In a move guaranteed to bring every troll of a certain age crashing into the comments section, an NPR All Songs Considered intern wrote this month about listening to Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back for the first time, comparing it unfavorably to (of all people) Drake. I can sympathize, because I too am still new to a lot of classic hip-hop, and I too do not always think it lives up to its reputation. On the other hand, even I don't go around kicking the whole Internet in the shins these days.
Surprisingly, in the kind of serendipity that sometimes rescues online slapfights like this, ?uestlove from the Roots dropped into the comments alongside the vitriol and lent some balanced advice on putting those recordings into context. He also wrote, in a follow-up on Twitter:
Man, That NPR/PE piece isn't bothering me as much as the position of both sides: youngins (I don't listen to music older than me) oldies (I cry for this generation) so you got one side that is dismissive to learning, we got another side dismissive on how to teach. Which leads to that "hip hop on trial" clip in which I spoke about the absence of sampling in hip hop is killing interest in music in general. At its worst sampling is a gateway drug to music you forgot about (listen to "talking all that jazz" by stet).
As a rock musician, I didn't get sampling for a long time, because I didn't really understand the relationship between listeners and producers that samples create. It didn't become clear to me until I started hanging out with the dancers in Urban Artistry, many of whom are also DJs or ferociously dedicated music fans, and realized that their knowledge of music was incredibly deep in part because they were listening to sampled music. What seemed like a lazy way to construct songs disguises an incredibly active listening experience.
That's why I love ?uestlove's commentary, because now that I listen to a lot more hip-hop I catch myself doing exactly what he describes: listening with one ear tuned to the present, and one to the past. Looking up the origins for a beat is a great way to discover classic tunes that I missed, or that I was too young to hear when they were first released. Recognizing a sample sometimes reveals a sly in-joke for a song, or a link somewhere else by virtue of shared DNA. It's not that other genres of music don't do the same thing--jazz musicians do this with riffs, and when I started learning bass, there was a whole canon I was expected to learn, from Pastorious to Prestia--but I guess I like the irony of it: here's the drummer for the greatest hip-hop "live band" justifiably lamenting the lack of sampling because it removes context and discoverability from the music.
A common lament among historians like Jeff Chang or Joseph Schloss is that hip-hop culture is distinctly apocryphal. It's an oral tradition: even in the dance community, moves like the CC or the Skeeter Rabbit are named after their creators as a way of maintaining continuity. Far from disrespecting the original artists, hip-hop music uses samples to put them in a privileged position. Knowing where the sample originates--the song, the record, the artist--marks a fan as someone who's doing their homework, in the tradition of DJs "digging in the crates" for new records to play. The future challenge for both historians and participants in hip-hop is walk a fine line: preserving the culture without disrupting either its innovative spirit or its built-in mechanisms of respect.