I spent September visiting Tokyo, Kyoto, Hakone, Osaka, Hiroshima and the Okinawa Islands. It was an incredible experience, made all the better sharing it with my wife, and daughter Violet (this was the 19 month old globetrotter’s second overseas jaunt). Violet’s presence necessitated a different mode of travel than Lou and I have previously undertaken – the most significant change was getting back to our accommodation for her 7pm bedtime each night. Consequently, we didn’t see much Japanese nightlife. The upside was a month of evenings with no plans or obligations – I used them to level-up my beat-making and sampling skills.
Inspired by spending time with Coolio Desgracias, I had started dabbling with sampling again but the early results were hit-and-miss. I’d send the better ones through to Coolio to get his thoughts, and encouraged by his response, kept going. In hindsight, I was unnecessarily timid about it, making it harder for myself than needed – feeling the need to chop up the samples into unrecognisable portions, or over-egging things with extra instrumentation and effects.
Part of this is a hang-up about ego – that if I didn’t substantially alter or embellish the samples, then I wasn’t really ‘creating’ anything. I needed to realise the obvious – that the most important thing was the song, not how easy or hard it was to arrive at it, or what self-imposed rules had been applied. The listener does not give a shit about process – either it sounds good or it doesn’t. Listening to the And The Writer Is… podcast further rammed this point home – modern pop songs have dozens of writers credited, and these songwriters are unfazed about sharing authorship, no matter who wrote what.
Coolio again is a huge inspiration – he is one of the most gifted multi-instrumentalists I know, capable of writing and playing anything. If he wanted, he could fill every corner of a song with filigree and detail. And yet his songs are masterclasses in taste and restraint (and of course, all the more impactful because of it). My love for his work is evident, and talking to him about some of his heroes (Madlib, Dilla, MF DOOM) gave me new avenues to explore.
I spent lots of these September nights studying. It would have taken me years to learn any of this before the internet, but now I have access to the very best 24/7. I ran songs through whosampled.com, analysing how they were put together and how the samples were treated. I watched Marley Marl recreate the beat to LL Cool J’s Mama Said Knock You Out and added his tips to my arsenal. Seeing 9th Wonder and Just Blaze chop up then replay samples was revelatory. Once you get out from under your ego and see yourself in collaboration with the samples’ original writers, then you are free to use whatever you want, however you want. The irony is the tracks I subsequently made were more creative (and often more personal) as a result.
My initial idea was to challenge myself to make beats from a handful of songs already in an old playlist on my laptop. It was mostly strains of garage rock – Thee Headcoatees, The Fall, Patti Smith, The Thirteenth Floor Elevators, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs – and a smattering of 90s alt-rock, like Cornershop and Kula Shaker. This was a great starting point – trying to identify worthwhile potential loops was good ear training, and attempting to seamlessly loop portions bedded down a solid workflow that’s now the basis for my sampling practice. Some of these loops were fun but I was finding it hard to tell if they could carry a whole song, or if rapping would even work over the top. I started adding rap acapellas over the top, essentially bridging the gap between my two favourite deejays – making beats like Coolio and turning them into mashups like Dead DJ Joke. The first one I tried – the acapella for the Beastie Boys Intergalactic over a chopped up sample from Cornershop’s Who Fingered Rock’N’Roll? worked so perfectly, I used it as a template for the rest.
One of the unexpected highlights of Japan was the sensational record stores. I’ve visited record stores everywhere from Reykjavik to Christchurch – most are in hipper areas of a city, often away from the typical tourist traps, so they’re a great way to explore a city. The stores in Japan were sensational – particular highlights were the four(!) floors of Disk Union in Shibuya (each dedicated to a different genre), Dumb Records in Hiroshima (specialising in punk and which had a bar inside the store), and Prototype in Kyoto (no bigger than a living room, but the only one I made two trips to, and the one I bought the most vinyl at!). I ended up buying 16 records, spanning 80s hip-hop, 70s Japanese film scores and 60s Brazilian rock. I took down the names of many more records and would investigate them at night, spiralling down Youtube rabbit-holes. After I had exhausted the songs on my laptop, these listening sessions provided plenty of source material for the rest of my experiments.
If I was to have a ‘sound’, I wanted it reflective of my love affair with garage rock and 60s pop – so I flipped songs by The Strawberry Alarm Clock, The Standells, The Shangri-Las, and the aforementioned Headcoatees, among others. But part of what I love about sampling is the raw luck and happenstance that is integral to the process – the unforced way you can stumble across the right song at the right time. Time and again, I would just seem to find the perfect complement (be it the underlying sample or the acapella), and then not be able to imagine it any other way.
Which is not to say that each track arrived fully formed – some took days of persistence and trial-and-error to get right (these ones sound the most effortless to me now). Each sample called for its own process – some are a just a single loop, others are multiple layers, yet others are chopped up and re-arranged entirely. Some are layered with classic breakbeats, but I programmed my own drums for many – I’m particularly proud of the drums on Jermaine’s Out Tonight, which I drummed in with my fingers and then treated with compression and reverb until it sounded like a classic breakbeat (the best of both worlds). Most are re-timed and/or re-pitched.
I kept each song to a little over a minute long, and capped it at eleven tracks. Each has something of an intro and an outro – an indication of the potential of a full version. I called the resulting compilation Lion’s Mansion Beat Tape, a reference to the name of the first apartment building we stayed at in Tokyo. The phrase ‘Lion’s Mansion’ seemed beautiful and poetic to me (especially compared to the pedestrian ‘lion’s den’), a perfect example of how things change ever-so-slightly across cultures. It evokes how sampling takes an original song and switches it up.
I shared them with the Northside Swag Unit (more on the Unit next time), and we’ve picked out one to rap over for our upcoming EP (with several others flagged for late use). I can’t wait to hear how it gets transformed again.
I’m now creating a companion beat tape, sampling only the vinyl I bought while in Japan (as Nick pointed out, this would be more of a challenge if I hadn’t purchased so many records!). Still, work on Return To Lion’s Mansion has begun!