This is my first post on NewMusicBox, and I’m delighted to be here. Over the next four weeks, I’m going to be looking at music composition through the lens of electronic music production, specifically the kind based on sampling. This music raises some tough and intriguing philosophical questions: Who is the composer of a sample-based track? Are tracks and notated works equivalent? Are producers “composers”? What even is a composer?
All of these questions are brought into stark relief by “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)” by Pete Rock and CL Smooth, a classic of ’90s hip-hop.
The track was inspired by the life and early death of Pete Rock’s cousin and friend “Trouble” T Roy of Heavy D & the Boyz. In a 2007 Village Voice interview, Pete Rock gave the backstory:
I had a friend of mine that passed away, and it was a shock to the community. I was kind of depressed when I made it. And to this day, I can’t believe I made it through, the way I was feeling. I guess it was for my boy. When I found the record by Tom Scott, basically I just heard something incredible that touched me and made me cry. It had such a beautiful bassline, and I started with that first. I found some other sounds and then heard some sax in there and used that. Next thing you know, I have a beautiful beat made. When I mixed the song down, I had Charlie Brown from Leaders of the New School in the session with me, and we all just started crying.
The Tom Scott record in question is his rendition of “Today” by Jefferson Airplane. The great sax riff comes at 1:37.
Here’s a transcription:
And here’s the original Jefferson Airplane song at the head of this memetic family tree:
The chain of musical inheritance doesn’t end with Pete Rock and CL Smooth. Their song has been sampled and quoted many times. Hear my mashup of some of them here:
I’ve debated the musical merits of sampling endlessly with my friends and students, musicians and non-musicians alike. “T.R.O.Y.” is a perfect example of why sampling is so valuable. There would have been no other way for Pete Rock to have arrived at his sound, not even if he had hired Tom Scott to come in and play his sax riff live in the studio. They could, in theory, have painstakingly recreated the instrumentation and ambiance from Scott’s original recording, but the result would still not have had the effortless, tossed-off feel of the samples. Playing a riff from a chart sounds very different from discovering it in the heat of the moment. Pete Rock’s looping transformed unprominent pieces of Tom Scott’s shaggy improvisation into laser-beam-focused funk.
In hip-hop terms, a “break” is a short segment of recorded music that can be sampled and looped. The term originally referred to drums and percussion, but it was later generalized to mean any kind of sound. In his book Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-Hop, Joseph Schloss argues that Pete Rock created the Tom Scott sax break by sampling it:
On a conceptual level, this means that the break in the original jazz record was brought into existence retroactively by Pete Rock’s use of it. In other words, for the twenty-four years between its release and the day Pete Rock sampled it, the original song contained no break. From that day on, it contained the break from “They Reminisce Over You.” Producers deal with this apparent breaching of the time-space continuum with typically philosophical detachment. Conventionally, they take the position that the break had always been there, it just took a great producer to hear and exploit it. Record collecting is approached as if potential breaks have been unlooped and hidden randomly throughout the world’s music. It is the producer’s job to find them.
For a hip-hop fan, listening to ’60s and ’70s soul albums means regularly encountering familiar breaks. When I first heard “Are You My Woman (Tell Me So)” by the Chi-Lites, I immediately recognized the horns and drums from Beyoncé’s “Crazy In Love.” While I understand that, logically, the breaks in the Beyoncé song are really from the Chi-Lites, I still hear them as “belonging” to Beyoncé’s producer Rich Harrison.
Among sampling musicians, discovery has the same creative status as invention. DJs always want to play something that listeners don’t already know but that they will immediately like, and hip-hop producers have inherited this attitude. In a world saturated with recordings, creating more music ex nihilo is not the valuable service to humanity that it once was. I make sample-based music because I feel like it’s more worthwhile to identify existing sounds that have been overlooked, to bring them to fresh ears, and to give them fresh meaning in new contexts.
Theft is frowned upon in the hip-hop community, but the concept means something different from its traditional sense. If I were to use the Tom Scott break in a new track, without intending it as an homage or reference to Pete Rock, I would be “biting” his idea. However I would not be biting Tom Scott, or Jefferson Airplane for that matter. Copyright law disagrees on this matter completely, but sampling artists have never been overly concerned with copyright law, unless they’re forced to be.
Pete Rock’s moral ownership of the Tom Scott break is complicated by the fact that he wasn’t the first hip-hop producer to have noticed it. Slick Rick used it a year earlier on “It’s A Boy.”
Did Pete Rock bite Slick Rick? Is it a case of convergent discovery? Or is Pete Rock’s track just so much better that his ownership overrides Slick Rick’s? I don’t know the answer, but I suspect it’s the latter.
Even after 30-plus years of hip-hop, a lot of people continue to feel moral discomfort about sampling, especially when it happens without permission. Samplers themselves wryly acknowledge the moral ambiguities—see the Beastie Boys’ “Rhymin’ and Stealin’” or Ice Cube’s “Jackin’ for Beats.” Why does sampling need so much defending, when everyone long ago made peace with collage in other media? Maybe it’s because sampling amplifies the unreal qualities that all recorded music shares. Simon Reynolds observes:
Recording is pretty freaky, then, if you think about it. But sampling doubles its inherent supernaturalism. Woven out of looped moments that are like portals to far-flung times and places, the sample collage creates a musical event that never happened; a mixture of time-travel and séance.
Maybe our anxiety about sampling isn’t about ownership at all. Maybe we just don’t like being confronted so directly with the uncanniness of recorded music. While we might like to pretend that recordings are essentially documents of a performance that actually took place, sample-based music reminds us that this is totally untrue. Our discomfort with sampling is probably also the basis for the often-repeated statement that producers aren’t “real” musicians, that sampling is “just pushing buttons.” Having created music both with instruments and software, I can tell you that making good music is not any easier with the latter than with the former.
In the past, it made sense to conflate musicality with technique, because instruments are hard, and music is hard, and by the time you’ve learned to play, you’ve probably spent a ton of time learning the other. Music editing software is comparatively easy to learn, but you still have to master the music. Consider Microsoft Word: any reasonably bright person can quickly learn how it works, but learning how to write well is another ball of wax entirely. So it is with digital audio production. I can take any motivated student and have them chopping up samples in an hour. But are the results going to sound good? That’s where the musicianship comes in, and it takes as many dedicated hours of practice to attain it as with traditional instruments. Hip-hop has made any attentive listener into a potential composer. Now it’s up to us to use our ears.
Ethan Hein is an adjunct professor of music technology at NYU and Montclair State University. As a founding member of the NYU Music Experience Design Lab, he researches and designs beginner-accessible interfaces for music learning and creation. He maintains an active and widely followed music blog at ethanhein.com.