Book Review, Hip Hop

Joseph G. Schloss, ‘Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-Hop’ (Review)

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When I spotted this book on Amazon I could hardly contain my excitement. Someone had bothered to write a book on that one thing which has formed half of my lonely act of creativity since age twelve. And it was a quality academic work! Needless to say, the Matrix was in full, warp-speed binary swing in adding this to my Christmas wish-list. Then, lo and behold, the Fat One brought it on his sled and into the world of my reading possibilities–Geek.

The attention of the academy, as we know, is swayed by a number of factors, not least being the criterion that the object be ‘worthy’ of study. Over the past twenty years, since the powers that be have begun to realise that hip-hop is not a passing urban fad, but a multifaceted culture of global proportions, various disciplines have slowly started to deem the topic sufficiently non-inconsequential so as to write on it. Unfortunately, as the majority of scholars approaching the field do so as ‘outsiders’ looking in, such studies have often been rife with bad analyses based on faulty cultural assumptions. In a realm as obsessed with authenticity, or at least the appearance of it, as hip-hop, it was necessary for scholarly ‘insiders’ to produce works which resonated more with the culture as experienced by its contributors. This is exactly the kind of work presented in Joseph Schloss’ Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-Hop, the first work to explore the musical process and internal culture of hip-hop as music.

Hip-hop culture has four primary creative expressions: b-boying (dance), emceeing (rap), deejaying (music) and graffiti writing (visual art). Most studies on the music have tended to focus on rap, largely overlooking the work of ‘producers’, their methods, goals and values. Joseph Schloss, himself a hip-hopper, compiled his study from ten years of research among hip-hop producers from 1992-2002 . The outcome is a wide-reaching book which covers a diverse and unexpected range of topics from a perspective which feels faithful to its material. Although in many ways hip-hop production has since been transformed by technology and societal shift, facts which are acknowledged in the second edition’s new foreword and afterword, the book distils several key cultural outlooks which continue to exert influence in hip-hop and offers important criticisms of reigning academic assumptions.

After an introduction outlining methodological approaches and concerns, Schloss begins his study by outlining the history of how hip-hop production came to be defined by the use of ‘samples’ of other music. The producers’ explanation is that hip-hop’s sound was born out of a particular method of deejaying invented by South Bronx pioneer DJ Kool Herc, which looped the most rhythmic sections (breaks) of songs at parties and prized the challenge of finding rare, unknown vinyl to use in sets. Once the digital sampler was invented, it is held, it was thus a natural step to emulate this sound through the use of samples. While Schloss challenges this simple picture by pointing out that in the early years of hip-hop live bands had often been used and might also have become the norm, he acknowledges that the choice to sample is not pragmatic, but aesthetic. In other words, hip-hop producers sample not because it is convenient, as many scholars have assumed, but because it is beautiful.

Chapter four discusses the tradition of ‘digging in the crates’, hip-hop producer’s near obsessive collecting and searching for rare vinyl which serves a multivalent purpose as a show of dedication and skill, a pedagogical tool to apprentice young producers and as an inspiration for music creation. Following from this Schloss delves into the ethics of sampling from a producer’s point of view. In contrast to other studies, this is not concerned with the legality and ethics of sampling as a general practice–a method taken for granted as it forms the base of the hip-hop aesthetic–but the code by which producers abide in how they sample. What this reveals is that sampling is not the ethical free-for-all that is often assumed by outsiders, but subjected to a strict set of rules that exalt creativity and originality above all. Finally, Schloss considers the process of composition and the way in which producers actually build their beats, before ending with a look at the relationship between beat-makers and the various circles they must engage with, including emcees, record labels, and listeners, to get their music heard. In conclusion, the author highlights the importance of gaining the insider perspective because “no matter how significant the pressures applied by base and superstructure, nationalism, capitalism, and ethnicity”–the most common focusses in the field of hip-hop studies–”it is still individual human beings (and their friends) who must navigate this course.”

Although the data in this book reflects a largely bygone era, a long way away from today’s iPad beat-making software and digital ‘crate digging’ on Spotify, I believe its deeper message holds value beyond mere historical documentation. At the time of writing, Schloss’ study represented a gentle but firm rebuke against much of the detached academic theorizing about hip-hop. Often this was, and continues often to be, expressed in assumptions about what hip-hop means to the people that are involved in it, or about its implications and history, which under closer examination are at best laughable, and at worst demeaning. The problem is that they largely pay no attention to the views and motivations of the culture’s contributors themselves and judge hip-hop’s value by alien aesthetic standards. As Schloss shows, constant discussion of hip-hop as being the product of inner-city disadvantage and survivalism sounds praiseworthy, but if left at that ignores important facts and removes all creative agency from hip-hoppers. For instance, hip-hop production could simply not have arisen out of mere poverty-driven convenience and opportunism since the equipment necessary to create the music, including turntables, sound systems, vast record collections, and later digital samplers, until very recently cost huge sums of money to acquire. What emerges from his study, therefore, is a refreshing  look at hip-hop which takes it status and value as music for granted because–for once–it values the views of the people who love it and recognises their individual creative agency over and against environmental determinism and external expectations.

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