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In our new series on the art of sampling, hip-hop producers demonstrate how they find inspiration in classics, hidden gems, found sounds and other raw musical materials to create new hits. For each of the five videos in the series, NPR Music has asked a writer we love to do something similar. Their only instruction was to watch one of the videos, pick an element that inspired them, and spin it off in a new direction — to sample it.
Today, the Roots drummer and Tonight Show bandleader Questlove corrects the record after being name-checked by fellow producer Just Blaze in the video above, and explains why his colleague's talent for finding and flipping a sample is exhilarating and infuriating in equal measure.
1. "Questlove hate ....We're friends but he hates me." — Just Blaze
This second-long quote is only about one third true. Questlove could never "hate" per se. Let's just say I was madder than a mofo back in 2002. Just Blaze and I are friends. Just Blaze is also my hero. But my friend and hero knows exactly what I mean.
When I first heard "Hovi Baby," the second single from Jay-Z's album The Blueprint 2, I actually had two issues with it: the sample and the drums.
First, the sample: Everyone knows the "glasses on your forehead" moment, right? It's a staple in comic strips and middle age — you scour the entire earth for something only to discover that it's been in the most obvious location the entire time, and what results is relief swamped by an overwhelming of foolishness.
This was one of those moments, and in fact the glasses had been on my forehead for seven years. Back in 1995, when LaFace Records pulled out the final single from TLC's CrazySexyCool album, we were so exhausted from not chasing waterfalls that we weren't necessarily looking to the group for inspiration in the same way. "Diggin' On You," that final single, was a top 10 hit, but it didn't initially grab me by the collar. I didn't investigate further, and the song passed into a kind of blind (deaf?) spot, to the point that I guess I didn't pay enough attention to the video version of the song, which showed the band arriving by helicopter for a Las Vegas performance. The arrival is accompanied by a fanfare, announcement music. I heard it. I'm sure I heard it. I must have seen that video a million times. But never once did I make a mental note to myself: "Yo ... run to a studio and sample this NOW!!!!!!"
Someone else did: Just Blaze. When I asked him where the music had come from, his answer was so simple and matter-of-fact. "Oh, that? That was the 'Diggin' on You' video intro. You know. The helicopter part?" There was almost a shrug in his voice. I was seething. Why didn't we think of that? And the way he did it was brilliant. The sample is all emphasis. It works on what I will cautiously call "gospel chops." This is a sticky term, because whenever I describe it, it always manages to offend younger musicians and it makes me sound old and out of touch. Gospel chops are like IF!!!! EVERY!!!! SENTENCE!!!! YOU!!!! EVER!!!!! WROTE!!! WAS!!!!! IN!!!! ALL!!!! CAPS!!!!! WITH!!!! EXCLAMATION!!!!!! POINTS!!!!!!! It's exciting for a while but then exhausting, and the exhaustion lasts longer than the excitement. But here was Just practicing true hip-hop, meaning that he took the taboo and made art out of it.
I was also pulled in by the drums. Partly this is because I was told to do so. Jay introduces the band at the beginning — he calls them "Just Blaze and the Blazettes" — and then he singles out one member. "Right now, I want you to give the drummer some. No ma, really. Give the drummer some."
I gave the drummer some. The sound was crisp, maybe a little tinny, but it seemed like it had real hands behind it. I called up Just Blaze and asked him whose hands. It turns out they were his, sort of, or at least his fingers, playing on a drum pad. I wasn't amazed by the drumming in the sense that it was the work of a virtuoso, or that the timing was magnificent, or that it was so complex. There was a certain sense of imperfection that came through despite it having been made on a machine that made it somehow more perfect. Those same qualities were in J. Dilla's work, and I try to put them in mine. It's not that we're not using technology. We are. But it's governed by the desire to make technology reflect humanity.
2. "You know what? This would sound much better with a real drum kit underneath it." — Just Blaze
"Hovi Baby" was 2002. Four years later, after Jay-Z had "retired" (the word deserves Sugar Ray Leonard irony quotes), he came back, still king, with Kingdom Come. The first single, "Show Me What You Got," was an openly nostalgic nod to Public Enemy's "Show 'Em Whatcha Got," which opened the Black Side of It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back. Just Blaze's production sampled Flavor Flav saying the title of the earlier song, and also borrowed a second sample from the same song: the Lafayette Afro Rock Band's "Darkest Light" (that's the opening sax loop, immediately familiar not just from Public Enemy but from its appearance in Wreckx-n-Effect's "Rump Shaker" and about a million other hip-hop songs).
Jay-Z's song wasn't a remake of Public Enemy. It wasn't even an update. It was more of a sequel, and it acted accordingly. The original Public Enemy song sampled the Bar-Kays "Son of Shaft," which in turn sampled Isaac Hayes' original "Theme from Shaft." Jay's song went looking for its music in a Shaft sequel — not Shaft's Big Score, which had a not-so-big score by director Gordon Parks, but Shaft in Africa, which had music composed by Johnny Pate. Jay brought "Shaft in Africa" to Just, who understood why he wanted it on "Show Me What You Got." But Just thought it needed more. He called up 1500 or Nothin' — he refers to them as his little brothers; they're a group of musicians and producers who have worked with countless artists — and they played over the "Shaft in Africa" sample. There's a long tradition of funk bands using live drummers over drum machines. Sly Stone did it all the time. But this was live musicians playing over an existing record, which made for more space, more kinetic energy, which you can hear if you compare it with another song that came out right around the same time and also sampled "Shaft in Africa" — Diddy's "We Gon' Make It" — and the use ... the utilization ... the overthrow of rudiments ... deep breath ... another deep breath.
Wait: I'm about to rabbit hole this whole mission ...
Look, I can technical talk you to the ground. But get up off the ground. The point I'm trying to get across is, if I tell Just, "Ugh, I hate you man!!!" that only means I love that his work makes me work harder on my own. No technical talk necessary. Just love.