As a suburban English kid born in the early 80’s it’s fair to say that my exposure to Hip Hop culture was more than a little limited. Right up until my early teens the only insight I had into rap music — nevermind Hip Hop as a culture — had been Roland Rat and Vanilla Ice respectively. I’ll leave you to decide which is the lesser of two evils.
In the mid 90’s however, a VHS skate video changed everything.
The video: VG4 ‘Puppets of Destiny’. To be more specific Jon Julio’s five minute feature and it’s soundtrack, ATCQ’s “Jazz (We’ve Got)”, made a crater-sized dent in my brain. The groove immediately hit me: how had i been missing out on THIS for so long? I vividly remember turning to my friend Dan as the section ended and saying “we need to go buy this now”. Fast forward three hours and a small group of middle class white boys leave HMV Manchester having cleared the store of every last A Tribe Called Quest record.
For the next 12 months of my life I consumed every Hip Hop record I could lay a finger on: the sounds of GangStarr, Pete & CL, De Le Soul, The Pharcyde, and the Bush Babees all left a distinct mark on that developmental part of my life. My tattered copies of “Ice Ice Baby” and “Roland Rat Rap” had long been banished to loft storage, replaced with some of the most refined and insightful records that 90’s Hip Hop had to offer.
It wasn’t long after that I started to become seriously interested in how these records were made. I vaguely understood the concept of sampling a record and I knew from the liner notes of Beats Rhymes and Life that “Wordplay” sampled Rodney Franklin’s “The Watcher”…the catch was that I had no idea how a sampler worked, which one to buy (E-mu, Akai, Ensoniq?!), who Rodney Franklin was……the list goes on.
In 1996 the internet may have existed, but there was no whosampled.com, no hip hop forums to ask my naive questions in, and none of my friends had a clue. Thus commenced a good six months of reading music tech magazines, experimenting with stop-tapes on my parents’ HiFi and one failed experiment at rapping into a dictaphone. The less about that one the better.
I eventually managed to purchase/reclaim/barter my own recording set-up thanks to generous donations from family, birthday money and a couple of trips to the local rubbish tip to hunt for salvageable equipment. Back then my modest studio (a term which I use in the loosest sense) included a second hand turntable, a Tascam 4-track tape recorder, a Tandy budget microphone and a (very) beaten E-mu sampler. Running a laptop only set-up with bootleg software was simply out of the question back then: you had to invest in expensive physical boxes with big flashing lights if you wanted to take your craft seriously. The more boxes the better in-fact.
PC based recording existed in the 1990’s (here’s looking at you Atari and Cubase), but for sample based music hardware was still miles ahead in both popularity and features. Products such as the E-mu SP1200 and Ensoniq ASR-10 are considered classics to this day, with good condition units fetching close to their original retail prices. Modern producers like Jake One still use classic samplers as the core of their production set-up. When was the last time you heard a beat maker say “yeah, I’m still using Fruity Loops V2 because it has that classic sound”? I rest my case.
OK, sidetrack over: back to the narrative.
For sixteen year old me, having acquired a veritable arsenal of recording equipment, the natural progression from here was to record a demo. As Hip Hop’s first commandment is “thou shall not bite”, re-using samples that had already been flipped was out of the question. I knew little to nothing about Soul and Jazz music so I had to lean heavily on an old friend again: liner notes.
Liner notes, and more precisely the musician credits, were an essential resource to pre-internet producers. Let’s say you heard some mean piano lines on a Pharoah Sanders record: you checked the liner notes immediately to identify the keys player. Joe Bonner? Add his name to your wants list (normally an A5 notebook covered in stickers). The next time you hit a record store you would consult your wants list and scour the records for sideman listings, the instrumentation used on the record and ubiquitous write-ups/descriptions that litter the back covers of classic records. Do you know the difference between bebop, hard-bop and post-bop? How about the stylistic differences between European and American jazz fusion? All essential information for an digger starting his or her adventure in the crates.
side note: read Dart Adams’ “The New Diggers” for a brilliant overview of the generational split between old and new record diggers
The older I grow the more aware I become of the rift between my generation and the next one down when it comes to sampling and record digging. For those of us who came up sifting through charity shops, garage sales and even sometimes actual record stores for our next vinyl hit, it became something more than just sample hunting. The more you immerse yourself in the music, the less it becomes just about finding the next drum break or vocal stab. We became fans of the music and the artists themselves, holding obscure and criminally slept-on artists in the same high regard as their more well known counterparts.
“The Knowledge of music is very important if you want to be in this game” Lord Finesse
More than a few careers have been resurrected thanks to the art of digging: from RAMP playing sell out gigs at London’s Jazz Cafe to Dorando being resurrected from the industry abyss almost 40 years after his first single was released. Some artists, Arthur Verocai being a prime example, had long since left their musical dreams behind and were completely unaware of the praised directed at their output until the re-issue hounds caught up with them. In honesty, I feel a degree of pride being a part of the culture that has enabled these artists to finally receive some praise for their work. Besides, 30 years from now some snot nosed kid might find a battered copy of my first record in his dad’s loft……
“I said well daddy don’t you know that things go in cycles” Q-Tip of ATCQ