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.”