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Hip Hop Treatises: They Reminisce Over You, For Real

A few months ago, I asked you guys what you wanted from my site when sports was over. The answers were varied, but the most popular response was "write a lot about hip-hop." I'm not sure if you were joking. I took you seriously on the second front, bringing on Herman as a lax-focused writer, and covered that national championship run a bit, but I haven't had time to bang out a hip-hop essay yet.

Well, school years over, so, here goes.This isn't my best work, but it has a site-related hook: Last year, I ran a series of posts entitled "Sayin' Goodbye Like Tevin Campbell" about departed NU athletes.This year, that series will have a new name: "T.R.O.Y."

The new title comes from a song by Pete Rock and CL Smooth, which you might know as "the title song from NBA Street Vol. 2", but is much more. It's possibly my favorite hip-hop song of all time.

There's a lot of horrible misconceptions I hear about rap music, and one of the least offensive, but most incorrect, is with regards to the concept of sampling. People think sampling is just taking somebody else's work and stealing it so you can make a new song. I can see how they got this idea: that Jason DeRulo song that came directly from that weird vocal thing, Kanye straight up jacking Daft Punk - kinda surprising stuff from a really great producer -  that christ-awful Forever Young song that Jay-Z managed to make into a single last year even though it was literally the most depressing thing I've ever heard. And that's just a start. And all this reinforces the concept that rap is an unthoughtful music that embraces unoriginality 

Sampling isn't about that. Yes, it is about taking music other people made and making money of making new music. But that's a disturbingly simplistic viewpoint to take. Producers who take sampling seriously - who dig through crates of records searching for that perfect eight-second thing that sounds like it could be made into something catchy in old soul records - aren't jacking sound, they're respecting their elders, paying homage to their predecessors by bringing new context to the old music they created, reinventing it, spinning what they had in a new, occasionally amazing light. And I've never heard a song that does it better or more beautifully than "T.R.O.Y."

Listen to the first 15 seconds of the song below:

The song above is "Today" by Tom Scott and the California Dreamers. It's a weird hippie jazz record made by a 1960's saxophonist whose most-known work is the theme song to the TV show "Starsky and Hutch". Sounds, well, kinda awful, doesn't it? The first time I heard it, I couldn't listen to it all the way through, because I was struck with how awful, drab, and boring it is. It's the type of thing that would seemingly have no ability to resonate with me, or, for that matter, a 20-year old black dude Mount Vernon in the 1990's. Listen to it. Does it sound like, even resemble something that could become hip-hop? It sounds like something I should listen to while discussing how much corporations suck while smoking a joint with some long-haired dudes in tie-die, downing some organic grass drink that tastes like organic grass.

But sure enough, it's the song "T.R.O.Y" is taken from. Go ahead, listen through, I'll wait.

You heard it, right? At the 1:35 mark. It's an amazing riff that just happens to be in the middle of a sax solo that I originally thought was really derivative and boring.

Think about the fact fact that Pete Rock probably listened to hundreds of hours of music before hitting that 3-5 second snippet. Think about the determination of somebody listening to their sixth straight hour of white 60's folk-rock sax music, waiting for something relevant sounding. Then hearing that snippet, thinking, "hey, this would make a great song!" It boggles my mind that somebody can instantaneously recognize the potential for something so deeply embedded in a free peace-and-love weed-oriented sax solo made by a bunch of dirty hippies as something that could be used for an almost polar opposite purpose. 

Luckily for us, somebody at the Village Voice once wrote an article about the sampling machine Pete Rock and others used, and we got to hear insight into the process of making that beat. 

I had a friend of mine that passed away (the friend being Trouble T-Roy, after whom the song is named), and it was a shock to the community. I was kind of depressed when I made it. And to this day, I can't believe I made it through, the way I was feeling. I guess it was for my boy. When I found the record by Tom Scott, basically I just heard something incredible that touched me and made me cry. It had such a beautiful bassline, and I started with that first. I found some other sounds and then heard some sax in there and used that. Next thing you know, I have a beautiful beat made. When I mixed the song down, I had Charlie Brown from Leaders of the New School in the session with me, and we all just started crying."

But Pete Rock doesn't just take that snippet, throw it over a break beat, and let somebody rap over it. Listen to the instrumental, and listen to all the complementary sounds taken from the original song:

There's the backup vocals, some of which are sampled from the exact moment in the Tom Scott song the hook was from, some of which (like the "oooh"-ing bass going on practically throughout the song) are taken from seperate instances in the Tom Scott song. There's the flute-ish sounding thing from the intro that keeps getting repeated. There's another sax riff that gets looped over the verses. There's a guitar. And there's these constantly echoing harmonies from various sax/vocal parts of the original song just randomly booming in and out at exactly the right times. At first listen, I assumed it was just a brief sample repeated ad nauseum, but the snippets Pete Rock takes come from throughout the entire song. At first, it just sounds good. But you can earn this deeper appreciation for why hip-hop is what it is when you really listen hard and find all those nooks and crannies that Pete Rock threw in there. If you need any more reason to believe that Pete Rock didn't do an absurdly perfect job with the track, listen to what Black Sheep - a group pretty much exactly contemporary to Pete Rock, also from New York - did with a sample from "Today" (although to be fair, a different version of the song.)

Good song, but, not the same.


Now that you've appreciated what Pete Rock did with "Today", go back and listen to the Tom Scott track. I never ever thought I would say this... but, well, I kind of like it. I can see myself listening to it for no apparent reason. Tom Scott's song provides all the i contrasts that make "T.R.O.Y" such a great song, and when I relisten to this weird-ass hippie crap, well... it sounds great. I genuinely enjoy the song, and it's an appreciation for it that I never would've had without the supposed theft that is sampling.

Without sampling, I wouldn't have ever heard of half the non-rap music I listen to. Sampling shows me what music the people that make the music I listen to, listen to. And there's really no stronger endorsement than that, and that's why I feel like you can never call sampling theft.

As for the rapping itself - generally, you know, the part I focus on for the rest of my hip-hop treatises. CL Smooth is never really a great lyricist, but he doesn't disappoint in terms of his title: he's overwhelmingly smooth. He has a perfect flow for Pete Rock's spectacular beats, guaranteed to make your head nod. Most of the time rap is about lyrics, but for CL Smooth, it's about sounding pretty cool, being kind of intriguing every once in a while, but most importantly, not doing something so great that it detracts from Pete Rock. And he's really the perfect rapper for all these tracks, and I do mean that as a compliment. And nowhere is he better than this song. He picks a topic - the death of their friend, Trouble T-Roy - and just picks a point and makes it, by describing a bunch of boring-ish stuff about his family: life is meant to be enjoyed and reminisced upon, and he's eloquent and chooses an picks interesting ways to say it and things to bring up in order to talk about how we should slow down and enjoy life.

When naming this site - Sippin' on Purple - I definitely was primarily influenced by the Gucci Mane lyric. But I also gave consideration to the final lines in CL's second verse: "wear your condom/take sips of the brew/when they reminisce over you/for real." There aren't enough football games in a year that you can chug them. (Although you can chug a lot of things before attending them, if that's your style, but in this metaphor, that chugging is part of sipping them. Does this make any sense?) Sippin' on Purple is devoted to taking sips of the Northwestern sports brew, enjoying W's as they come.

And occasionally writing 1600 words about hip-hop.

The T.R.O.Y series will kick off by the end of the week.