Notes On A Sample In A Song By Drake

In 1972 a Miami-based R&B keyboardist and singer-songwriter named Timmy Thomas had a hit song with “Why Can’t We Live Together” which topped the charts and sold several million copies. Two notable things about Thomas’s song are its instrumentation and structure. Alongside Sly and The Family Stone’s “Family Affair”, “Why Can’t We Live Together” was one of the first pop hits from the 1970s to feature a drum machine. Thomas used an early machine (possibly a Korg, Rhythm Ace, or one of their numerous imitators) to provide a generic percolating bossa nova beat to accompany his funky Lowrey organ playing and singing about racial injustice. On this song the instrumentation shaped its structure because there are only two instruments sounding–no bass line, no guitars, no strings or background vocal harmonies. In a way, “Why Can’t We Live Together” is austere and ultra-minimalist and in saying more with less it was pathbreaking–years ahead of hip hop and EDM–in showing how a rigid yet hypnotic electronic groove could power a whole song. Here it is:

In 2015, the Canadian rapper and R&B singer Drake used a very sizable sample of Thomas’s hit as the basis for his “Hotline Bling.” Drake’s song opens with Thomas’s bossa beat, albeit considerably sped up, and wastes no time adding the requisite modern hip hop touches in the form of overlaying a snaky sub bassline, double time hi hats, and hand claps on two and four. The structure of Drake’s piece is guided by Thomas’s, even including his predecessor’s original chord progression twist that marks the choruses/ends of phrases.

To my ear, Drake’s appropriation of the 43-year-old song is pretty straightforward in our age of seamless software sampling. Depending on your perspective on such practices, it’s pretty savvy too—in the same wheelhouse as Puff daddy’s wholesale taking of Sting’s “Every Breath You Take” for his unoriginal “I’ll Be Missing You.” Similarly, the feel of Drake’s piece depends almost entirely on the wistful, minimalist mood of Thomas’s original. But it works. We could listen to Drake rap-singing about choosing ice cream or deliberating over his choices on a restaurant menu and he’d keep us interested in the subtleties of his ever-changing emotional state. The guy is sensitive.

It also struck me while listening to both songs how far their lyrics are from one another. Back in the day Thomas was making a plea for us to all get along, bringing himself and his listeners together in a collective “we” in the same of a shared social cause:

“No more wars, no more wars, no more war
Umm, just a little peace in this world
No more wars, no more war
All we want is some peace in this world.”

Drake, on the other hand, situates us right inside his personal world. He’s confessing to us and in this song we the listeners become the (presumably female) individual he’s addressing in his lyrics. Fitting the times we live in, Drake tells us how he feels:

“You used to call me on my, you used to, you used to
You used to call me on my cell phone
Late night when you need my love
Call me on my cell phone
Late night when you need my love
I know when that hotline bling
That can only mean one thing
I know when that hotline bling
That can only mean one thing.”

On Techlust II: Native Instruments’ Maschine In Colombia

Recently an email from Native Instruments (NI), a music technology company, appeared in my inbox. NI occasionally sends out ads for its products, limited time discount offers, software updates, and so on, and as a NI software owner I always happily read these emails and then ignore them–unless we’re talking about the software updates, in which case I go and follow the links. Such is the nature of electronic music technology: once you buy into a brand, you’re constantly “attended to” by the company and encouraged to buy and update more and more. In this way, the lines between consumption and production and advertising are not only blurry, but overlapping too.

But back to that recent NI email. It was a promotion for NI’s successful hardware/software rhythm instrument, Maschine. I wrote about first experiencing this technology “in the flesh” (“in the plastic”?) in a blog post here last year. In this Maschine email, NI included a video of a musician using the instrument to improvise a sample-based music. The musician is Mario Galeano who lives and works in Colombia and leads the group Frente Cumbiero. (I’ve just begun listening to them.)

The video is interesting for a number of reasons. First of all, Galeano is a combination of record collector, DJ, composer, and musicologist-historian who uses his love of traditional cumbia music to inform his electronic music making. This leads to me to a second interesting thing, which is that Galeano’s music isn’t your run of the mill electronic dance music. Rather, it’s built on syncopated samples of acoustic instruments from old cumbia records. Galeano’s music sounds–to use a clichéd way of distinguishing a music–more organic than synthetic. And this, in turn, may also be a by-product of the third thing that makes this NI video interesting: Galeano’s improvising on Maschine’s squishy square buttons to perform his music. At 2:10 in the video, we seem him play around with audio samples from old records from the 1960s and 70s.

It’s for these reasons that this NI video is such an effective promotional tool. It’s about a seductive technology, sure, but this technology is socially situated in a real musician’s life and naturalized by being shown to be a practical help to his ways of working– helping him sample old records and then play back those samples in what Galeano describes as “a very tactile way.” The meta-message? If this piece of gear helps him do all that, imagine what it might help me do?

You can read more about Galeano and Frente Cumbiero here.

On Matthew Herbert’s One Pig

Several years ago I read an interview with the English experimental electronic musician Matthew Herbert in Tape Op magazine and I remember him going on about the importance of his audio samples. Herbert didn’t want to use just any old sound sample. He wanted to use sounds that had some meaning for him–sounds that had some reason for being in the mix. Herbert then went on to talk about the creative possibilities of using a homemade sample of say, a cardboard cereal box in place of say, a conventional kick drum sound. Reading this I remember thinking: “Why does it matter so much where the sound comes from? Isn’t the main thing just what can be done to transform the sound?  Well yes and no.  For many electronic musicians, finding unique sound sources is an integral part of the compositional process. To make an analogy with cooking, this level of awareness of one’s musical “ingredients” brings to mind chefs who insist on sourcing local produce and livestock to make a tight “farm to table” feedback loop. The argument, whether in music or food, is that it’s good to know the source of what you’re listening to or eating. Right?

Like the great chefs with their carefully sourced ingredients, Herbert cares a lot about the provenance of his sounds. His latest musical project, One Pig, bridges the realms of food and sound by following the 25-month life of a pig on a farm. Herbert recorded sounds from the pig’s life at one- to two-week intervals–including sounds of the animal being butchered and finally, eaten. Then he made music out of the sound samples. This is by no means easy listening music though. Says Herbert: “My motivation was the acknowledge the realities of what it is to eat meat. It’s not about the music so much as it is about the story—the moral and emotional aspects of it as well.”

Here is a video about the making of One Pig:

On Sonic Persuasion: The Music Of Oneohtrix Point Never

Over the past few months I heard about Oneohtrix Point Never (aka Daniel Lopatin)’s electronic music in at least two disparate places–in Simon Reynolds’ fine book Retromania and in a recent article by Sasha Frere-Jones in The New Yorker–so I decided to buy his most recent recording Replica and check it out. Compelling music sometimes bubbles to the surface like this.

Oneohtrix’s music is indeed a rich soundworld, and while it drones and loops along, it’s never quite static. There’s a lot happening and changing moment to moment and this alone keeps your ear in the game.

Style-wise, the tracks on Replica don’t sound nostalgic, nor do they sound particularly 2011. Actually, it’s hard to date them. Maybe this is because Oneohtrix uses vintage synthesizers to generate arpeggios, improvises chords and melodies, and mixes these with audio samples culled from old infomercials found on YouTube. Everything is then blended together, re-sampled (sometimes many times) and assembled on the computer.  Here is Oneohtrix discussing his creative process:

“I jam combos of arpeggiators in latch or unlatched modes, sequencers, and free playing via loopers, and then bounce it to computer where I resample and layer the stuff there. I do this process over and over. It can get really time-consuming and insane.”

Most everything in this music is in full view, standing revealed: you can hear the seams between sections; you can hear the fragmented sampled source material; you can hear the repeated arpeggios; you can hear the sometimes cheesy sound patches (e.g. are those synthesized horn sounds?); and you can hear the layers of noise and hiss.

In other words, nothing is hidden in this music. It’s assembled from fragments, but without fetishizing their sources–without, that is, any knowing “winks” to indicate to us that some sound is referencing in an ironic way. What this leaves us with is a soundworld that is by turns mysterious, curious and anxious, and most importantly, quite emotionally moving.

Here is my favorite track, “Power Of Persuasion”:

On The Inner Life Of Sampling

I’m at the computer, headphones on, Ableton Live software open, listening closely to audio sample loops that I’ve made of Wonders, a CD of marimba and vibraphone music I recorded eleven short years ago.  (How time flies!)  Why am I spending my time like this, mouse-clicking around loops of my musical past?  What am I thinking about as I listen through these samples?  What are the looping sounds doing to me?  What are they triggering in me?

As I experiment with various delay settings that add rhythmic echoes to the loops, I think about sampling as a kind of deteriorated memory–not because our memories and digital sampling can’t be faithful to an original event, but because remembered things are always distorted and anyway, I just like the sound of the effects I’m applying so now I’m theorizing about them.  With software it’s easy to distort a sound by re-pitching it to a low warble, or adding delay to make it echo and fold back upon itself (swimming in its own memory), or laying on filter upon filter to mutate the sound into unrecognizability.

All this is enjoyable and interesting to experiment with, headphones on, in close listening mode.  (There are even moments of ecstatic discovery too.)  But as I experiment I find myself remembering the previous life of my sampled material–the life it lead as it was composed and then performed and recorded as live music.  Or put another way: the life this sound once led when it was alive.  All this experience–which goes back almost twenty years now–feels compressed before me in the short four and eight bar loops I’m listening to.  The scale of this archeological dig through my musical life seems a little off somehow: How could my little schizophonic loops ever do justice to the scope of their lived history from which they have been split?

In his recent book Retromania, Simon Reynolds speaks of sampling as a portal “to far flung times and places”, a kind of musical “ghost coordination and ghost arrangement” (313-314).  More ominously, Reynolds suggests that sampling “is enslavement: involuntary labor that’s been alienated from its original environment and put into service in a completely other context, creating profit and prestige for another” (314).  I will almost certainly never profit nor earn prestige from sampling myself, and now I also wonder: What could I possibly add to my already recorded artifact?  And besides, isn’t the practice of sampling short sections of music and looping them effectively reducing the music’s informational content, making it more redundant and more repetitious?

This view–however old-fashioned it is in equating musical change with density of information and “progress”–was my perspective on sampling until it occurred to me that sampling offers other gifts of musical perception and affect.  One thing that had long struck me about Wonders was how impatient with itself much of it sounded. The constant and repeated sixteenth-notes and regular chord changes every four bars or so gave the music a sense of never being settled, never content with just staying put, and like its composer, always on the go.  But sampling lets me take a musical moment and say to it, Hold on.  Relax.  Get comfortable with yourself.  Stay for a while.  Sampling lets me retroactively inject a dose of my current sensibility into my past self–or as Reynolds might put it, enslave the old me.

Sampling is also a convenient excuse to explore how a range of sound-morphing effects impact my sounds.  To start, one of the most dramatic effects I’ve discovered so far–maybe out of laziness because the slider is just there in front of me, begging to be tried out–is to re-pitch a sample into a higher or lower register.  It’s easy to forget how crucial pitch is to a sound’s affect.  If you don’t believe me, record your own voice sometime and re-pitch it lower or higher.  You’ll realize immediately how much your vocal identity depends on its pitch.  And repitching a sample by a few semitones affects the shade of its timbre or tone color too: suddenly a wooden marimba can sound like a low gong or a metallic xylophone.  Re-pitching allows me to hear new things in my looping samples such as hidden inner voices (notes of a simultaneous chord) or harmonies, or even more mysteriously: a (new) feeling I didn’t know was even present in the sample in the first place.  A second dramatic effect is EQ or equalization, which can be powerful in the way it allows me to foreground particular frequencies, drawing in articulations and contrasts, turning a mellow timbre into something more focused.  Next, delay effects also help me hear my samples anew.  Adding the right type and amount of delay can send a sample into orbit, breaking it into thousands of shards bouncing rhythmically around the stereo field.  And finally, just the pure repetition of looping is transforming–if you find the perfect loop point.  Done right, looping is pure groove, pure flow.

So, as I sit at the computer with my headphones on, in close listening mode, experimenting with effects on the looped samples, I find myself thinking about the history of this music’s original production and here’s what comes to mind:

I’m working out its chord progressions on the piano in my parent’s home in the evenings of the summer of 1994, then painstakingly notating and arranging the chords for marimbas; inputting the music into Finale, a computer notation program; rehearsing the music with five other musicians in a subterranean, neon-lit percussion studio and hearing the lumbering piece come alive for the first time and fill the room with a ringing hum; performing the piece live in a recital hall for a few hundred listeners who applaud the moment the musicians all finish together on an upbeat on the final F major chord; learning to play all the parts myself four years later and then multitracking them at a recording studio, the click of an electronic metronome fed through my headphones to keep my playing in sync; putting the piece, along with four other compositions I’ve recorded, onto a CD for independent “release” (if you’re wondering: no, it never did sell enough to cover the cost of making it); storing hundreds of copies of this mostly unsold musical artifact on a high shelf in my closet, the brightly colored jewel cases still shrink-wrapped and lined up in neat rows in what is now an old and discolored cardboard box; taking out one of the shiny CDs and feeding it to my computer, prompting the machine, having just eaten the disc in one swift gulp, to politely ask “Would you like to import the audio cd ‘Wonders’ now?”; dragging an icon of Track 1’s audio file into Ableton Live–all that lived experience squashed into sound waves!–reminding me of a postcard sent from a distant land and then found again after all these years, waiting to be recycled.

On James Blake Live At The Bowery Ballroom

The most interesting part of James Blake’s live show at the Bowery Ballroom last night was his trio’s seamless use of technology to bring to the stage some of the electronic and otherworldly textures of Blake’s debut album, James Blake.  Blake was playing a Prophet synthesizer for his gritty analog keyboard textures along with a Nord stage piano for his acoustic piano sounds.  But Blake’s microphone (and his piano) was also feeding into a sampler operated by his guitarist, enabling Blake to be looped and overdubbed and harmonized with himself, building up cumulative textures.  The guitarist spent more than half his time “playing” this live sampled material by hitting small rubber pads on the sampler, sometimes playing deep dub basslines on it as well.  One wouldn’t think that watching a musician poking away at a little 10-inch plastic box could be much fun, but it really works because you get into the musician’s concentration* once you figure out which sounds in the band’s texture he’s producing.  Blake’s drummer used a hybrid electronic-acoustic set up: real hi-hat and cymbals, an electronic kick drum and a multi-pad percussion controller.  What this means, for those of you who don’t play such instruments, is that the drummer can trigger any sound he wants on his electronic pads. Thus, one moment he’s playing a crisp, sampled cross stick sound (so key to a lot of dubstep music), the next moment a deep gong sound, and then suddenly a bamboo xylophone-type sound.  What’s exciting about this is how the drummer becomes a sample-triggerer, commandeering any sound that has been set up beforehand, making it easy to duplicate the textures of electronic music in a live setting.  And of course, seeing all of these sounds played in real time by a stick-wielding musician, connects the listener to the conventions of traditional live music performance.  Oh, and before I forget: the band didn’t play to a click track and so the time was elastic and subtle and no one needed headphones.  Beautiful.  In the end, that’s what made this concert work so well: three musicians were able to produce a whole lot of sound in a truly live way–keeping it self-contained by sampling and triggering themselves, and leaving room for improvisation too.  It’s a testament not only to the skill of the musicians, but also to how far electronic music technology has come that performers can use its machinery in such transparent, creative and pleasurable ways.

* There’s a story that the composer John Cage tells of having attended a ballet performance with a friend.  The ballet dancer is holding still on stage, almost motionless and not appearing to be doing much, but is riveting nonetheless.  Cage’s friend turns to him and asks: “How does she do that?  How does she hold my attention?”  And Cage replies: “You’re held by her concentration.”

On Designing New Musical Controllers

A while back I wrote about MIDI hardware controllers which are used by musicians who want to control their computer software.  (You can read the post here.)  Why does one need a controller when performing music with say, a laptop?  For one thing, it gives you the sense of having physical, tactile control over your music.  Rather than using a mouse pad to point and click your way through musical actions, a hardware controller makes making electronic music feel a little more like playing a “real” musical instrument.  (Whether or not a laptop computer running software is in fact a musical instrument is another question altogether.)  Another thing controllers are good for is that they enable their users to do many things at once.  For instance, you can easily “map” several different parameters in your software to one knob, button, or fader on your controller, so with one turn, tap, or slide you could set into motion a whole bunch of musical transformations, making you feel, well, bionic.  To make an analogy with the symphony orchestra: the conductor can cue or “trigger” (in electronic music parlance) several instruments or sections at once with the wave of a hand. Now that is power.  Similarly, MIDI hardware controllers give the electronic musician that feeling of potential musical control.

As of 2011, you can find many kinds of musical controllers for sale at your local music store.  Most of these units are small plastic boxes with buttons, knobs, and faders, and are designed to work easily with popular software programs such as Ableton Live.  But adventurous musicians sometimes go above and beyond by designing their own MIDI controllers.  Nick Francis, the music director at KPLU-FM in Seattle, is one such musician.  In the video below, Francis describes how he set about building his own custom controller in order to perform live remixes of some of his favorite jazz recordings.  Francis then demonstrates his live remixing/mash-up of Fats Waller’s jazz classic “Honeysuckle Rose” (1928).

How did he go about doing it?  By taking audio samples from four different recordings of “Honeysuckle Rose” and importing them into Ableton Live software (which Francis accurately describes as a “spreadsheet” for sound).  These sound samples are then combined with other rhythmic loops.  If you watch the video closely, you can get a sense of how and when Francis is triggering the various “Honeysuckle Rose” samples, as well as sliding faders to switch from one sound to another (listen and watch for the back and forth between the piano and the bass).

This clip has already been viewed over 14,000 times on YouTube, and viewers are especially impressed by how “natural” the controller looks and by the fact that electronic music remixing is (or always was) open to all ages.

If you are now curious about Fats Waller’s original song, you might enjoy this clip of him performing: