DJ Mr. Magic and Marley Marl (1983). Photo by: Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer, Getty Images.
In the '70s, the first hip-hop DJs like Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash electrified crowds with the power of breakbeats, isolating the funkiest measures of a track and playing them back-to-back-to-back to Bronx revelers. The exacting process of switching between two vinyl records on two decks was a highly manual form of sampling, years before the term became dominant in music production circles.
The breaks were infectious, the process of selecting an eight- or 16-bar loop an artform in itself, and the DJ's ear for hooks brought phrases and songs into a new musical lexicon. Recognizing a bassline from your favorite Chic track at a party may have been a thrill on its own, but hearing it repeated relentlessly, at loud volumes, perhaps through an echo-drenched soundsystem like Herc's while MCs took turns at the mic—and suddenly the bassline was transformed into something else entirely.
In this way, sampling was a central stone to the foundation of hip-hop. But, as Nate Patrin discusses in his new book, Bring That Beat Back: How Sampling Built Hip-Hop, the idea of taking someone else's record and actually using it for your own recording was so novel that early hip-hop producers avoided it. When it came time to record a song, labels like Sugar Hill hired a group of session players to replay a break with live instruments, instead of letting DJs do what they do best.
While scratching routines were sometimes used as a novelty, playing breaks on a pair of turntables did not catch on in a studio setting, at least at first. As Patrin writes, the general question on everyone's minds was, "Who’d want to hear a recording of a DJ?"
Even after Flash had a club hit and minor breakthrough with "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel," early hip-hop production entered another non-sampling phase, when burgeoning beatmakers relied more on drum machine sequences and synthesizer accompaniment rather than pre-recorded breaks.
With a false start like that, how is it that sampling became such a dominant artform? Patrin's book—a deep, narrative dive into the producers, techniques, and source material that created the hip-hop canon—not only answers that question, but shows how sampling has morphed and changed over time, how its meditations on the recorded past constantly reimagine hip-hop past, present, and future.
Below, read our interview with Patrin for a taste of this history. Find Bring That Beat Back now via the University of Minnesota Press.
You write about the early, non-sampling days of hip-hop—that time after DJs introduced breakbeats, but when live bands were still called in to recreate breaks and samples in the studio. Sample-based hip-hop was then further delayed by beats made from drum machines and synthesizers in the early '80s. How was an early beat like the one Duke Bootee made for "The Message" constructed?
Much in the same way other forms of music were composed and played with live bands—it varies from song to song, but "The Message" is an interesting case in that it's not particularly based on a specific break, even if it was inspired by other sounds and songs going on.
Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five - "The Message (Instrumental)"
In Duke's case, he'd been picking up ideas from everywhere, including new wave and dub, so "The Message" was musically composed not too far off from the way that, say, Talking Heads would put together a song, only without the traditional verse-chorus-verse structure and a breakdown instead of a bridge. Basically a minimalist groove tailor-made for rapping instead of singing, though by '82 you had songs like Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing" that were messing with and updating traditional modes of funk and R&B composition anyways.
The thing about the early hip-hop house bands you'd hear on labels like Sugar Hill is that they were members of funk/disco groups well before hip-hop was captured on wax—Doug Wimbish (bass) and Skip McDonald (guitar) in particular were members of the band Wood, Brass & Steel back in the mid-'70s, and they came up with their own all-original material along with cover versions. (They did a great version of Ronnie Laws' "Always There" on their self-titled 1976 album, for instance.) Transitioning to hip-hop probably worked like an odd mutation of playing covers, I'm sure, when it came to replaying breaks.
You show how deeply intertwined early hip-hop was with the other music of its time: disco, electro, post-punk, dub, commercial funk, and downtown experimentation. (The suggestion to mix from "More Bounce to the Ounce" to "The Message" to "Regiment" is well-taken.) Was the return of sample-based production the key for hip-hop distinguishing itself as its own genre?
It was definitely a major part of it, though through the early '80s hip-hop was primarily defined, especially by generalist music press, by the fact that it was fronted by MCs who rapped rather than anything specific that a beat did. That's how hip-hop went through its disco-rap, electro, and minimalist/808-beat phases in its first few years and still cohered as a genre—though just as importantly, if not more so, the one real instrumental through-line was the DJ, and for a while it was the scratch routine that served as the rooted commonality during all those changes.
The vast majority of great sample-based producers were also DJs, including ones like Prince Paul and Marley Marl, who spun records well before they had access to sampler tech. Sampling just streamlined and simplified (and eventually vastly expanded) many of the same ideas about looping and manipulating breaks as DJing did.
Was it necessary for sampling to become dominant again in order for hip-hop to grow? Could there have been an alternate reality where sample-less beatmaking remained dominant?
Sampling definitely shifted talk towards the idea of repurposing and reworking pre-existing music in a way that hadn't been thought of since jazz standards became a thing. There's a sort of divide in the way that hip-hop is discussed as a musical form versus how it's seen as an overarching culture—I chose to focus on the former, but as far as hip-hop as an overarching culture that covers a whole nebula of musical tendencies, we went through that "alternate reality" and it was called Southern rap.
Geto Boys and UGK definitely used samples and replays when they came up in the peak sampling years of the late '80s/early '90s, but by the time OutKast, Timbaland, and The Neptunes reigned as three of the biggest entities in hip-hop circa 2000, sampling wasn't really a factor in their sound, and that was more than 15 years after a group like Run-DMC could break through with just a drum machine and some scratching.
But sampling and drawing off familiar material definitely helped hip-hop hit its first peak in popularity—the knob that opened the door for rapping and MCing to become a dominant form of vocal expression, so to speak. And it was what got sampled that really helped drive things, what with "Walk This Way" being such a massive crossover hit and the Beastie Boys' reliance on classic rock and hard rock sounds to ingratiate themselves to audiences that might not know or care about rap otherwise.
From there on out, with Marley Marl and Ced-Gee the production arms of the Queens vs. Bronx "Bridge Wars" and the Bomb Squad finding the most aggressive and powerful forms of funk drum breaks to build around, you've got the early makings of hip-hop's Golden Era—and those were the forms that were really aided by the rise of sampling technology, so there's definitely a connection between hip-hop starting to really flourish as an art form and the reliance on sampling.
It took a long time and shifts in regional tastemaking for it to become less centralized to hip-hop. In other words, sampling had to help grow hip-hop before the idea that you didn't have to sample became another way to grow it.
Ultramagnetic MCs - "Ego Trippin'"
The art of sampling relies on expert curation, for a producer to recognize—no matter what the rest of a song or album sounds like—that some brief moment deserves to be heard again and again. What are some of the more obscure breaks that became part of popular culture thanks to hip-hop?
My all-time favorite examples come from artists and groups that not only never released an album, they only released one 7" single. Melvin Bliss's "Synthetic Substitution" from 1973 is the peak of that phenomenon—it wasn't even an A-side, but Ced-Gee made it a phenomenon by using its very distinct drum break and piano for the Ultramagnetic MC's "Ego Trippin'" in 1986.
There's also Banbarra's 1976 single "Shack Up" when it comes to great one-and-done singles that became major components of hip-hop. It wasn't as widely sampled as "Synthetic Substitution"—maybe a few dozen times versus the Melvin Bliss song's 800-plus—but it got around, from Public Enemy to N.W.A to Gang Starr to DJ Quik to Dr. Octagon.
And while it wasn't their only single (they had two), the Honey Drippers' '73 single "Impeach the President" drastically outlived its original potential. Forget Nixon—it was still being sampled during the Clinton and Trump impeachments.
Let's talk about Breakbeat Lenny and Breakbeat Lou. How important was Ultimate Breaks & Beats to hip-hop production? Were Lenny and Lou the Splice of their day?
The UB&B series is an interesting case because in terms of influence it was more a sense of chronicling the essentials than it was predicting the next big thing (though there was some of that, too). They were a link between the first wave of original DJs from the block party Bronx '70s and the SP-12(00) armies that came up in the mid-late '80s. Their primary role seemed to be one of access, of taking super-hard-to-find breaks and making them more readily available to people who didn't have the hundreds or even thousands of dollars a lot of these records were going for in DJ circles.
In the process, they wound up basically building a massive canon of breaks and outlining the DNA of Golden Era hip-hop—not all of these breaks were super-popular, but at least one song from each of the 25 volumes is instantly recognizable to even entry-level sample-spotters.
The real top-tier producers might have had most or all of the original records, but any DJ worth their Technics would have UB&B records for live cutting and scratching. And as record collectors and historians go, Lenny and Lou were absolutely crucial—not only were they master compilers, they kicked off a wave of preservationist reissues that basically revitalized obscure minor-label and local funk and R&B. If there's no Ultimate Breaks & Beats, is there a Numero Group or a Now-Again? Who knows.
Many producers today use one-shot drum hits and then play or program their own beats, instead of playing loops. Was Marley Marl the first producer to really do this in full? And how did he do it with the available technology at the time?
He deserves the credit, yeah. To reiterate the story as it appears in the book, Marl was an intern at Unique Recording Studios in NYC, which was run by Bobby and Joanne Nathan and was absolutely loaded with as much top-of-the-line equipment as they could get. They opened in '78 right when recording technology was about to get super-advanced and digital—they were the first studio to have access to prototypes of the Yamaha DX7, Fairlight II, MIDI equipment, all kinds of stuff, and Marl had access to all of it because he was mixing and producing records for obscure up-and-coming acts like Dimples D and Captain Rock. (And Roxanne Shante, though that big breakthrough originated in Marl's apartment studio.)
A lot of what made early sampling work was stuff that never showed up in any manual, whether it was by accident or experimenting, and Marl's discovery was a little of both. He was trying to capture a vocal riff from Cerrone's "Rocket in the Pocket" for a Captain Rock track, but he left a piece of the snare drum in there, and when he kept trying to work with the loop, he realized that the piece of snare he'd captured sounded better than anything the drum machine had pre-programmed in it. So he built a whole new drum track with that snare and a kick and that's when he realized he could do that with any drum sound he wanted, off any song he could record, memory permitting.
Captain Rock - "Cosmic Blast"
And since you could do that with just one snare beat and one kick beat, it didn't take up too much of what little memory was available at the time in the machine. That opened the door to both replicate familiar drum breaks and create new patterns, and once more advanced samplers like the SP-12 became available, that's when producers like Ced-Gee and the Bomb Squad extended things a little further until you could get a few more bars in and replicate that seamless break looping that DJs did.
What distinguished Prince Paul's sampling techniques from others at the time? How did he influence how other producers approached beatmaking?
He was big-picture in a lot of ways—why stop at one or two breaks and samples when you could have a handful of them? Just layer them, have them riff off each other, drop in little comedy asides and call-and-response bits and inside jokes until you've got this busy but cohesive landscape of music.
This is where you really get to the point where producers are doing things that DJs couldn't replicate with two or three turntables, just rapidfire transitions and collages that were absolutely dense with ideas. He basically took what Double Dee and Steinski did with their tape-splicing "Lessons" records and supercharged it into a whole new aesthetic.
Funny enough the only real comparison in Paul's breakthrough year of '89 was the Dust Brothers' beats on the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique—talk about a fortuitous coincidence with the name there—and they were both created independently without either party knowing what the other was doing. The anecdote about Prince Paul hearing from the Beasties after the fact, about how upset they were that 3 Feet High and Rising beat them to the punch, is pretty funny, because it turns out both of those albums exist on their own planes even though they share a lot of common concepts.
Gravediggaz - "Nowhere to Run, Nowhere to Hide"
He was also sort of a mentor and a catalyst—he's largely considered the mastermind behind those first three De La Soul records' beats, for instance, but he worked closely enough with Trugoy, Posdnous, and Mase that they played to each others' strengths and it really is a group effort. The same goes for Gravediggaz, where he and RZA were really vibing with each others' ideas and got into a real steel-sharpening-steel partnership that helped build both their styles.
That said, you can definitely hear Paul's fingerprints consistently throughout the work he did with them, and with other artists like Big Daddy Kane and 3rd Bass, through his solo work and Handsome Boy Modeling School with Dan the Automator, all the way to the collab he did with Don Newkirk for the Who Killed Malcolm X? documentary soundtrack.
How important were home studios to sample-based producers? Could RZA have afforded the hours of studio time necessary to make 150 beats in 1994 (as he did for Wu-Tang's solo albums)?
I mean, if you have a sampler and a computer and mixing equipment and a good record collection, you're pretty much set for expenses for at least a few years, especially in the early '90s, when sounding grimy and lo-fi can be an aesthetic benefit. But I think there's something more intangibly productive about having a home studio, too.
You hear jokes about producers who "live in the studio," but it seems like having a home studio isn't just a good way to consolidate your time and space and mind your budget—it gives things a sense of place and permanence, like RZA talked about when his studio flooded. He didn't just lose a bunch of beats and equipment, he didn't have the same vibe when he set out to record Ghostface Killah's Ironman that he had for the previous solo Wu records, even if it turned out to be a classic record in the end.
Part of it was just RZA's meticulous attention to detail in engineering, but having a work environment where it feels like you're fully in control and have everything in its right place seems key. RZA has this worldly thing about him, where it feels like he actually captures the environment he's attempting to evoke—you're there in those grainy-filmed Hong Kong studio lots, you can tell when a track has cold weather and early sunsets in mind or when it takes place in high-heat summer, you can feel the light radiating off buildings in a city you might not have ever stepped foot in. So I think he has a real sense of place throughout.
In the last quarter of your book, you write about when sample culture became highly self-aware, thinking of sampling "not just as an integral part of hip-hop production, but as a bulwark against forgetting and an exercise in discovery (or rediscovery, as it were)." How does Madlib typify this approach, say, with tracks like Lootpack's "Long Awaited"?
Not just "Long Awaited," but "Crate Diggin'" and later solo / Quasimoto cuts like "Jazz Cats, Pt.1", "Return of the Loop Digga," "Rappcats Pt.3," as well as his conceptual thematic beat tapes in the Beat Konducta and Medicine Show series, the Shades of Blue Blue Note remix album, and his Weldon Irvine tribute record as Monk Hughes & the Outer Realm—it's almost like he's a record collector and historian who also happens to be extremely knowledgeable in how to turn anything into a hot beat.
Quasimoto - "Jazz Cats Pt. 1"
Part of that just comes from how much music he actually makes in such a short period of time—he's got the kind of ear where if he hears a good break on a record, he can make a beat out of it in like 15 minutes—but he really has taken crate-digging and seeking out records to the ultimate conclusion a hip-hop producer can take it, which is hearing music as an endless resource to enjoy as both an artist and a fan, and putting his weight behind acknowledging it as a continuum.
Just the fact that he put out a bunch of jazz records he played and multitracked himself on all kinds of different instruments shows how interested he is in not just the intricacies of how music's made, but how it can be reconstructed in a number of different forms, like making collages out of collages, and then creating a landscape painting based off the collage. He's rumored to have one of the biggest record collections of any hip-hop producer out there, and he creates music in a way that makes it seem clear that he's got every one of those records for a reason.
Producers today have access to a lot of other ways of beatmaking outside of sampling—better home-recording equipment, affordable virtual instruments, royalty-free loop libraries, etc. But artists, from hardware-based sample junkies to pop stars, still employ sampling (in, let's say, it's "traditional" sense) all the time. Why do you think it has remained a potent way of making music?
As long as there's new music, there'll always be new things to sample; I can't wait to find out what some enterprising young beatmaker can do to get weird new hip-hop sounds out of recent synthwave or ambient or future-jazz records. It also helps that music's never felt more accessible—stuff that you used to hear about in whispered "does it even exist" games of telephone a generation ago are right up there on YouTube for anyone to hear. It might not always be the highest fidelity, but that's the funny positive side effect of a lot of people listening to music on tinny phone speakers anyways—you don't have to make your stuff sound ultra-slick to register.
And time seems a bit more flattened out and condensed to newer listeners as a result—the funny thing about sample-based music is that it's normalized the idea of listening to stuff from 30 or 40 or 50 years ago. A lot of writers like to act shocked that people still listen to old records by the Beatles or Marvin Gaye and try to compare it to someone in 1970 being really into Scott Joplin and Irving Berlin. Which, first of all, good for that theoretical 1970 person, but also, music isn't just some cordoned-off rebel-against-your-parents generational barricade. It's a living document that you can take apart and rebuild if you want, especially the closer we get to a sort of endpoint where a streamlining of technology and social trends make creating whole new genres a bit beside the point.
Hybridization and reassessment of the past are pretty standard ways of listening to and making music for anyone going beyond just casual listening and creating, and as long as people are interested in that, people will be interested in sampling, too.
Find Patrin's Bring That Beat Back now via the University of Minnesota Press.