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The Roots of Hip-Hop

Red Eye Jedi demonstrates how the Stax sound has been a sampling treasure trove.

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"Ah, yeah. I'm with this. I'm just gonna sit here and lay back to this nice, mellow beat, and drop some smooth lyrics."

So says rapper Big Daddy Kane to introduce his 1988 hit "Ain't No Half-Steppin." The "nice, mellow beat" Kane is so entranced by is from "Blind Alley," a 1972 song recorded by Stax girl group the Emotions and written by Stax house songwriter/producer David Porter. Big Daddy Kane isn't the only artist to fall under "Blind Alley"'s spell. The Stax nugget is among the most sampled of Memphis soul records, having been mined by hip-hop and R&B artists more than 40 times (and even that might be a conservative estimate), most lucratively on Mariah Carey's "Dream Lover."

Samples on smash singles such as "Dream Lover" and Will Smith's "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It," which borrows a "na-na-na" vocal hook from the Bar-Kays' "Sang and Dance," have earned David Porter a small fortune, making him one of many vintage Memphis soul artists who have profited from the practice. Earlier this year, in an interview with the Flyer, Hi Records soul man Syl Johnson thanked New York hip-hop group the Wu-Tang Clan for helping pay for his house.

This week, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music opens a photo exhibit titled "Hip Hop Immortals," which will showcase 50 color and black-and-white portraits of important hip-hop artists, on loan from the New York-based Sock Bandit Productions. The exhibit will run from September 8th through October 31st and provides an avenue through which the museum can examine the impact of Stax on hip-hop.

That's the plan for the exhibit's opening-night reception, which is being organized by local DJ Luke "Red Eye Jedi" Sexton, a principle in the Memphis-based underground hip-hop collective Memphix and the DJ/producer for his own hip-hop group, Tunnel Clones.

"I saw an ad for the 'Hip Hop Immortals' exhibit in the Flyer and thought, I'm gonna lose my mind if I'm not a part of this," Sexton says.

The hip-hop DJ and soul-record collector put together a proposal for an event in conjunction with the exhibit and now finds himself organizing a squad of DJs (including Memphix partner Chase-One, sometime club colleagues DJ Leroy and DJ Wrecka, and Hot 107 radio deejay Superman) and the Tunnel Clones for a night that will instruct attendees on the history and development of hip-hop and the role Stax has played as a source of raw material for hip-hop producers and DJs.

"I think Stax is probably one of the most hit labels out of anyone," Sexton says, offering that "probably 25 percent of sampled hip-hop" draws on Stax or Stax-related product.

To help him get started, Stax gave Sexton a list of Stax samples used in hip-hop and contemporary R&B. The list, from sample database The-Breaks.com, numbers in the hundreds, but Sexton immediately began spotting Stax samples not included on the list. Sexton thinks the database, which generally ignores indie hip-hop and is light on more obscure artists on Stax subsidiaries, only scratches the surface. Weeding through his own vast record collection at his East Memphis home studio, Sexton began putting together examples the experts missed: the Temprees' "You Make the Sunshine," used by producer Kanye West on Common's "The Corner"; Ernie Hines' "Our Generation" on Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth's "Straighten Out"; and on and on.

"We'll play the hip-hop song and the Stax song it samples, cutting between them so people can hear the samples," Sexton says of the DJ set he's planning for the exhibit's opening. "There are so many people who have sampled [Isaac Hayes'] 'Walk on By' that I'll probably do a 'Walk on By' medley."

Sexton will mix the obvious -- En Vogue & Salt-N-Pepa's rewrite of Linda Lyndell's "What a Man," which graces a listening exhibit inside the museum's main gallery -- with the aforementioned obscurities and also play some Stax-connected recordings that, to his knowledge, haven't been sampled yet. He thinks they should be.

Big Daddy Kane's use of "Blind Alley" is sure to show up. ("Oh yeah," says Sexton, "that's a must.") So will plenty of Wu-Tang Clan, which has made liberal use of Memphis music. (See Back to the Source, below)

As Sexton's demonstration will illustrate, samples in hip-hop are used in a lot of ways. Some Stax samples have been nearly wholesale appropriations, such as Heavy D. & the Boys' rewrite of Jean Knight's "Mr. Big Stuff" or Big Daddy Kane's reworking of the Staple Singers' "I'll Take Your There." Other times, the source material provides a musical or vocal hook, as on the aforementioned "Gettin' Jiggy Wit' It" or Notorious B.I.G.'s "Warning," which speeds up the basic rhythm track from "Walk on By." Sometimes, samples are musical elements taken so out of context they're barely recognizable. Rapper Diamond D. supposedly samples Booker T. & the MGs' "Green Onions" on his single "Best Kept Secret," but good luck spotting it.

Finally, samples are often used for vocal interjections or instrumental additions that provide color. You can hear Knight exclaiming "Who do you think you are?" in the middle of the Beastie Boys' "Johnny Ryall," and Jay-Z lifts the instrumental intro to Steve Cropper's "Crop Dustin'" for his own "So Ghetto."

These are the kinds of connections Sexton and his DJ cohorts will demonstrate at Stax this week while also unveiling a Stax "lesson." Sexton's lesson will cram samples from 20 Stax records into a three-minute mix, which will be available via a podcast (check the Stax Web site, SoulsvilleUSA.com, for more information).

After free rein with sampling in the early days of hip-hop culminated in such densely sampled classics as De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising and the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique in the late '80s, legal issues began to limit the practice. In recent years, Sexton says, there's been a resurgence of sampling, which he thinks is good news for both listeners and artists.

"I don't think you get as good music without sampling," Sexton says. "We might be good musicians, but it won't have the same feeling. A lot was lost when the music started to become more about programmed beats and bass lines."

Back to the Source

One critic's list of 10 of the best Memphis soul samples on hip-hop records.

1. "Tearz" -- Wu-Tang Clan: The Staten Island rap crew closed its classic 1993 debut album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) with this desolate song that borrows a vocal refrain and basic rhythm loop from Wendy Rene's obscure 1964 Stax single "After Laughter (Comes Tears)." In a reversal of typical sampling fashion, they make the source material sound even grimier and more ancient.

2. "Ain't No Half-Steppin" -- Big Daddy Kane: One of hip-hop's smoothest rap-along songs, this 1988 hit rides on the hypnotic beat from Stax girl-group the Emotions' much-sampled, David Porter-penned "Blind Alley."

3. "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos" -- Public Enemy: The jarring piano lick that captures the rattled psyche of the prison-escapee protagonist on this cut from Public Enemy's epic 1988 album It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back was lifted from "Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic," off Isaac Hayes' 1969 album Hot Buttered Soul.

4. "Whatta Man" -- En Vogue with Salt-N-Pepa: Linda Lydell's 1968 Stax hit "What a Man" is the foundation for this sassy, sexy 1993 girl-group hip-hop smash, with En Vogue singing Lydell's vocal refrain but the original song's nimble, funky guitar hook keeping the new record moving.

5. "Gone" -- Kanye West: On Late Registration, Kanye West sliced and diced Otis Redding's voice all over this standout track, drawing the sample from Redding's 1965 cover of Chuck Willis' 1956 R&B hit "It's Too Late."

6. "The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)" -- Missy Elliott: Missy Elliott's 1997 breakthrough was essentially a rewrite of "I Can't Stand the Rain," Ann Peebles' 1974 Hi hit. Peebles' vocal refrain provides the hook, while producer pal Timbaland gives the original beat a high-tech update.

7. "260" -- Ghostface Killah: Wu-Tang rapper Ghostface Killah goes solo, in part by revving up the swirling groove from Al Green's 1973 song "You Ought To Be With Me" for his debut album's most rhythmically ferocious track.

8. "Eye Know" -- De La Soul: Teen sensations De La Soul lace their hymn to romantic contentment with the famous fadeout whistle from Otis Redding's equally gentle posthumous smash "(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay."

9. "C.R.E.A.M." -- Wu-Tang Clan: Also from their debut album, Wu-Tang deploys a wistful instrumental hook from the introduction to "As Long As I've Got You," an obscure 1967 Stax single by the Charmels, written and produced by Isaac Hayes and David Porter.

10. "Heart of the City (Ain't No Love)" -- Jay-Z: Musically, the use of Memphis-connected blues singer Bobby "Blue" Bland's 1974 song "Ain't No Love in the Heart of the City" is magnificent. Conceptually, it's unintentionally revealing, taking Bland's despairing post-civil-rights anti-anthem and turning it into a Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous lament. -- CH

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