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These Are the Breaks: The Motown Sound’s Influence on Hip-Hop Sampling

December 27th, 2009

source: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/69528-these-are-the-breaks-the-motown-sounds-influence-on-hip-hop-sampling/

Stevie Wonder and the Funk Brothers

Calling Out Around the World: Motown Turns 50

These Are the Breaks: The Motown Sound’s Influence on Hip-Hop Sampling

[28 January 2009]

For any influential
group in the hip-hop game, specifically in the early 1990s, Motown’s
stamp of approval and its variety of subsidiaries were undeniably

By John Bohannon

about the art of sampling without including Motown is like talking
about soul music without Otis Redding or rock ‘n’ roll without Elvis—it
just doesn’t quite complete the puzzle. The house that Berry Gordy
built has been integral to the conception of hip-hop, its
implementation of sampling, and the growth patterns of a music that
advanced the urban streets of New York and slowly but surely took over
the streets of the world.

While sampling has held its niche in the underground of hip-hop,
legal problems have forced it out to the forefront, unless an artist
with stature like Kanye West or Q-Tip takes the time to get his samples
cleared. For any influential group in the hip-hop game, specifically in
the early 1990s, Motown’s stamp of approval and its variety of
subsidiaries were undeniably influential. Everyone from alternative
groups such as A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul, to critical
darlings like Common and the Roots, to mainstreamers like Tupac and
Biggie have all had their hands in Hitsville U.S.A. This is partly due
to the volume of records Gordy’s empire was pressing by the late
‘60s—enough for every beat digger to get his fair share of obscure

Although said obscure breaks often dominate, some of Motown’s best
sellers would go on to provide the foundation for some of the most well
known breaks. If it was a big seller the first time around, might as
well try it again, right? The originators of mainstream hip-hop, Run
DMC, found chops in the Temptations’ classic “Papa Was a Rolling
Stone”, while Public Enemy used some of the band’s lesser known cuts,
such as “Psychedelic Shack” and “I Can’t Get Next to You”. There are a
number of reasons why these prominent hip-hop artists found comfort in
the grooves of the Motown sound.

For one, Motown always stuck to the K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple,
Stupid) philosophy. One of the most important aspects of a legendary
break comes from its ability to be used in repetition; if it becomes
too complex, then it is less likely to work its way into the mind of
its listeners. A strong backbeat begets an optimum break, and Motown
had strong backbeats in spades. The Motown Sound always revolved around
the backbeat of drummers like William “Benny” Benjamin, Richard
“Pistol” Allen, and Uriel Jones to carry everything else forward, and
it was typically accented by Jack Ashford’s tambourine and the rhythmic
basslines carried by the legendary index finger of James Jamerson.

The collective of musicians known as the Funk Brothers forever
changed the face of music up until Motown’s move from Detroit to Los
Angeles in the early ‘70s. Both throughout their heyday and through the
art of sampling, the Funk Brothers’ style of layering several guitar
lines atop a syncopated drummer affords their records a sound unlike
anyone else’s. When sampling drums, the feel and volume are of utmost
importance—this is why John Bonham has always been one of the legendary
sampled drummers. Though Benjamin, Allen, and Jones didn’t pound the
kit, they played it with a pure finesse that, when syncopated with an
overdub of the same break, truly comes to life. For example, the drums
on the Four Tops’ classic “Reach Out I’ll Be There” are crisp and at
the front of the mix, something that legendary producer Norman
Whitfield had a golden ear for.

The orchestral arrangements used to elaborate many of the classics
on Motown became another backbone in the hip-hop sound. Providing
atmospheres to a beat unlike any guitar or bass could ever achieve, the
sweet sound of strings layered behind thick beats led an entire new
generation of hip-hoppers to different sonic territory. Elements like
the string arrangements on Motown records, the horn arrangements that
followed James Brown, and the sparseness found in jazz contemporaries
such as Miles Davis, Charlie Mingus, and Sonny Rollins helped put
hip-hop on a new scale. It allowed the beats to take on a life of their
own, creating atmospheres to get lost in behind the lyrics. This may
have been what opened up a world of beat records and gave labels like
Stones Throw a lifelong supply of influence. It was about getting past
drums alone and into a world of atmospheres where the beats no longer
needed lyrics to be a creative force.

While we could go into a book-long discussion on the quintessential
samples used by artists of Motown songs and artists, that could become
irrelevant to a certain extent. What’s important to realize is how the
aesthetic territory explored by the Funk Brothers, Whitfield, Gordy,
and the wonderful recording artists for the beloved Detroit label and
its subsidiaries influenced the aesthetic process in the world of
sampling. The sonic territory explored in the Motown lab is a
cornerstone in the similar territory explored decades later by a new
generation of African-American innovators. For one, the late J Dilla,
producer of classics by A Tribe Called Quest, the Pharcyde, and
countless other underground icons, is a man of Detroit blood and holds
the sounds of Motown near and dear to his heart and sound. It may not
have been his samples per say, but his aesthetic approach is very
similar to that of the Motown Sound. His beats have always been based
on the K.I.S.S. method, and his drums always crisp (even when they were
raw-sounding drums).

Motown will forever stand on its own as a timeless entity in the
realm of popular music. For a younger generation, knowing about Gordy’s
legacy may not be at the top of one’s priority list. But for a
generation of hip-hoppers that have been exposed to the music of Marvin
Gaye, the Temptations, Stevie Wonder, et al through a new
styling of music suited to their tastes, the sound of the cut-up beat
is one that sends them headlong into a world of wax. Through this, they
are exposed to a sound unlike any other, a sound that is gracing the
radio each and every day and staying relevant through a new medium—one
method sustaining another.

—end of phile—

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