How Sampling Helps Us Live Forever

keith flint_the prodigy

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.

Tumbling Rock Intro – Side B

album-black-classic-167092

As my tastes evolved, so did my own attempts at playing music myself. Playing is in my blood — My dad never did, but my aunt and uncles on my mom’s side are all incredibly gifted. Watching them play annual family concerts at reunions, I grew up inspired, each of them skilled in their own right at blues guitar, harmonica, singing, songwriting, piano, drums, and composition. My late uncle Gene was one of the greatest fingerpicking blues guitarists I’ve ever seen, and could solo with the harmonica on top of it like he were Bob Dylan himself.

With this variety of influence, I began experimenting. Like lots of kids, I took piano lessons young but didn’t stick to it. With Squidward Tentacles and Kenny G as inspirations, I even tried my hand at clarinet in the middle school band, but that too was short lived. I mainly enjoyed being able to make a foghorn sort of noise with the thing.

My first real love was the guitar. I picked it up around age 10, took a few lessons from a great guy at a local music shop, then taught myself once I knew a few chords and basic music theory. The first song I ever learned to play was “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” from Van Halen’s eponymous debut album (1978), and begged my teacher to show me “Master of Puppets” from the Metallica album of the same name (1986), but he thought it would be too difficult. I went home and learned it anyway.

Through the years after I dabbled in piano, drums when and where I could, and a bit of singing. Currently I’m learning Ableton and producing mostly house music in my spare time. Even if nothing I do ever makes it out, the creative release of writing and performing is what drives me to keep at it. I’m almost constantly listening to, critiquing, and playing music, and I’d spend even more time on it if I weren’t working full-time. It gives me a purpose like other things just don’t.

Okay, but what’s so great about music, anyway?

Music has the power to heal, to drive us insane, to transport us back into our memories or to places unimagined before. It inspires the full range of emotion, the variety of it a perfect complement to the various scenarios, moods, and places we are bound to find ourselves in throughout life.

And that’s just for listening. The ability of people, animals, and even natural phenomena to create pleasing, musical sounds is almost universally celebrated. It’s hard to deny how amazing it is to witness beautiful music flow from somebody, and you can see when musicians really lose themselves in it and let the expression happen as if they’re in some trance state. Watch this footage of a young Carlos Santana, maybe 16 years old, at Woodstock and tell me that doesn’t resemble a spiritual experience (he was also on acid at the time, but do with that what you will).

As such, music seems otherworldly, come from a higher plane to grace us here on Earth with its majesty. This is what inspires such fascination with musical origin stories — we can’t believe where it’s come from and we want to know more about it, as if its natural occurrence were unbelievable. That’s the feeling I have, and the same one I hope to inspire.

I hope you’ll tune in each Friday at 12:00 PM Pacific, plus special editions where I’ll explore new music that I’ve been feeling, older tracks that deserve some love, album reviews, concert and festival previews/recaps, playlists, mixes, original tracks and more but most importantly — telling the stories of all this music that deserve to be told.

(Image Credit: Miguel Á. Pedriñán)