ON APRIL 17, 1966, Steve Reich took a young man’s traumatized voice and transformed it into harrowing music. Daniel Hamm was one of six black Harlem teenagers accused of being complicit in the stabbing death of used clothing store merchant Margit Sugar two years before, and the Harlem Six, as they’d come to be known, were beaten so regularly and brutally by police and prison guards that they became indelible symbols for civil rights. In his essay “A Report from Occupied Territory,” published in The Nation on July 11, 1966, James Baldwin put the situation into the starkest of words: “People are destroyed very easily. Where is the civilization and where, indeed, is the morality which can afford to destroy so many?”
But it was a recording from before that stabbing, after Hamm and another teenager were arrested under flimsy pretext during a fracas around an overturned fruit stand, that symbolized just how deeply that destruction would resonate. Reich had completed an early example of tape manipulation as music in 1965 when he pitted two identical but asynchronous recordings of a Pentecostal street preacher against each other for the piece “It’s Gonna Rain,” loops clicking in and out of orbit until meaning gave way to words, words gave way to rhythms, rhythms gave way to noise. It left enough of an impression that activist and author Truman Nelson—whose 1968 book The Torture of Mothers examined the tragic repercussions of the Harlem Six case—lent Reich twenty hours’ worth of tape-recorded interviews involving Hamm, with the purpose of turning the collected recordings into a condensed recollection of their mistreatment at the hands of the police. Reich agreed to do the work for free—just as long as he could use one of the clips to make another loop-experiment track.
That track became “Come Out,” a thirteen-minute recording that manipulated a four-second line from Hamm’s testimony about proving to a hospital that he’d been beaten by police: “I had to, like, open the bruise up, and let some of the bruise blood come out to show them.” Those last five words were isolated by Reich, played through two different audio channels, and looped end to end as they gradually fell out of sync, creating a multilayered echo effect—comeouttoshowthemcomeouttoshowthem—a slowly expanding droning chorus of rhythmic vocal patterns until the mechanical nature of the recording and the living, breathing voice are thoroughly intertwined.
Thirty-seven years later, and nearly three decades after Hamm was finally found not guilty after spending eight years in prison, his voice was heard again—the same source, but to a vastly different end, in a song called “America’s Most Blunted,” produced by Oxnard, California, beatmaker/MC Madlib for Madvillain, his team-up with rapper MF Doom. Hamm’s lines emerge in the first thirty or so seconds of the song from a fog of aluminum thunderstorm sound effects taken from the Detroit soul group Dramatics’ February 1972 #1 soul single “In the Rain.” Hamm’s line flips quickly to a truncated piece of the phase-shifting portion from Reich’s “Come Out” before being accompanied by a reverbed guitar strum—also from “In the Rain”—and then abruptly being cut off by a ragged cough, bong-rip sound effects, and a snippet of a comedy monologue about the benefits of “listening to music while stoned.” It was a strange opening flourish, but by the 2003 release date of Madvillain’s “Money Folder” b/w “America’s Most Blunted” single, it wasn’t as avant-garde as Steve Reich was in the ’60s—it was just hip-hop.
How did we get from there to here? Incorporating found sound and manipulating it into another form entirely wasn’t an unheard-of practice before hip-hop started—everything from Buchanan and Goodman’s 1956 single “The Flying Saucer” and its “news report” pop-song punchlines to the Beatles’ conceptual sound collage “Revolution 9” in 1968 prefigured the idea that repurposing preexisting sounds and music could create new pieces of music in themselves. But these were typically works of comedy or uncommercial experiments, often meant to parody, belittle, or transcend the idea of actually being popular music. Sampling, however—especially as it existed in the context of hip-hop as it rose to prominence in the 1980s—has done more than any musical movement originated in the twentieth century to maintain a continuum of popular music as a living document, and in the process it’s become one of the most successful (and commercial) strains of postmodern art.
It’s a deceptively simple technique. At its most basic, you simply take a piece of a preexisting recording and manipulate it—making it repeat on a loop, altering the pitch, cutting it into pieces, and reassembling it—to make something new. But from the very start, it was laden with complex and ever-mutating consequences in the worlds of cultural exchange, the music business, intellectual property, archival history, and even basic songwriting. By the end of the 1980s, the spread of sampling and its ability to dictate musical trends had become as crucial as the pop charts and the press in determining what pieces of music from bygone eras had the means to join a historical canon. Yet as time wore on and trends in both production and copyright law made the original sampling methods obsolete, new ways had to be found of incorporating it—and newer meanings were found in those juxtapositions.
So the story of sampling in hip-hop isn’t quite as straightforward as your typical music history lesson. It has clear origin points—particularly the turntable-manning, record-spinning hip-hop DJs of 1970s New York, whose real-time remixing of largely contemporaneous or otherwise recent songs emphasized and extended snapshot moments of a particularly strong beat. But where those points go is rarely a straight line, or a parabola, or even a constellation. Sampling was built off word of mouth, broken secrets, technological experiments, fierce competition, artful introspection, happy accidents, memetic replication, strokes of good luck, DIY necessity, collector impulse, and unbridled fandom. And an entirely new movement could turn on the whims of one taste-making entity, an idiosyncratic figure or two or even a crew that amassed experience and knowledge the same way they stocked their record crates.
If there’s one thing that ties together all these different threads, it’s the power of recontextualization: of taking something that was neglected by the masses or oversaturated through fame and giving it a renewed presence in music that highlighted a new way of hearing it. Hip-hop reframed music as the meritocracy that charts, labels, and the industry couldn’t: it created a place where the semi-forgotten soul singer Syl Johnson was every bit as central as an icon like James Brown, where once-anonymous session players became as prized as the charismatic front men they played for, where critically derided or neglected genres—fusion jazz, arena rock, smooth ’80s R&B—could all find a place in a new revolution. Just as long as it could move the rhythm, the track, and the body from simple head nods to all-out dance sessions, it didn’t matter whether it originated from an ultra-scarce private press 7-inch single or the highest-selling blockbuster albums of all time: just start with the beat and go from there.
Sampling, above all, has a way of warping time and space in the pursuit of an empathetic form of creation. It takes a snapshot of a particularly stirring piece of music and lets listeners hear it anew, nodding to the work of an original creator and the vision of its hip-hop reinterpreter all at once. Even the smallest fragments of sound can become something revolutionary, and the creators of these one-bar-loop symphonies can bring people to musical epiphanies by the time you count to four.
Bring That Beat Back examines the history of sampling in hip-hop through the lens of four different artists: Grandmaster Flash as the popular face of the music’s DJ-born origins, Prince Paul as an early champion of sampling’s potential to elaborate on and rewrite music history, Dr. Dre as the superstar who personified the rise of a stylistically distinct regional sound while blurring the lines between sampling and composition, and Madlib as the underground experimentalist and record-collector antiquarian who constantly broke the rules of what the mainstream expected from hip-hop. From these four artists’ histories, and the stories of the people who collaborated, competed, and evolved with them, this book aims to provide a foundational introduction to a side of music that’s often been belittled, insulted, or taken for granted: the aesthetic and reconstructive power of one of the most revelatory forms of pop culture to ever emerge from postwar twentieth-century America. And you can nod your head to it.