The First Chop

I often remember the aha! moment that occurred when I first ‘chopped’ my own constructed (blues) phonographic material on the MPC sampler (a Renaissance model borrowed from University of Westminster where I used to work as a lecturer). I was going through an analytically-focused rather than practice-based phase of my PhD, whilst previously, I had been recording multi-layered, overdubbed performances in various styles that could facilitate a subsequent sample-based compositional (beat-making) process. The written-analytical and recording cycles had been interweaving as part of my practice-based PhD research design, but I had yet to test any of the recordings by incorporating them in a sample-based music-making process (this was scheduled as a later phase in the design). However, I was about to present one of my first papers at an international musicological conference in New Zealand, with a focus on how sonic (production) priorities impact on compositional processes in contemporary forms of music making, and I felt it was important to demonstrate process, not just theorise. So the imminent conference deadline pushed the hip-hop production phase forward and I could feel that this was effectively becoming one of the first real (practical) tests for my hypotheses. 

I had many worries: would the source material (including the sonic markers infused upon it by the recording, mixing and mastering processes I deployed) sound good enough? Feel authentic? Provide me with a ‘palette’ to paint in a hip-hop sense? Would it feel cheap compared to sampling previously released phonographic content? Would it feel too much like me? Would my performances contained within the segments feel subpar (to what I was used to sampling, which included some of the greats in Blues, Soul and Funk)? Of course, demonstrating process in front of peers is nerve-wracking in and of itself, and I wonder whether this is part of the reason why academics (even in very practical fields, like contemporary musicology) stick to theorising. Although I have performed in front of large crowds as an MC and I do not really suffer from stage-fright, a peer academic audience felt different. The focus is on critical review (rather than entertainment), so this was playing on my mind. Furthermore, by choosing to create something original for demonstration at an upcoming event, I was not giving myself the studio-process contingencies of experimentation, reflection and gradual improvement of content that would take place during, say, an album-making process. But pressure is creatively useful (as I had previously experienced with record label deadlines) and I appreciated the research progress this challenge was facilitating. I knew I had to balance my artistic pride (pursuing perfection) with scholarly progress (systematic process), so I proceeded.

Preparing the source content meant going through about fifteen recorded minutes of semi-structured blues improvisation over a number of overdubbed instruments, and macro-editing. The editing process consisted of keeping the best sections, shortening the long jam and marking bars, beats and short segments that felt inspiring as sources for sample-based creation. I did not engage in much if any micro-editing, such as correcting the relationship of instruments on the multitrack, or replacing poorer- with better-performed segments on individual instruments or the whole arrangement. That’s because the point was not to create a releasable stand-alone blues production, but to extract effective moments for subsequent sampling: A process akin to ‘digging in the crates’, only the crates here being many minutes of long improvisations.

Once the segments were extracted (bounced) from Ableton (the DAW I use to record the jams due to its user-friendly tracking operation), I brought them into Logic (the DAW, which – alongside ProTools – I favour for mixing tasks) where I post-produced them with a sonic focus on pursuing vintage characteristics: deploying analogue pre-amp, channel and tape emulations, as well as era-referential spatial effects (reverbs and delays) in order to achieve a tonal footprint leveraging ‘glue’, summing and media signatures relevant to the era referenced. Over 100 mixed segments where then extracted, and imported and allocated onto the drum pads of the physical MPC drum machine, to be later triggered as digital files.

The moment before ‘hitting’ (triggering) the chopped segments via the physical drum pads on the MPC is one ‘loaded’ with anticipation, creative potential and excitement. Previously, the samples would have been short phonographic segments from released discography, often (de)tuned to new tempi and keys, and most likely assigned to a programme on the MPC with two important operational choices selected: a polyphony of one (monophonic), and one-shot triggering. The second option allows for a sample to play out until the end of its duration, without the need for holding on to the drum pad (like you would have to do on an organ key for a legato effect). The first option results in new samples triggered automatically muting previous ones playing, and effectively stopping any overlaps of content. This is both beneficial to the mix, avoiding the accidental juxtaposition of (already full-range, multitrack) content, but also in facilitating exciting rhythmical interactions between the triggering and included musical content; the rhythmical triggering of the samples interacts in a meta-sense with the included rhythmical interactions present in the recordings.

With all this prepared, the anticipation, potential and excitement for me at this point – prior to engaging with the content in a musical sense – are due to the performative and creative possibilities just ahead. As a keyboard player first, I can only describe the feeling of hitting the keys and exploring musical combinations as pure joy. On an MPC, the drum pads facilitate a percussive performativity of, nevertheless, more complex musical segments. This is beyond notes, and beyond rhythm. You are not triggering single notes per finger (or chords) as on a piano, but full multitrack ‘moments’. And yet you are performing them more like a drummer: hits, but not of notes, of multitracks. The creative anticipation before engaging with this process is joyful. But now I want to freeze this moment in time, to describe a similar anticipation, but one loaded with the anxiety of the source content actually being me: me as performer, me as recording engineer and mixer, too (roles I always reflect upon very critically).

The aim of ‘playing’ the samples – I would guess for most sample-based producers – is to come up with a motif, a phrase comparable to a riff (in the rock sense), or hook (in the pop/general sense): that memorable cyclic phrase that feels fundamental, self-contained, attractive of listener attention (via the producer’s ears as a mirror), and one that lets you build upon further layers, a structure, a complete song. The pursuit of the ‘hook’ therefore can be described as an expressive adventure. It is not guaranteed, but it is as exciting as a treasure-hunt for a child. Musicians ‘play’ after all. For me, I know I have a hook when I am moving to it, dancing to it, singing or rapping to it (often without consciously realising) or imagining (and/or humming) complimentary parts (such as basslines, or even beat-boxing drum parts). 

The description above sets a high expectation and even with previously released phonographic segments the ‘hook’ is not guaranteed. Let alone when the content is… me. Hence, the moment of anxious anticipation.

But hitting the pads, with the slightly detuned constructed-by-me segments, felt like a rush and a release. The content worked. It felt great. If I can quantify that, it felt like I could make Hip Hop with this source material. It felt quintessentially Hip Hop, or more accurately Boom Bap: the heavily sample-based ‘sound’, subgenre or aesthetic that characterised the Golden Era of Hip Hop (and the one I am pursuing in this journey, despite any contemporary twists). What was so exhilarating about this moment? My critical awareness of the source content did not disappear, but by engaging with a highly internalised ‘hook’-making process I had entered a performative state where the only different variable (to a more traditional, released phonographic sample-based process) was the source content. The quality of the content and its effectiveness were being tested by whether it could act as a vehicle for ‘hook’-making, performing, sample-based composing… beat-making. Importantly, it also did not feel, anymore, like me.

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