How Sampling Helps Us Live Forever

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News broke this week that The Prodigy frontman Keith Flint had taken his own life at just 49 years old. It would be disrespectful to say I was devoted enough to claim myself a “fan” of The Prodigy, but I certainly enjoyed what little I heard of their music over the years. Flint’s death, sadly, gave me the push to explore their music and his story more deeply, very much too little too late.

This post is about a few things; Firstly, I offer my sincerest respects to Mr. Flint, his family/friends, band, and fans. I hope he’s in a better place. Secondly, I want to talk about sampling – specifically, how the transcendence of generations is made possible through the practice, and how it helps keep music so beautifully fluid.

I first heard about The Prodigy in my freshman year of college in a fucked-up, roundabout way – for some reason I think Mr. Flint might have enjoyed that. It began with a simple sound.

I’d been a fan of the likes of Daft Punk or deadmau5 for years prior, but I can really trace the first kindling of my still-burning passion for electronic music to the moment when I heard this.

It was late 2014; an unusually warm Autumn, and the open windows and multiple fans were doing their damnedest to keep my sweltering dorm room cool (We were lucky enough to be on the third floor of a concrete building). I was sitting at the desk combing SoundCloud for new music. One of my fraternity brothers had recommended an upcoming show to us on our Facebook page – an up-and-coming DJ from Los Angeles known as “RL Grime” was coming to play in SLO that next February, and tickets were only $15 at the time. “This is a steal” said Trent, “this guy is going to blow up and you won’t want to miss this show”. I certainly wish RL Grime tickets were still $15.

RL had just dropped his breakout smash hit “Core”. This is a track that, while not the very first popular song from the EDM-trap genre (here’s looking at you, Flosstradamus and What So Not), I would argue blew the roof off of the thing and catapulted trap to the mainstream. Coming up on 5 years of age, Core still never fails to get the people going.

I think that sometimes, when we experience those really consequential, legendary tracks for the first time, we don’t quite realize the gravity of what we’re hearing yet. Core is a major exception. As soon as you hit play, you’re blasted backwards with that grimy horn sample coming at you full-speed.

This horn sound traces all the way back to the Egyptian Empire – kidding, but actually, that’s the name of the group who first released this as, no joke, “The Horn Track” all the way back in 1991 (I wasn’t born yet).

Let’s start making our way back to the present – give “The Horn Track” a listen and note the breakbeat drum tracks that fade in and out of the record to bring it that intense energy characteristic of the early rave generation.

6 years later – I’m 1. The year is 1997. This 90’s underground rave/punk rock/hard dance scene is alive, but waning, and though sort of energy shines in how the horn sample is flipped in The Prodigy’s song “Climbatize”, from their breakout album “The Fat of the Land”. Listen for it around the 2:40 mark. This same record contains tracks and samples that even the most casual electronic music fan will recognize, namely in “Firestarter“, “Breathe” and of course the controversial classic “Smack My Bitch Up” (Sorry Mom).

Jump another 17 years or so back to the future, into my sauna-like dorm room – I had planned to go to the much-hyped RL Grime show, so I figured I would check out this guy’s work. I had heard “Tell Me,” which was brand-new at the time, but when I opened up his page the first track I saw was “Core”. Once my speakers blasted that infamous horn I was hooked – I had never heard such an interesting sound, and I was feeling a mix of intrigue and hair-raising dread that has never left me since. I regard any music that can trigger that hair-on-the-neck dopamine reaction as the best there is, and this was one of those moments.

Today, I write blogs about electronic music and other genres or stories that interest me deeply. I listen to, play, or think about music almost constantly. I curate playlists that I hope introduce my friends and readers to new music so that they may too have a similar epiphanic reaction as I did when hearing the Core horn for the first time. Discovery is such a beautiful thing, especially when it comes to music, and I’m so glad that sampling has become such a popular practice since it took root with the inception of hip-hop around the 1980’s.

I’m obliged to clarify that I don’t condone profiting off of someone else’s work without giving them proper respect, credit, or royalties – especially without their permission. There are doubtless legal and ethical guidelines that come with sampling, and numerous cases of artists not being credited for samples that were “stolen” or unfairly re-purposed, like the case of Aphex Twin’s “Avril 14th” being used for Kanye West’s track “Blame Game“.

The profound thing about sampling is its conductivity to this music discovery, if only one takes the time to trace it back. It’s like musical genealogy – one can see how genres like funk and soul influenced hip-hop through sampling. Same with the relationship between modern hip-hop and trap music, though the possibilities are boundless. From simply hearing a noise and being curious about its origins, I not only became a fan of RL Grime’s music, but I was exposed to proto-rave genres, groups and attributes. I traced the music’s home back to breakbeat, early jungle and grime genres, and of course the music of The Prodigy.

That’s where this story ties up neatly. We began by paying respects to Mr. Keith Flint, and continued with the story of how I came to discover his music through a few seconds of a horn synthesizer.

Now the ultimate point – sampling is key to music’s survival. Through that vehicle, individuals too can become immortalized. Life is ephemeral, and recordings allow us windows into the past, surely. But sampling is a practice that takes existing art and makes it new again. It gives license to the culture to renew something that was once popular by itself in its own zeitgeist – meaning, The Horn Track might have been popular in 1991, surely, but the way The Prodigy flipped it in 1997 and RL in turn flipped it in 2014 breathed new life into a dormant piece of art. In this way the original spirit of it can never truly die, and nor can figures like Keith Flint. Rest in Peace.

‘Bloom’, RÜFÜS DU SOL – Deep Dives

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(Authors note: This is the first of the ‘Deep Dives’ series, where I’ll delve into albums, tracks, artists, festivals, shows, anything that I believe deserves more attention.)

“Bloom” (2016) is the sophomore album of Australian alternative/progressive house (kinda) phenomenon RÜFÜS DU SOL (previously known as simply RÜFÜS in their native Australia) . It’s their first release since leaving their home country and garnering more widespread acclaim. Bloom is a true breakout release, and contains a perfect collection of radio-friendly tracks, deeper cuts, and bonafide spiritual experiences that build the album holistically. My opinion of this record also plays into my personal ‘sophomore album theory’, but that’s a post for another time.

RÜFÜS DU SOL is firmly one of my all-time favorite acts. Despite strong house and dance influence, they avoid the typical critiques and pitfalls of other electronic acts – “pressing play”, mixing rather than “playing” or “performing”, etc. – with a blend of live analog equipment and digital influences/production, which highlights the legitimate chops of each member on their respective instruments; Tyrone Lindqvist on vocals and lead guitar, Jon George on keyboards, live effects and synthesizer, and James Hunt on the drums.

If you’ve been anywhere near a radio or a music festival in the past 3 years, chances are you’ve heard something from this group, or specifically this album. The record is infused with splashy house tracks (“Until the Sun Needs to Rise”), an electro nu-funk anthem (“Like an Animal”), lovesick ballads (“You Were Right”, “Be With You”, “Tell Me”) and perhaps the most blissfully haunting song of the 21st century so far in “Innerbloom”. The difference between tracks becomes nuance, though, not anything so stark that it might detract from the themes threaded throughout.

One of my favorite professors in school (who was a real purist, I’ll add) said that he thought films were all meant to be seen in theaters only, all the way through at once, with no talking or other interruption. I remember him verbally berating a classmate once after we watched something because the student in question couldn’t stop making shitty jokes throughout. His opinions aren’t terribly unreasonable ideas about the best way to watch movies, for sure, but I do think we find ourselves half-watching or half-listening more often than not these days. It’s harder than ever to devote an hour or two to an album or film with our ever-shrinking attention spans, but in certain cases it’s well worth it. This is one of those cases.

As such, albums are in fact becoming less common than quicker drops like singles, EPs, or mixtapes in the modern music scene, especially in EDM (though I wouldn’t go as far as to say RÜFÜS DU SOL are an EDM act). Yet not only is Bloom a full-blown LP, it’s one that was clearly designed to be listened to all the way through at once. Tracks meld seamlessly into one another, and though themes and instrumentation are consistent throughout — as I alluded to earlier — the vibe ebbs and flows track to track, not allowing the listener to fall too deeply into the emotional songs or get too caught up in the more energetic ones.

The album opens with rain, which I love, because it evokes something different for everyone but still sets the ambience for the album to begin with a melancholic sort of scene. Vocal harmonies, tambourine and snaps break the cascade of the raindrops, and Lindqvist comes in over soft electric piano to introduce one of many of the lovesick sort of appeals to a love lost that fill the record: “You said you don’t need me like that/ Now I’m stuck here standing in the rain/ You said I don’t need you like that/ But I do, But I do”

The name of the track is aptly, ‘Brighter’, and the chorus ends on a (Sorry in advance) brighter note, with “Can you feel the sunshine? (you make it brighter, brighter)/ Make it brighter, make it brighter for me/ When that sun comes shining on me”. Puns aside, this is an important theme to consider when regarding the album’s themes – Bloom refers to a rebirth from a dormant state, when inner beauty, coaxed out by the light, shines in its own way.

Many of the tracks center on love that’s been lost or gone awry, but there’s never a hopeless message. Rather, one of a course correction. A wish to be back to the way things once were, when one can be fully themself again. Yet the optimistic undertone speaks to themes of growth and the natural anxiety that comes with growing and moving away and changing, perhaps becoming more popular, things that this group experienced at the time of writing. It doesn’t have to be about relationships. Regardless of the interpretation, the concept is expressed beautifully.

In terms of expression of concept, I firmly believe the environment in which music is written or recorded affects it greatly. In this case, the group actively pursued a different environment than their native Australia to record their second record – and that place was Berlin, Germany. I’ve never been, but I can imagine the rich electronic music history of the city, the weather, and the atmosphere of reverence and penance that permeates the concrete jungle all made their mark on the process. This wasn’t lost on the group – In a 2016 interview with Music Times, they described ‘Innerbloom’ as “basically our thank you or our nod to our time in Berlin. It’s quite a long song at 9 ½ minutes. It’s a little more indulgent and it has a slower progression.”

As ‘Brighter’ opens the record with a message of growth, change, and radiance that sometimes needs the encouragement of another, ‘Innerbloom’ closes with a dreamscape where that same beauty of companionship is recognized, but not expected; it’s offered without a transaction in that haunting chorus ‘If you want me/ if you need me/ I’m yours’. “Indulgent” only begins to describe it. Like anything so rare and finely crafted, ‘Bloom’ is to be savored.

Listen to it here:

Bonus: RÜFÜS DU SOL opens their set with “Like an Animal” at the historic Fox Theater (Oakland, CA), September 28, 2017 (photo credit, yours truly)

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The Legend of the Crossroad

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Just before the turn of the 20th century, the blues emerged as a unique musical genre wrought with emotion, namely angst. Pioneered by African American musicians in the Deep South, struggling to deal with a still incredibly cruel post-war America, the blues drew influence from spirituals, work songs, chants, and other musical traditions from the slavery era.

It employed novel chord progressions, the call-and-response form, and “walking” bass lines that create the “groove”. Blues lyrics began to incorporate the signature “AAB” format, where the first line is repeated once before the second, as you’ll see with today’s highlighted piece — Robert Johnson’s classic blues track “The Crossroad”.

Robert Johnson (1911–1938) was an early 20th century blues singer and a legend in his own right, cited as a notable influence on other phenomenal blues and blues-rock artists. He is perhaps best-known, though, for this song and the legend that surrounds it.

He tells his story from his perspective, though we can’t be sure if he’s talking about himself or writing as a character.

The story begins with a man despondent, begging for the grace of God to help him. He finds his way to the “crossroads”, a fitting place to be presented with a consequential choice.

“I went down to the crossroad, I got down on my knees

I went down to the crossroad, I got down on my knees

Asked the lord above ‘Have mercy now, save poor Bob if you please

Robert waited at the crossroads for a sign and… nothing happened. His prayers fell on deaf ears, it seemed; or the ears of an unexpected recipient. As the story goes, the devil himself appeared, offering Robert a deal — talent, fame, and fortune in return for one thing. His soul.

“Standin’ at the crossroad, baby, risin’ sun goin’ down

Standin’ at the crossroad, baby, eee, eee, risin’ sun goin’ down

I believe to my soul, now, poor Bob is sinkin’ down”

We don’t know if he took too much time to think, or hesitated, only that he eventually agreed. The sun soon sets on Robert, a metaphor for the light (God) exiting his life after his unholy bargain. “I believe to my soul, now, poor Bob is sinkin’ down” is Robert’s realization, or confession perhaps, that he too, is sinking down — toward Hell, presumably.

Though the legend of the deal is myth, the following is true, and that’s where it gets interesting. For a few years, he enjoyed his fame. He was a superstar, renowned by his contemporaries as an near-otherworldly talent.

But it couldn’t last. At just 27 years old, his life was cut short — allegedly poisoned by a jealous husband whose wife Johnson flirted with, though nobody knows the true nature of his death. Perhaps the devil got his due after all.

Recognized for its influence throughout the years, “The Crossroads” received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1998. Cream covered the song in the 1960s, and Tha Crossroads, released by Bone Thugs-n-Harmony in 1996 explores similar themes.

The point of the story, other than being just plain spooky and fascinating, is that the very mystique surrounding Johnson’s life and death imparts more meaning onto the song itself. These anecdotes give us more ways to connect with music other than just listening to it.

Clearly this has interested people who enjoy music in numerous ways and numerous media over time: While books reigned for years, the paperback rock bios mentioned earlier gave way to TV shows, like VH1’s ‘Behind the Music’, which gave way to sites like Genius and podcasts like Song Exploder and Dissect. Vox’s ‘Explained’ series has some great musically-inclined articles, such as this background on Mariah Carey’s greatest gift to humanity, “All I Want For Christmas Is You”.

Of course, I would be remiss not to mention the godfather medium of musical discussion and broadcasting — radio. The humble radio, still ubiquitous but facing serious advertising challenges, brought voices and music to the masses like never before. No faces, but there was still the oral tradition — One quality I most admire of any radio DJ is the ability to weave stories and facts about the songs they play into their shows, and to tell them with personality. As so many stations play similar tracks, i.e. Top 40 hits especially, contextualizing the music being played is key to keep your audience hooked on that specific station, or even that specific DJ.

Such is my aim — when you visit this page, I want you to learn something interesting about music you may never have been exposed to before. I want you to think more about the backstory. I want you to feel compelled maybe to try out some new genres or artists you wouldn’t have considered otherwise. And most importantly, I want you to feel connected to and inspired by music with the same passion that I have always shared, because I think it’s one of the most powerful things in the world.

(Image credit: The New Jazz Archive)