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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, writer Jeff Weiss looks at a song by Kendrick Lamar, produced by DJ Dahi. Built around an atmospheric sample just a few seconds long, it nonetheless contains within it the whole historical legacy of sampling, marching in two directions at once: an art form building and mutating as time moves forward, and a finished piece of art that has the ability to not only depict time moving in reverse, but to cause it.
The sample is encoded in our DNA. It's James Joyce re-imagining the Odyssey to create Ulysses; Paul Thomas Anderson flipping Upton Sinclair's Oil! into There Will Be Blood. Jay-Z taking a hot line and making it a hot song. Nas complained about that, but he knew the truth when he wrote "no idea's original, there's nothing new under the sun." William Shakespeare may have written King Lear while under plague quarantine, but like the inspiration for so many of his plays, the original baldhead slick was merely sampling the historical legend.
Creativity is the sum of improvised experiments and casual vigilance. The audience hears, reads and watches the refinements of endless attempts to capture flickering echoes and fractured ideas. If you miss your chance, they vanish into some quicksand broth of brain matter, idly waiting for reignition. All infernos start with sparks.
It is DJ Screw inventing an entire sub-genre by warping vocals into a king snake crawl as swamp-like as the Houston summer. It is King Tubby live on a four-track, pioneering dub and the remix by muting and mutilating voices, adding echoes, reverb and crashes that simulated gun shots and thunder claps. It is the RZA's evolution from looping Stax 45s to speeding up creaking gospel samples, alchemizing what eventually became chipmunk soul. This was the innovation that inspired the first half of Kanye's career — the one that established a template for Dipset to artfully goon to. It is Burial distorting Ray J to sound like a forlorn deity singing requiems from a peat bog.
DJ Dahi understands this. It's what he's expressing to the cameras without needing to say it explicitly. Inspiration can come from the invisible hand of divinity, but it's more likely to emerge from the dull serendipity of trial and error. As he tells it, the sample generally comes from three distinct methods of manipulating a source: the perfect loop, the chop and playing a record in reverse. Once upon a neurotic suburban nightmare, P.T.A. harpies and grifting pastors warned that if you played "Stairway to Heaven" backwards, you could hear Led Zep's true Mephistophelean intent. And to be fair, it does sound like Robert Plant croaking "Here's to my Sweet Satan," while swangin' through Mordor in a candy-painted slab. More often, altering pitch and tempo produces immortal reinventions.
The sample mirrors our cognitive patterns, synapses firing from thought to thought like we're swinging across a series of fragile vines. What starts as a lab test in a little room can become the soundtrack for millions of strangers you'll never meet, stamping permanent associations onto half-remembered but legendary nights. So there is Dahi wondering what happens if you slow down the guitar intro to Beach House's "Silver Soul," a mercury veil of sadness and romantic despair, sung by a French-American Vassar graduate who led a Led Zeppelin cover band as a teenager. As soon as it unspools in reverse, its gauzy silk cobweb slink becomes sinister and lawless. A murky afternoon reverie becomes a midnight run.
From there, Dahi's creation winds up in the studio with Kendrick Lamar and Jay Rock; the original Beach House iteration is mutated into perfection, new drums give it an ominous archangel stomp. The "good kid" from the Westside of Compton meets the Bounty Hunter from Nickerson Gardens — the largest project west of the Mississippi, where they shot scenes from To Live and Die In L.A., which later supplied the title of 2Pac's posthumous tribute to the last city he called home. Upon release, the Manichean home invasion banger immediately becomes my favorite song off 2012's good kid, m.A.A.d. city. Nearly eight years later, it's still the only one that I can listen to at any time of day, immaterial of mood. It's a rare song that consumes the oxygen and alters the ultra-violet. A simple sample reversal set off a chain that yielded one of the most definitive L.A. rap songs of this decade or any other.
Music scars my memory as much as trauma. Proust had madeleines, but we have "Money Trees," one of the few redemptive victories of modernity. As a kid, I wanted to live life in reverse and reshape history; my favorite movies and books somehow always involved time travel or magical flights from reality. I still know every non-sequitur from Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. Back to the Future Part II's dystopian paranoia left permanent wounds. After all, what loomed just out of sight always felt terrifying, and the ensuing decades eventually bore out my dark suspicions: Biff is President, there are no hoverboards and the Cubs won the World Series (Mayan prophecies realized). The past might have been unpleasant, but it's something that you can access, control or attempt to forget. The future is now. And unless you're the CEO of Zoom, there are few silver linings that don't sound stupid when you say them out loud.
As soon as I hear "Money Trees," my mind reflexively lowers into a blurry slipstream. It splashes out in 2015, which in my self-consumed narrative was the last time that the outside world didn't feel psychedelically terrible. Of course, the political carnage of what would happen the following year loomed, but there was something about that moment that felt like a last gasp preserving whatever tenuous scrap of sanity remained. It was the zenith of Future and Young Thug, where every new song shattered boundaries of savagery and innovation. Raw and hedonistic but still somehow matching the anxiety of the stale encroaching darkness. Things felt neon and toxic, but no one expected the arc of the moral universe to bend towards babies in concentration camps amidst a global plague.
That fall, a few days before my birthday, a friend visited from New York, and because my brain is infected by Boosie and Webbie lyrics, the plan was to "do it big." We didn't. I wound up getting us some molly, another close friend joined and the three of us bounced around Los Angeles, questing towards something vague and undiscovered. MDMA's best and worst quality is that it suffuses otherwise ordinary nights with an epic scope. Every interaction possesses a half-profound, quasi-spiritual connection, to the point where you wake up the next morning and send out a few texts wondering if you actually sounded as corny as your hazy memory serves. We went to a backyard party where some musicians and comics performed, then we wound up at a rap night that I used to go to most Saturdays at a nearby club, now closed indefinitely.
I can't tell you about anything we talked about that night, what we danced to, or even whether the molly was good or just fine. All I remember is the three of us pouring into the Uber around 2:15 a.m. Me, riding shotgun in Aux cord days, scrolling for what felt like hours searching for the perfect soundtrack to an 8-minute car ride. The moment I pressed play on "Money Trees," it became abundantly clear that no other options existed. The Uber turned silent the second the backwards Beach House sample boomed. In my biased native son way, I'd spent the previous few days shilling for Los Angeles as superior to New York, but no amount of carnitas tacos or Wonka dispensary visits could remotely compare to "Money Trees."
There is no right way to hear the song, but I'm certain that there's no better context than that final soaring flush of chemical infinity at the end of the night, rolling north on the 2, the speakers glowing then turning to cinders from the threatening volume of Kendrick shouting out E-40 and hot sauce on Top Ramen. The light and dark dialectic of the sun-haunted city in one swoop. Dreams of living like they do in the hills, but burdened by terrestrial nightmares, the pain of death and the irrevocable crossroad decisions of good versus evil, childhood dreams that came with unforeseen consequences. Jay Rock's verse is the best guest 16 of the decade, all unrepentant wrath, government cheese and municipal hellscape, serpents running wild in the aftermath of Eden and the illusory hope of one day finding some semblance of security and success. For a few minutes there, the wave crested as high as it could go, an effortless float before the inevitable crash. The tacit understanding that we would all get older and go our own separate ways, but the drugs graciously allowed the delusional possibility that it could go on like this forever — at least if we kept the song on a loop.
In the years that followed, my friends lost that version of their lives. We text occasionally but it feels more complicated, as though there are words always being elided. Shortly after that night, the tectonic plates began slipping; things went from "I Know the Devil is Real" to he's knocking at your door, to he's sleeping in your bed. More friends wound up in the ground or in urns, dead from the same coping mechanisms that define this generation: drugs, alcohol, careless errors that became fatal. Institutions that I loved crumbled, entire industries practically ceased to exist, friend groups betrayed each other, divided and now exist as sour memories and abandoned group texts. The headlines became so grim that everything felt barbarically cruel and stupid and beyond parody.
Still, it's impossible for me to hear "Money Trees," and not feel the ephemeral details of that night come to life, the sense of imperial decline peripheral but temporarily paused. If I listen closely enough, I can see the palms swaying over the freeway like disinterested gods and picture us all as we were, reversed into some pleasant vein of nostalgia. For a few seconds, no matter how infernal the heat, there is the possibility of finding shade.