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Rock and Roll Book Club

Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Bring That Beat Back: How Sampling Built Hip-Hop'

Detail from the cover of Nate Patrin's 'Bring That Beat Back.'
Detail from the cover of Nate Patrin's 'Bring That Beat Back.'University of Minnesota Press
  Play Now [1:28]

by Jay Gabler

May 27, 2020

Nate Patrin on four key hip-hop producers
by MPR
Nate Patrin on Grandmaster Flash
by MPR
Nate Patrin on Prince Paul
by MPR

Above, hear excerpts from Nate Patrin's recent interview with The Current's Sean McPherson.

When you see that Nate Patrin's new book Bring That Beat Back (buy now) is subtitled How Sampling Built Hip-Hop, you might wonder, how can you have a history of sampling in hip-hop that's not just a history of hip-hop? Isn't that like calling a biography How the Piano Built the Music of Chopin?

Well, yes. You'll want a comfortable chair, a tasty beverage, and a pair of headphones connected to your favorite streaming service before you dig into Bring That Beat Back...and don't expect to rip through the whole book in one sitting, even though sections of it may read like page-turners for music heads.

Patrin's book is packed with leaps, connections, and knowledge transfusions almost as dense as a Madvillain beat...though it proceeds in a somewhat more orderly manner. It functions on multiple levels: it's a history of hip-hop, it's an argument for that genre as a wholly distinctive art form with sampling technology at its root, and it's a map from hip-hop out to a wildly diverse set of artists connected to the genre by way of samples.

Hip-hop is predicated on sampling...although ironically, the genre's first Top 40 hit didn't feature any sampling at all. The Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" grabbed a vamp from Chic's "Good Times," but that was played live by a studio band. Patrin regards "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel" as in a sense the first true hip-hop hit, because it was the first to spotlight a DJ using his tools to create a new track from existing ingredients.

Not only did the practice of sampling allow DJs to create tracks that sounded like nothing that had ever come before, it created a genre that would rise to utterly dominate popular music while directly manipulating, commenting on, and paying tribute to existing music in a manner never before possible.

The legal turmoil that invited started at the genre's genesis: Chic understandably went after the Sugar Hill Gang for publishing rights. Things only got dicier when the samples were more direct, but although Patrin avoids turning Bring the Beat Back into a courtroom chronicle, by the end of the book it's hard not to be impressed with the tenacity and artistic fuel that kept hip-hop afloat in the face of constant legal challenges to its very existence as a sample-heavy art form.

There have, of course, been other challenges. Patrin acknowledges those (the racial exclusion of early MTV, the gang wars that claimed the lives of some of the leading lights of hip-hop's golden era), but keeps his focus on the music in a four-part structure with sections devoted to "the Grandmaster" (Flash), "the Prince" (not Prince, but Prince Paul, best known for De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising), "the Doctor" (Dre), and "the Beat Konducta" (Madlib).

If you had to distill that breakdown into a concise description of the changing uses of sampling in hip-hop, you'd say that Grandmaster Flash perfected the original sampling: literally playing records, learning how to grab and manipulate sounds from existing releases to build new beds on which rappers could romp. Prince Paul is emblematic of the supercharged, technology-assisted samplefests of the early '90s, when artists like the Beastie Boys could strew samples with relative impunity and create baroque record-store masterpieces.

Dre was the marquee producer of a decade when hip-hop scaled dizzying heights of commercial success and artistic accomplishment. Here's Patrin on how the former N.W.A. beatmaker built a signature hit for Tupac Shakur.

"California Love" might be the ne plus ultra of g- funk, or at least its last great triumph: given all the promise and the budget and the freedom he'd ever want, Dre brought in Zapp's own talk-box maestro Roger Troutman to provide the immortal "West Coast Poplock"-referencing hook ("Cal-i-forn-ia / Knows how to par-tsy"), fused it to a diabolically tight interpolation of Joe Cocker's 1972 single "Woman to Woman" (previously sampled directly by Ultramagnetic MCs for "Funky" in '87 — there's Ced-Gee again), and gave Pac a party anthem for the ages.

Wait..Zapp? Of course, the Ohio pop-funk band whose voice-manipulating talk-box effect and laid-back grooves helped inspire the sound of California g-funk. Okay, and...Ced-Gee? Indeed, the Ultramagnetic MCs producer who also produced Tim Dog's very direct dis track aimed at the East Coast.

Patrin falls even more gleefully down the music-nerd rabbit hole in chronicling the exploits of Madlib, MF Doom, DJ Shadow, and other quirky geniuses whose postmodern approach to sampling encompassed film clips and music from every conceivable genre, building free-roaming mindscapes a million miles from "U Can't Touch This."

Those artists may be the only hip-hop heads so knowledgeable that they won't have always-learning moments in Patrin's pages. For example, could you name the artist who first had a mainstream hit with a pre-existing, recognizable drum sample? It was Yes, whose producer Trevor Horn very successfully spiced up "Owner of a Lonely Heart" (1983) with a sample from a Funk, Inc. cover of Kool & the Gang's "Kool is Back."

Patrin also underlines the importance of producers behind classics like Nas's Illmatic (1994). You may tend to think of that album as a triumph for the rapper — and it was — but Patrin points out that it also showcases a wide range of cutting-edge approaches to building hip-hop tracks in the early '90s, creating a cinematic soundscape for the up-and-coming vocalist to tell his sweeping street stories.

He argues that Madvillainy — the Madlib/Doom collaboration from 2004 — was to hip-hop as The Velvet Underground and Nico was to rock. 150,000 people bought it, and they all started SoundClouds. "Chain-toking stream-of-consciousness MCs and bedroom beatmakers fiddling with a Dr. Sample put out underground sensations of their own, from electronic/future-jazz musician Flying Lotus to the LA rap collective Odd Future."

Patrin closes with a defense of sampling's relevance: not just for hip-hop's history, but its future. It's true that legal challenges and logistical headaches, plus the ability to program virtually any sound on a laptop, have sidelined the wheels of steel in hip-hop production. Even so, sampling remains integral enough to hip-hop songcraft that a new subgroup of beatmakers essentially build ready-to-sample sounds for producers to loop, just like the Grandmaster taught us way back in the Bronx.

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Upcoming Rock and Roll Book Club picks

Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Wednesday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

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June 24: Glitter Up the Dark: How Pop Music Broke the Binary by Sasha Geffen (buy now)