To understand the mechanics of hip-hop you need to strip away the elements, break it down and then hold back some more. For many years I listened to King Tubby ...
and Augustus Pablo, marvelling at the way the sonic elements were used; how at certain points they would recede and then come forward, but that there was a totalising vision or aesthetic where you could hear the imprint of the producer.
(Once I was told that in early dub recordings you could hear not just the sound of the producer, but also the sound of the particular studio where it was recorded in Jamaica).
Inevitably then, I came back to listening to hip-hop with the same sensibility.
But what interests me most in hip-hop is a kind of emptiness. Rather than focussing on the elements, I appreciate the way this music represents a no-movement - a stasis. I developed this idea in my essay on Black Milk.
What impresses me is the way the producers take pleasure in the simplicity of the repetition; keeping it unadorned. Take, for instance, this instrumental by Onyx, 'Last Dayz' from 1995 ...
Everything about this is extraordinary for me; from the repeated vocal sample that becomes nothing more than a sound in some unknown language. Something you can see continue in the much later work of Burial, for instance 'Archangel'from 2007.
Returning then to this quality of emptiness, what I would like to call hip-hop quiet. Perhaps you could call it a form of minimalism, but for me this word is inadequate because it lacks the feeling that comes through.
Start with that female vocal sample and the beat - I think I recognise the word (melody) but I'm not sure and the static sound that has come to represent 'warmth' or history, but has now become so over-used it verges on being a cliché.
Particularly striking to me is the contrast between the qualities of the sounds: the harsh vocal sample compared to the reassuring mystical swirl and the comfort of the bass-line, alongside the stop-start effect that operates almost like a conversation. And then at one point, around 2 minutes in the sample shifts to a single-note, as if it were an exposed heartbeat.
How are we meant to understand the way the beat stops? And then restarts; broken and then returning to the centre; how are we meant to relate to something that remains separate to what we expect? Here the music is following its own poetic logic, making manifest a kind of emptiness at the core.
To appreciate how this instrumental operates in its own beautiful space, listen to the track with vocals:
With all its fabulous bombast, offering a kind of apocalyptic vision (albeit strangely censored on the YouTube video version). And underneath it all the while you can hear the instrumental providing its own essential mystery.
Miilkbone, 'Keep it Real' (produced by Mufi: Capitol Records, 1995)
Challenging Complex magazine's designation of it as one of hip-hop's best 'one hit wonders', Miilkbone's 'Keep it real' has continued to shape hip-hop musical culture well into the 2000s ... and this is where it gets interesting.
At its heart sample-based music has the potential to upset traditional notions of success, whereby a so-called musical failure - in a commercial sense - can become prized, as within this milieu something forgotten is more appealing just because it's unknown.
Little-known samples operate as a kind of code between producers and fans; those who can hear it, those who recognise it. And the music is also shown respect by the very fact that it has been returned to, reborn.
The fact that samples can't be named (even though they are easily found on-line via the many websites devoted to this) because of copyright infringement fears adds another dimension to the mix. For all these different reasons these sounds exist in this kind of non-space.
It is for this reason Miilkbone - the white rapper from New Jersey, with a knack for spoof-like album titles (his lp Da' Miilkrate from 1995 was followed up by U Got Miilk? six years later) - can produce something of ongoing cultural worth.
Produced by Mufi (I couldn't find anything online about him, other than very basic credits, 'an old school producer from Capitol Records ..') this instrumental is another example of hip-hop 'quiet' for me. Indeed, its distinctive mood is what has kept it alive.
(Central to this is Mufi's highly skilful and imaginative use of a sample from 'Melancholy Mood' the 1983 recording by the Marian McPartland Trio, of course: have a look at the fan comments below the video, it's very sweet to see the two worlds colliding here).
As with the earlier Onyx instrumental, what I like about this is its elemental simplicity: the way the music is carried, or not, by a lack of adornment. The sounds in their pure form are allowed to breathe.
Also avoided is much of the self-conscious fanciness that dominates so much 'soul-based' production in hip-hop these days, where producers rustle up multiple interlocking elements in an effort to show off their finesse (often drowning out the sample's essential lyricism, or the emcee's delivery in the process).
This quiet is also to be found in the sharp contrast of the sounds: the insistent and jagged horn sample, is it? and the piano on a constant repeat. There is a certain false naïveté about this music, which I appreciate, in that simplicity and reticence are often the markers of great beauty.
Again, I notice the strange kind of non-momentum - that stop-start - and the way it often seems on the cusp of development, with the quietest sample, in the background, acting like a bridge that goes nowhere.
This music contains its own entire universe. When you hear the instrumental with Miilkbone over the top, the music retains its own space as if completely uninterested in interacting with, or buffering, the emcee.
In terms of the instrumental's ongoing significance and recognition, Big L and Jay-Z reinvented it the same year on the Stretch and Bobbito show; it has been used on a BET awards ceremony and by various emcees.
Most important though, almost two decades later, Freddie Gibbs re-applied the music in his 2010 track 'The Ghetto' (produced by Melvin L. Dinkins) on his album, Str8 Killa No Filla with no apparent changes. Gibbs' repetition of song's title, 'The Ghetto' echoes the original jagged sample - the location/subject and the sample/sound becoming one.
Without getting too abstract or meta, I wonder if by using this sample Gibbs - and his producer - is asking us to listen to the two tracks together; his and the earlier Miilkbone, to encourage a kind of echo, or commentary.
This is fascinating for me the way hip-hop constantly re-applies this notion of layering and echo, obviously via the sampling - hidden, or in this way explicit - or the track construction itself and then through direct acts of homage such as this.
The Speedknots, 'The Zone' (produced by Stress/War: Bloody Hook Records, 1998)
One US friend (Mike Jordan) told me: 'Speedknot is street slang for when someone hits you real hard that swelling/ bump that pops up on your head ..' and then told me that there'd been another rap group from Chicago with a similar name.
Another friend (Sim Telfer), from Australia, tracked down the release on Discogs and said 'there may be more info via the record label 'Bloody Hook Records' and the Producer 'Stress'...' On Discogs it said that 10 had the 12-inch release from 1998, while another 105 people wanted it; the last copy sold was in November, 2014 and the bids ranged from: ' €175.54 to €263.31 the median being €219.42'.
Other than that nothing* can be found about this amazing piece of music, or the producers. They have been lost into the ether, or at least lost in the recesses of the Internet.
(*Nothing, well this isn't entirely true: it might or might not be that Stress is a well-known Swedish producer who started creating music at the age of 14 and was later signed by Jay Z's Roc-Nation. I could spend some time searching down information, but prefer not to - I don't feel like being a teacher.
Instead I much prefer the idea that the forgotten producer is someone with a certain stutter - and rapid eye movement, even when awake - hiding out in his mom's basement somewhere in New York City: something like this perhaps. Someone posted 'The Zone' on YouTube two weeks ago, I checked out the boombap-linked Facebook page thinking it might give up some clues: no, nothing).
As with the other instrumentals featured here, 'The Zone' has a powerful feeling - carried by the sound of seagulls, or other birds and is extremely gentle.
This music is the epitome of hip-hop quiet: self-contained, reticent and mysterious. It could provide the soundtrack for a few scenes from a Hitchcock film, spliced and transferred to the new era, where people record videos of buildings above their heads on their phones - in that half-light before everything turns dark (to then rapidly delete them afterwards). 'The Zone' is music of buildings and cars and city streets re-imagined by someone holding onto memories of a sea that he has never seen, perhaps other than on TV.
There is no development in any sense in this music: it starts suddenly, three seconds in with all the effects brought in at the same time and then follows an almost mathematical precision, following 30 second intervals (almost). At 1 minute 30 there is an incredibly brief stop when you'd expect it to build and it doesn't, of course, and then at 2 minutes there is a stunning perfect pop-break, quick like a hiccup or intake of breath (at 2 minutes 20 it deepens, but doesn't move and then there is the 'pop' again three minutes in).
Joseph Schloss in Making Beats: the art of sample-based hip-hop explores 'ambiguity' in hip-hop production, linking it with 'signifyin(g) following the argument developed by Gates in 1998. Ambiguity, Schloss relates to the 'idea of code, that certain forms of communication must be shielded'.
Earlier Schloss writes that the very nature of creating sample-based music, out of music that already exists encourages a kind of doubling, where the listener appreciates both the sounds in their original forms and then how they have been recreated. He writes that the 'aesthetic goal of the hip-hop producer is not to resolve these ambiguities (the fact that the music is live and not live, ed's note), but - quite the contrary - to preserve, master, and celebrate them'.
Ambiguity in this schema refers to an unclear meaning, or multiple meanings in an intellectual sense. And yet for me none of the above instrumentals are ambiguous in the sense that they have more than one meaning. They do not make me think, they make me feel something. For me this music embodies mystery; reticence and uncertainty.
Central to all of this is the stop-start of the beat, alongside a strong emotion of longing. None of these elements makes this music, sweet, soft or sentimental .. quite the reverse.
(Just before I was ready to leave this writing on 'The Zone'I found one of the track's producers - War (Bixby) who it seems was also a member of The Speedknots, as always by chance, when I saw he self-identified on some YouTube comments).