When I was in high school, sampling was still fairly new technology, and its use in pop music was crude even back then. You need look no further than MC Hammer — his commandeering of Rick James’ "Superfreak" conned a lot of unschooled listeners into thinking wholesale theft of a hook was creatively OK.
I didn’t buy it. I rolled my eyes at my classmates who would light up when someone would play that hook. They would answer, "You can’t touch this". I would answer, "She’s a superfreak, superfreak".
A few years later, Public Enemy and N.W.A. would break samples down further, pasting together aural collages that inched toward something with its own identity. But Hammer and Chuck D and Dr. Dre probably would have never imagined the power of software today or the mashup culture that would emerge.
DJ Greg Gilles, who also goes by the moniker Girl Talk, uses more than 300 samples on his latest album, Feed the Animals. He’s chopped up, sliced and layered the most unlikely sources to create the ultimate conundrum — new music that’s instantly familiar.
I played Feed the Animals for a friend of mine, who is as knowledgeable about hip-hop as I am. That is, not much at all. I commented, "This album actually makes me like hip-hop," which pretty much took the words out of her mouth.
For us, the parts we knew drew us into the music, and the parts we didn’t know affected nothing at all — we still enjoyed how the elements came together.
I got more out of the combination of Missy Elliott’s "Work It" with Nu Shooz’s "I Can’t Wait" on "No Pause". For my friend, she just liked the nostalgia of Nu Shooz. I marveled at how the two seemed destined for each other.
Neither of us cared much about Lil’ Kim, but we both liked how Metallica’s "One" came from seemingly nowhere on "Like This". Both of us approved of Tag Team’s "Whomp! There It Is" backed by Big Country on "Hands in the Air".
If the mashup has an Achilles’ heel, it’s the familiarity of the listener with the sample sources. You get more out of it if you know what you’re listening to. But the way Girl Talk fashions Feed the Animals is so compelling, it makes that prerequisite moot. If anything, Girl Talk’s mashups brings me closer to artists who would normally not pass my rockist bias.
I think there’s some Kelly Clarkson somewhere on the album, and I might recognize it if I heard it outside the context of Feed the Animals. But it wouldn’t compel me to become a Clarkson fan.
Unlike practices of the past, the sampling on Feed the Animals doesn’t come across as crass or lazy. Far from it. MC Hammer just snipped Rick James and Prince and called it a day. Gilles seeks for that intangible common ground to make the samples works. Who would have thought combining Deee-Lite’s "Groove Is In Your Heart", Nirvana’s "Lithium" and Salt ‘N’ Pepa’s "Push It" could enhance all three?
(I should cut producers of the past a big swath of slack, though — in 1988, they worked with kilobytes of sampling data, not megabytes. They had no room to work in the luxurious multi-dimensions available on a consumer laptop.)
Still, Feed the Animals achieves what those early sampling artists ultimately wanted to do — build something new without losing a sense of the old. For skeptics such as myself who found sampling trite in the past, this album is enough to silence those critiques.