Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Articles [NAJP]

Beat Generation

Published by Wesleyan in 2004 and based on research done mostly in 1998 and 1999, Joseph G. Schloss's Making Beats had been on my to-read shelf for years. I finally got to it while prepping for hip-hop week in my music history and writing course at NYU--it freshens me up to have new info swimming through my head when I teach. Making Beats is too dated to review and much too dated to qualify as any sort of journalism. But at a little under 200 pages, it's a book I recommend to all arts journalists, music specialists for one reason and outsiders for another.

Schloss, who I've met but don't know, is an academic who does a little journalism, he says, "to keep myself from writing like an academic." At this he succeeds fairly well. He was at Tufts when the book was published and last year worked as a visiting scholar at NYU (in the music department, whereas I'm in the recorded music department, so I had no idea) and an adjunct at Baruch. Next year, maybe finally something tenure-track. ("Once it became clear to me how on top of things you have to be to make a living at freelancing, I decided that absent-minded professor was a better job fit for me.") The subject of his book is a strain of DJ culture that is already beginning to fade--as his subtitle puts it, "The Art of Sample-Based Hip-Hop." His interview subjects, some commercially semi-prominent but most less than that, are all hip-hop record producers who create music by piecing together recorded bits of other people's music. As he makes clear, this is rarely any more the hook-citing procedure long cited by bricolage-besotted post-pomo academics for its status as commentary, appropriation, irony, exploitation, recycling, what-have-you--MC Hammer copping Rick James for "U Can't Touch This," Puff Daddy making common cause with the Police in "I'll Be Missing You," Kanye West citing Ray Charles in "Gold Digger." Whether they use the term or not, and most do not, these digital-chop-and-splice artists are far more avant-garde in their ethos and practice. Most of them reconstruct their sources so utterly that only an expert could identify them, and they regard the reuse of an element another DJ has already worked with as a betrayal of their art form.

Music specialists should read Schloss's book because the information is so rich. Outsiders should read it to glimpse the layers of difficulty and self-consciousness that go into what is casually assumed to be a lazy way for untrained amateurs to make music. What I want to know is why I hadn't read about more of this stuff before. I suspect there are blogs where some of the details are laid out--and hope I'll get comments naming a few (as well as interview books and such I've never gotten to or through, a crucial exception being The RZA's Wu-Tang Manual, written with Chris Norris, also recommended). But what I've read in the hip-hop press, never mind the rock press, has given little inkling of the intricacy of technique involved. Even worse, DJing culture is sufficiently insular that the principles Schloss lays out, especially in the chapter called "Sampling Ethics," are never explained or examined (if indeed writers have thought hard enough to know they're there). The purism of these struggling artists--often, in my view, a foolish and self-righteous purism, but impressive nonetheless--runs as deep as any I know of in established arts whose practitioners are regularly lauded for their aesthetic piety. Just one example is the subculture's generally accepted notion of what constitutes "authenticity," which disqualifies anything played by live musicians. Chew on that for a while.

None of this would be as mind-boggling if music journalism had been doing its job. There are the germs of many great pieces in Schloss's book. But alas, most of them are "think pieces," not "trend pieces." The trick for the pitching freelancer would therefore be to formulate a "trend" in which a portion of the sampling ethos now proving obsolescent could be articulated in retrospect. Just sayin'.


By Dean Jones on May 26, 2008 4:34 PM

"and they regard the reuse of an element another DJ has already worked with as a betrayal of their art form" - in "The Magic Number" by De La Soul, Lesson 3 (History of Hip-Hop) is reused/rearranged and reduced, not a betrayal of their art form just as a tribute to Double Dee and Steinski; also I noticed in "Cold Lampin' With Flavor" by Public Enemy the line "now we come to the payoff," from Lesson 1, (where did that sample first come from?) - two examples of the legitimate reuse of elements another DJ, one DJ, has already worked with. And if that's out of context, then the payoff (at least for Public Enemy, not so much for Dee and Steinski), is in De La Soul's sampling of "Cold Lampin' With Flavor" in "Cool Breeze On The Rocks."

The cut and paste aesthetic is a crucial and vigorous one, I agree, considering the many, often obscure, references, and just how they are implemented. Goddamn those writers who think otherwise.

By w&w on May 27, 2008 8:42 AM

jeez, dean, that's a little harsh, no? especially since it seems you haven't read schloss's book (or maybe you're just responding to the writer above -- another _dean_, we're told).

i'd agree that we need to be careful when discussing the "rules" of sampling. in joe's book, he's talking about (and in conversation with) a fairly specific scene of sample-based producers. their "rules" are often tacit, if strict, and i myself had some problems when reading about them, as they seemed a lot more stringent than what i've observed over the years in hip-hop. that said, these are rules that some people follow(ed) and they provide an interesting and coherent aesthetic system, which schloss clearly and carefully explains. as such, the book is an important contribution to understanding how people make hip-hop and how hip-hop makes meaning.

in some of my own work, i've attempted to build on joe's research by discussing the ways that certain artists or producers have had to deal with these "rules" (or sought creatively to "break" them) while remaining in the aesthetic tradition. the roots are a case in point, esp as they face the problem described above: the notion -- widely accepted in hip-hop until about a decade ago -- that tracks produced by "live musicians" were outside of the "authentic" tradition. someone like ?uestlove, i'd argue, has made room for himself and his band in a number of ways, from practicing his own hip-hop historiography, to emulating the sound of samples in their recordings and performances, to upholding the centrality of sampling to hip-hop aesthetics.

anyway, since seņor christgau asked, here's a link to my (now also outdated) article on sampling and authenticity via ?uestove and the roots --

By Dean Jones on May 28, 2008 4:52 AM

That ?uestlove and The Roots can be said to lack authenticity, is compounded by the fact that their audience is found (or was, at least initially, and perhaps still) among the 'alternative' rather than hip-hop crowd. That their influence today is found in rap and R and B coincides with the now fading use of sampling which is largely due to the absolute lack of copyright privileges, which in turn resulted in them trading in 'authenticity' for instruments. That said, is the authenticity of hip-hop groups largely to do with the use of sampling, or the fact that The Roots chose instruments over artificial beats? For example, and I'm keeping in mind the rest of the album, "Midnight Marauders," by A Tribe Called Quest, on "Steve Biko (Stir It Up)." As far as I can tell there is no sampling on that track. And how about "The Low End Theory"?

If you couldn't tell I've read your article (Marshall). Enjoyed it too.

By w&w on May 28, 2008 9:36 AM

thanks, dean. glad you liked the article. (though i should have added a disclaimer that it's got a fair amount, but hopefully not too much, academic-ese in it.)

as for the question of "autheniticity," there are surely myriad factors playing into that determination for any particular person -- and i think that a community consensus on such a thing is a lot more elusive than we might think. indeed, as i argue in the article, i think the roots were able to successfully reshape ideas about the "auth" of live instruments; and it's also worth noting that they eventually started incorporating plenty of samples themselves, so they're far from dogmatic.

as for the overall decline in sampling, i'm not sure i buy it -- though i would have agreed a few years ago. it's true that sampling remains prohibitive for indy artists who want to compete in commercial spheres, but sampling is happening on all levels at this point, from the highest circles of commerce (think kanye) to the indy folk to the bedroom producers who don't give a second thought to remixing something and putting it up on myspace. one challenge wrt to writing about this stuff is how fast it's changing right now.

finally, re: ATCQ, they're definitely sampling on those two albums -- heavily, mostly from jazz. it wasn't until j dilla joined the ummah that the use of synths became more common. see, e.g.,

Articles, May 26, 2008

EMP III Critical Witness