what songs were sampled in your favourite song and maybe even listen to the originals to how the different bits came together to form them.