A blog about Bloomsbury Academic's 33 1/3 series, our other books about music, and the world of sound in general.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Vol 71: Public Enemy's Nation of Millions

We're thrilled to announce the publication of Christopher R. Weingarten's study of Public Enemy - available in North America right now, and in the UK/Europe/RoW from mid-May onwards. Back cover copy:

Christopher R. Weingarten provides a thrilling account of how the Bomb Squad produced such a singular-sounding record: engineering, sampling, scratching, constructing, deconstructing, reconstructing — even occasionally stomping on vinyl that sounded too clean. Using production techniques that have never been duplicated, the Bomb Squad plundered and reconfigured their own compositions to make frenetic splatter collages; they played samples by hand together in a room like a rock band to create a “not quite right” tension; they hand-picked their samples from only the ugliest squawks and sirens.

Weingarten treats the samples used on Nation Of Millions as molecules of a greater whole, slivers of music that retain their own secret histories and folk traditions. Can the essence of a hip-hop record be found in the motives, emotions and energies of the artists it samples? Is it likely that something an artist intended 20 years ago would re-emerge anew? This is a compelling and thoroughly researched investigation that tells the story of one of hip-hop’s landmark albums.

Christopher R. Weingarten is a writer living in Brooklyn and the former editor-in-chief of acclaimed webzine Paper Thin Walls. His work has appeared in the Village Voice, RollingStone.com, Spin, The Source, Revolver, Decibel, Idolator and more. His twitter is @1000TimesYes.

And here's an extract from the book:

Despite being tortured by art-terrorists Atari Teenage Riot, slowed down for Nine Inch Nails, drowned in bass by 2 Live Crew, surrounded by plush Dr. Dre interior and rapped over by practically every MC on the planet from 1988 to 1991, no one made “Funky Drummer” more arresting than Public Enemy. They practically own it. By the time Chuck and Flav were dubbed the conscience of the hip-hop generation, naturally given the final word in the landmark 1989 anti-violence benefit record “ Self-Destruction,” the faint echo of “Funky Drummer” played in the background, a familiar bustle that everyone recognizes is there to clear the way for the prophets of rage.

Stubblefield claims that the beat was influenced from the rumbling trains and appliances of his childhood. James Brown went even further back, taking a little credit for himself (as he was wont to do), saying the “beat of rap” was based on “the old drums of passion, my personal combination of the drums of Africa and the drums of the American Indian, both of whom I claim a heritage from.”

“Funky Drummer” is a tricky, ineffable thing full of ghost notes. Biz Markie says he never heard anyone beatbox it. None of the videos of people playing “Funky Drummer” on YouTube even come close. And even if the Bomb Squad didn’t sample it on “Rebel,” they certainly tried to capture its human element. The Bomb Squad huddled around samplers and pressed buttons in fractured unison, making sure it never looped perfectly. Flavor Flav tapped the snares in by hand on the Akai S-900 drum machine. They used him because Flav’s feel was different, something uniquely Flav — an example of the Bomb Squad going with what felt good over what felt right.

Hank would later fill Nation of Millions with near silent ghosted notes so even the drum-machine beats sounded like breaks. There are extra kicks tacked in “Rebel” like drum fills so the beat never repeats itself. The beat isn’t a static loop: it’s a living organism. According to Hank there are four beats at play in “Rebel,” each with a different turnaround, all mixed and programmed and played so as to not repeat themselves. He says, “It gives you the illusion that the record is getting better instead of just staying linear.” It’s truly a performance piece, closer to James Brown than the rap groups that sample him, the sound of a bunch of people sitting in a room and creating.

After the Bomb Squad opened the floodgates, chopped-up loops of Brown became the soundtrack of hip-hop’s greatest year. Copyright lawyers and “traditional” musicians had some bones to pick. “Tell the truth, James Brown was old,” responded original hip-hop band Stetsasonic, “’til Eric and Ra’ came out with ‘I Got Soul.’” The hardest-sampled man in show business recognized the loops’ import, as heard via James Brown’s official rebuttal on the Full Force track “I’m Real”: “All you copycats out there . . . Take my voice off your record until I’m paid in full.”


Dan said...

I COULD NOT be more excited about this book.

Joe Bonomo said...

Halfway through and am really digging it.

Michael A. Gonzales said...

Looking forward to this. Can wait...

Anonymous said...

...and while you're at it, check out Weingarten's old band, Parts & Labor. Seriously killer stuff.

gih said...

i hate bombing! Why people do this? how hard to understand!

Dutch Mass said...

Most of this was described in detail in Tape Op 2009 interview with Hank shocklee fwiw