Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-Hop

Article excerpt

Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-Hop. By Joseph G. Schloss. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2004. (Music/Culture.) [xiii, 246 p. ISBN 0-8195-6696-9. $24.95.] Bibliography, discography, index.

Consider an aesthetics of music in which recordings are superior to live performance, originality is determined by the skill with which one manipulates the music of others, and widely accepted notions of authorship and intellectual property are all but dismissed. It is an aesthetics that inverts many of the traditional values of Western classical music; it is also an aesthetics that underlies one of the most influential and popular musics in the world today: hip-hop.

In Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-Hop, ethnomusicologist Joseph Schloss explores hip-hop aesthetics as manifested in the practice of digital sampling, the electronic borrowing and manipulation of recorded sound. In hip-hop, sampling typically draws upon funk and soul records of the 1960s and 1970s to create the instrumental portion of a song (or "beats") that accompany the rhymes of the rapper (also known as the MC). Schloss is hardly the first scholar to study hip-hop sampling, but what distinguishes Making Beats is its ethnographic approach, and its focus on the producers (many of whom he interviewed) who compose using digital sampling. As Schloss explains from the outset, "Some people make beats. This book is about those people" (p. 1).

Schloss places ethnography front and center, opening the book with an excerpt from an interview with a producer named Mr. Supreme, one of his consultants (He avoids the more traditional "informant."). "I wanted to get you to tell the story about when you were talking with your motherin-law about painting," Schloss prompts (p. 1). Supreme then explains how he defended sampling to his mother-in-law, arguing that fragments of old recordings are to the hip-hop producer what paint is to the painter-raw material to be manipulated into art. Schloss's single sentence subtly and effectively demonstrates his method: he shows that he is in control of the narrative ("I wanted to get you to tell the story"), that he has insider status (he already knows the anecdote), that he has the trust and respect of his consultants (Supreme willingly complies with his request), and that he in turn trusts and respects them (he lets Supreme speak without interruption or commentary). Schloss then devotes the rest of chapter 1 to an explanation and defense of his ethnographic approach. It is a thoughtful discussion packed with enough issues to occupy an ethnomusicology seminar for an entire semester, among them the value and dangers of transcription, the ethical obligations scholars have toward their consultants, the importance of selfdisclosure, and the relationship between culture and individual.

With its methodological focus, the introduction stands apart from the remaining chapters, which explore in detail various aspects of hip-hop sampling (with the exception of chapter 8, a brief conclusion). Chapters 2-4 consider practices and attitudes that underpin hip-hop sampling, and more specifically the crucial link between sampling and DJs. The title of chapter 2 succinctly explains this link: "It's About Playing Records." Both DJs and producers "dig in the crates"-search for choice beats on old records, and the way producers digitally "loop" or "chop" (repeat or reconfigure) music is clearly an extension of the way DJs manipulate records.

These chapters are full of compelling and fascinating points, two examples of which will have to suffice. In describing the way producers dig for beats (also called breaks or breakbeats), Schloss observes, "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" (p. 37). I imagine the producer as Sam Spade or Indiana Jones pursuing the vinyl equivalent of the Maltese Falcon or the Ark of the Covenant. …