Off the Books: Nate Patrin

In support of his great new book, 'Bring That Beat Back: How Sampling Built Hip-Hop,' the Twin Cities critic and author waxes poetics on five iconic samples.
By    July 23, 2020

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Nate Patrin will make the sample flip like Rey Mysterio.

When Jeff asked me to write about something along the lines of my “five favorite sample flips” for POTW — a piece running alongside the recent release of my book Bring That Beat Back: How Sampling Built Hip-Hop — I came to a couple quick conclusions. The first was haha oh jeez oh damn only five are you sure, can you make it 50 and reserve five slots for that heartbreak-turned-triumph ambush of an Eddie Holman sample on Ghostface’s “Nutmeg”? The second was that actually there are all sorts of different varieties of sample flips that I tend to fixate on, from the simple loop to the drastic deconstruction, from the one-off sample source to the beat that everyone on earth has fucked with. It’s been more than three decades since Marley Marl figured out how to replace the pre-set sounds in the Unique Recording Studios drum machine he was using with a bunch of drums from James Brown records, and sampling techniques, technology, and philosophy has taken countless other forms since then. So I went with some key examples of five of my favorite types of sample flips, from the obvious-yet-effective to the counterintuitively brilliant.

THE QUINTESSENTIAL BREAK: Michael Viner’s Incredible Bongo Band, “Apache”

As heard in: Grandmaster Flash, “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel”; Double Dee & Steinski, “Lesson 1 (The Pay-Off Mix)”; Aphex Twin, “Heliosphan”; Nas, “Made You Look”; one million billion jungle / drum’n’bass tracks


The story of “Apache” has been told nearly as many times as the instrumental classic itself has been flipped, chopped, looped, scratched, cut, backspun, chopped, and mutilated, including by yrs truly (though I’d also highly recommend my dude Michaelangelo Matos‘s fantastic 2005 EMP Pop Conference piece “All Roads Lead to Apache”). Short form historical version: a bunch of above-top-notch session players recorded a covers-heavy, bongo-heavier LP in ’73, including a version of the 1960 UK #1 instrumental by the Shadows that made up for in its own DJ and producer-driven ubiquity what it lacked in the original’s chart success. There’s a documentary and everything you can watch — narrated by Gene Simmons for some reason, therefore making it the single most (only?) important and enjoyable thing the God of Thunder has been involved in since the Carter Administration — but I feel like every beat head out there’s got their own take on how “Apache” hits, and I’ve got mine.

Simply put, it’s the break equivalent of Clarence Avant: old-school but tirelessly present, and ubiquitous anywhere that history needs to be made. Kool Herc’s first block party? Flash’s first real, commercially released DJ scratch record? Double Dee & Steinski’s mission statement on cut-and-paste proto-sample collage? Hijack opening the door for the legitimization of UK hip-hop? A pitched battle with James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” over which break would form the backbone of jungle (which it eventually won in ’94)? Aphex Twin stretching it into Cronenbergian distortion for multiple tracks on Selected Ambient Works 85-92? Salaam Remi’s “Made You Look” serving as the greatest non-Illmatic beat Nas ever spit over? I mean, we’re even getting “Apache” breaks on fairly recent Logic songs, ferchrissakes. And if that can’t kill it, nothing will.

Listen to “Apache” as “Apache” and nothing else — good luck with that, but still, go for it — and you’ll hear why it’ll always be a go-to. Not one player needs to be any tighter (an impossible task), not one element is superfluous or out-of-place, and it transforms a half-stiff early-rock caricature of indigenous American melody and culture into the funk world’s cosmic joke on the idea of cultural appropriation. (It was also recorded in Vancouver, which means that Drake will forever be Canada’s second-biggest contribution to hip-hop.) If you’re talking a whole bunch of cut-and-rearranged bars or just a couple well-placed, cleverly-looped King Errisson bongo beats, someone somewhere has done something iconic and iconoclastic with it: Jazzy Jay used it as an old-school signifier for Busy Bee in ’88, while ten years after that Busta Rhymes and Diamond D made it sound like an all-exclamation-points colossus befitting of hip-hop’s late ’90’s Imperial Phase.

Future Sound of London got “Apache” woven into their DNA in ’97 when 808 don Kurtis Mantronik b-boyed up their five-alarm techno panic attack “We Have Explosive”. Venetian Snares pushed it faster and jitterier than anyone else might’ve dared for his ’03 breakcore deep cut “Epidermis”. The Federation sprinkled some bongos from it on “I Only Wear My White Tees Once” during the 2006 Summer of Hyphy. J-Love mixed it up with salsa for an emergent Action Bronson in 2010. Four years later, 2 Hungry Brothers made it sound like a bout of fast pacing in a small room for Homeboy Sandman’s “Loads”. And every single bar from the break became borderline-rinsed by an armada of d’n’b Metalheadz en route to a legacy of diamond-tipped classics, while those who associate “Apache” with their I-was-there ’90s remembrances still get revitalizing transfusions from its bloodline as recently as the start of this so-far-no-good decade. If you’ve so much as installed FruityLoops on your laptop or punched an MPC pad a couple times out of curiosity, you owe it to yourself to see what you can make out of “Apache” — and if you can’t improve on perfection, you can always reset the parameters for what “perfect” even means.

THE ROAD LESS-TRAVELED: Isaac Hayes, “Our Day Will Come”

As heard in: Massive Attack, “Exchange”; MF DOOM, “Operation: Greenbacks”

The Black Moses of Soul isn’t an obscurity by any stretch of the imagination, and his orchestral R&B has found a home in hip-hop far beyond the snare-riding wah-wah majesty of uptempo funk anthems like “Theme From Shaft.” In fact, it’s his slow jams that have gotten some of the finest treatments, surprise ace cards pulled using the combined anxiety and heartbreak you hear in his masterful psych-and-strings repossessions of Bacharach’s “Walk on By” (Wu-Tang Clan, “I Can’t Go to Sleep”; 2Pac, “Me Against the World”) or the opulent romantic overtures of “The Look of Love” (Jay-Z, “Can I Live”). Even in the smallest doses, like the brief loop of “One Woman” that DJ Premier uses to intro Group Home’s “Supa Star,” his music’s presence can lend a Fort Knox-amount of weight to just about any track. So why have so few producers actually taken advantage of his ridiculously lavish version of Ruby & the Romantics’ R&B oldie “Our Day Will Come”?

Featured on the same 1970 LP, To Be Continued…, as the oft-sampled “The Look of Love” and “Ike’s Mood I,” only two acts of higher-than-low profile have worked with it to memorable extent, and within the span of about a year, at that.

Those two instances are on two of the decade’s most must-own albums, granted, and might even be considered the most definitive possible uses of the sample even accounting for possible future uses by some enterprising young SP-1200 pilot. The popular standard was set by “Exchange,” a pseudo-interlude on Massive Attack’s Mezzanine that was given a stunning album-closing reprise featuring Horace Andy interpolating his own early Studio One reggae classic “See A Man’s Face.” There, the smoldering, long-goodbye coda of Hayes’ song — wandering jazz bass, rocked-to-sleep piano, and the angelic Hot Buttered Soul chorus — is shaped into a meditation that’s torn between wanting that coda to go on forever, and wanting it to derail itself or at least fade away gracefully.

The other famous flip came from MF DOOM’s spice cabinet, dubbed “Patchouly Leaves” in its Metal Fingers instrumental guise but given its first go-round a year before Mezzanine on a 1997 12″. I don’t know how closely Massive Attack were listening to the Fondle ‘Em catalogue during the recording of Mezzanine, but whether or not “Exchange” was inspired by “Greenbacks” — cleaned up and retitled “Operation: Greenbacks” for Operation: Doomsday in ’99 — it’s easy to hear how that same loop, pitched up a bit and given some of DOOM’s characteristically choppy, staggered drum breaks, could carry a strong Golden Era vibe into the deep waters of end-of-the-millennium indie rap. Maybe that’s a shadow other beatmakers can’t get out from under — only the piano-driven simplicity of Dublin rapper Rejjie Snow’s 2013 track “1992” (produced by apparent one-off beatmaker LoopHeavy) and one of a few dozen 2012 Dilla-tribute exercises by Australian loop scientist Ta-Ku have even tried — and they’re good enough to just make the apparent dearth of “Our Day Will Come” samples that much more mysterious. Maybe the clearance got costlier after Y2K, but that’s the only possible explanation that comes to mind.

THE BENIHANA CHOP: Roy Ayers Ubiquity, “Ain’t Got Time”

As heard in: Black Star, “Little Brother”

There are a ton of reasons people fuck with Dilla beats — his sense for nailing a wide scope of vibes, the rulebreaking approach to his unquantized rhythms, the craft-over-fame backstory of his career — but among a litany of other reasons, his fast-learner technical wizardry has to be right up there. ?uestlove likes to tell the story of being present when the man who was then Jay Dee made this beat, only to decide to shelve it and potentially erase it, supposedly out of some simultaneous hubristic / humility-based notion of not wanting to show up the other producers (namely Diamond D and Pete Rock) who’d failed to solve a similar puzzle around this particular sample. That the beat somehow not only escaped being erased but was kept alive on a beat tape that made its way to Talib Kweli is why you can hear how Jay was able to do what Diamond and Pete couldn’t: create a track out of the prized Roy Ayers sample-source “Ain’t Got Time” that reproduced the track’s main riff without a trace of the voice Ayers laid over it. (Well, maybe one trace — the repeated, down-pitched sample of him saying “listen” — that was left in intentionally.)

It’s still relatively underheard in the sense that it was exclusive to the soundtrack to the Denzel-starring Rubin Carter biopic The Hurricane and never released as a single. But Black Star’s “Little Brother” really does embody that certain decade-ending notion of indie rap’s combination of torch-carrying and advancement. By “micro-chopping” the individual beats and instruments of “Ain’t Got Time,” Jay used a sampling technique that was largely unthinkable at the onset of ’90s sample culture in hip-hop’s Golden Era, playing his reconstructed pseudo-instrumental on the MPC in a way that must have seemed space-age to He’s Coming listeners in 1971. This reconstruction put the lie to the lingering opinion that sampling was merely copying or putting together simple loops: here, Dilla got deep into the chassis of a song and rebuilt it from the frame on up just so he could put his own touch on it. It’s on a creative continuum somewhere between Joan Didion retyping Hemingway just to feel what it was like to commit those words to paper, and restoring an old roadster to compete in Le Mans.

THE CRATEDIGGER’S SPECIAL: Emmanuel Booz, “100 mille ans”

As heard in: The Alchemist, “Chanson terrestre” 

Sometimes it’s cool if beats just bump and that’s all there is to it, but we’ve been blessed with a wave of producers who, beneath all the bass rattles, get to point frantically and exclaim “can you believe what I just found?” We’re talking beatmakers who continue the role of the DJ not just as a floor-filling, club-rocking, system-booming headnod catalyst, but as a continuation of the idea of the cratedigger as tastemaker and discovery route. My book spends a whole section on why this approach helped make Madlib who he is, but if there’s anyone who can go toe-to-toe with Madlib on that front, it’s The Alchemist — and not just because him and Freddie Gibbs put out an album every bit as good as Bandana. Like Madlib, Alc can be entertainingly straightforward when the chips are down; his Prodigy collab Albert Einstein is one of those 2013 records that does 1993 proud while still sounding like it belonged in the present. But his enthusiasm over getting to bend the parameters of funky breaks further towards the uncharted, usually in the service of adventurous indie MCs like Domo Genesis, Boldly James, and Willie the Kid, made him one of the most impressively cinematic producers of the last however-many-years.

His sense of vibe-over-everything helps; if it’s gonna make a track sound like a neo-noir nightmare bleeding out through three different generations, he’ll sample it whether it’s an old Stax break or a ’70s prog jam from an Eastern Bloc nation. On the latter’s terms, he put out some fantastic music using jet-set record-store excavations as a thematic boundary — think the Soviet flips on Russian Roulette (2012), the better-than-Birthright Israeli Salad (2015), and the Gallic bangers on French Blend (2017). It’s a funny sort of nod to his travels as a record collector, and while the atmosphere of these releases is all immaculate — French Blend is all of 17 ½ minutes and yet it feels like a rewarding epic journey through landscapes only seen in long-outdated postcards — it’s also the kind of thing that seems made to entertain the kinds of people who like to educate themselves through WhoSampled. Did I know who Emmanuel Booz was before listening to “Chanson terrestre”? Are you kidding? My surname’s French (I always strive to keep it Riel), but I still haven’t dug into that ancestral turf’s crates much deeper than AIR. Yet Alc used Booz’s 1976 prog-jazz lament album cut “10 Mille Ans” as the heart-shredding pre-outro climax of one of his most concisely trippy mixes in exactly the way that had me searching for more.

That nothing I’ve found so far holds a candle to “100 mille ans” might be the mark of the hip-hop producer’s m.o. of making something profound out of something you might otherwise justifiably overlook, but I’m always fine with taking that risk.


As heard in: Ka, “Every Now and Then”

I try not to overrate personal favorites and cult heroes, but goddamn, Ka. As a writer, he’s Richard Wright, a philosophical chronicler of violence and redemption. And as a producer, he’s Richard Wright, luxuriating in long sweeps of synthesized, psychedelic, often agonizingly pretty melodic loops. There’s a joke to be made about how most of Ka’s tracks aren’t technically breaks, because the term “break” comes from the drum break, and Ka backgrounds the idea of percussive-heavy production so significantly you could call it the diametric opposite of the Bomb Squad. The punchline hits hardest when you realize he found the perfect handful of bars out of a song that’s over 20 minutes long (NOTE: the pertinent sample for “Every Now and Then” is at the 12:40 mark), but that’s the kind of dedicated-listener exploration we should be hoping for from our producers anyhow. He’s been doing this for what feels like ages — not in a fatigue sense, but in a knowledge sense — but he’ll put out a record like Descendants of Cain in the midst of an Alfredo / RTJ4 / Shrines embarrassment of riches and still bring the most startling beats of them all.

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