music is math…

History of Music

David Byrne on Musical Architecture

Here’s an interesting TED lecture given by David Byrne about how the architecture of performance spaces helped develop different musical styles.

Byrne takes a number of physical contexts and looks at how they have shaped everything from traditional West African music to jazz and stadium rock. Watch it here

Plus, listen out for his amusing habit of saying “so I asked myself” (well, how did I get here?).


Window on the world: Jamaica

Part I: From Roots to Reggae

In the summer of 1962 Jamaica achieved its independence from Britain and the new nation celebrated in typical fashion. Soundsystems on the streets of Kingston blasted out the latest local musical phenomenon, ska music, as Jamaicans partied through the night.

Ska was a mix of the popular American R&B songs and more traditional Caribbean sounds such as mento and calypso, resulting in an energetic style of music perfect for the dancehalls of Jamaica. American music was everywhere in Jamaica in the 1950s with a demand for live bands in the tourist clubs and the US Navy making frequent stops on the island.

However, as more studios opened and producers began making records using local talent, this tiny Caribbean island was in the process of creating one of the most powerful musical cultures of the 20th century.

Producers like Coxsone Dodd, Duke Reid and Prince Buster were instrumental in creating the careers these early stars. Dodd’s Studio One label was home to The Skatalites, Delroy Wilson, The Wailers, Toots & The Maytals and many more, earning it the nickname “the Motown of Jamaica”. One of the best pieces of early ska to come out of the studio was the 1963 number one hit ‘Simmer Down’ performed by The Wailers and The Skatalites.

The Skatalites went on to define the sound of ska and continue to tour the world to this day (albeit with a very different lineup). This Studio One cut is by the band’s trombonist Don Drummond who, like many other ska musicians, learnt to play music at the Alpha Boys School in Kingston. ‘Man in the Street’  carries all the recognisable traits of the ska sound, particularly the horns blasting a catchy hook over an offbeat rhythm.

The celebratory mood of post-independece Jamaica did not last long and by the mid 1960s, unemployment and street crime in Kingston had given rise to the culture of the “rudeboys”. Derrick Morgan’s ‘Tougher Than Tough’, a song he was apparently threatened into writing for a notorious rudeboy, sums up the situation on the streets and the authorities’ hopeless efforts to bring them to justice.

As society changed, so did the music, and the slower, more mellow sounds of rocksteady began to overtake the popularity of ska. Groups such as The Maytals, The Melodians and The Paragons became popular for their use vocal harmonies, shuffling basslines and unusual chord sequences. The Federals’ ‘Shocking Love’ is a beautifully romantic example of the new sound that swept Jamaica in the late 60s.

The influence of the Rastafari community also grew during this period, and out of rocksteady came the style known as reggae. Rocksteady’s more thoughtful sound was a perfect base for the meditative Rasta lyrics, as demonstrated by The Heptones’ ‘Cool Rasta’.

The transition away from rocksteady was helped by the addition of new instruments, notably the recognisable organ shuffle now synonymous with reggae and African percussion. With the sound developing, all reggae needed was an icon…

Spotify playlist available to download here featuring 31 tracks from the origins of ska, through to rocksteady and early reggae.


Sampling – The new folk music?

For the benefit of anyone who hasn’t bought many records in the last 30 years, sampling is essentially the process of using part of an existing recording in a new way. In 1988, drummer James Mtume (whose hit ‘Juicy Fruit’ was famously sampled by Notorious B.I.G.) compared the sampling of beats to plagiarising another author’s words in a book.

In fairness to Mtume, he was criticising the overuse of samples leading to hip hop becoming stale (something that has proved itself to be not entirely untrue) rather than completely dismissing it. However, this view misses the point of sampling which, when done well, is as much about invention as it is simply reusing other people’s ideas.

Sampling is very much about taking an old sound and breathing new life into it, or as beatmaker and rapper Socalled puts it, ‘you find these sounds and when you hear them, you hear the context’ in which they were recorded.

This gives new forms of recorded music, like hip hop, an important ingredient which it might otherwise have found itself lacking, namely the pattern of continuity and change that has existed in songs for centuries. Through sampling, hip hop taps into a musical history that it wouldn’t otherwise have.

It is easy to forget that recorded music did not exist until relatively recently. Before the era of vinyl and CDs, the only way for a song to survive after the songwriter had gone was for it to be revived by someone else. However, it would of course be boring for old songs to simply be recycled indefinitely so they would have been constantly reinvented and adapted to suit the times.

This fascinating insight into the world of DJ Shadow demonstrates how the advent of vinyl has not destroyed this old method of passing down songs. He speaks with a philosophical respect for the records he samples, recognising them as the work of artists who have since faded into obscurity.

To me, the most obvious comparisons between sampling and appropriation in earlier music can be found in the American music of the 20th century which have since become known as “folk” music. This description is associated more with bearded men playing banjos these days but is in fact a term meant to describe the music of a people (in this case including what we may now think of as gospel, blues and country music).

This is Bob Dylan’s version of the the Woody Guthrie classic, ‘This Land is Your Land’. The song has its roots in a traditional gospel hymn, before being adapted by the Carter Family for their song ‘Little Darling, Pal of Mine’. When looking for new material, A.P Carter used to head into the mountains of Tennessee and pick up traditional tunes from the remote black communities (just as beatmakers search through old record shops to find unheard samples for their records today).

Woody Guthrie added his poignant lyrics in 1940 and recorded this version a few years later. The lyrics deal with what Guthrie saw as the failings of capitalism in the Great Depression which left many people destitute and robbed of “their land”. The lyrics ‘This land was made for you and me’ took on new meaning in the 1960s with singers like Dylan reinterpreting the song as an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement.

While the process is obviously very different in folk music, there are many parallels between how ideas are reworked into a new context in hip hop and other forms of music.

Political French rap group Supreme NTM used sampling to show their uncompromising distrust of authority in the track ‘Nique la Police’. The group cleverly combine N.W.A.’s protest song ‘Fuck tha’ Police’ and Edith Piaf’s classic ‘Je Ne Regrette Rien’ (translating as “no regrets”) to portray day to day life in the volatile Saint-Denis ghetto.

Here are a few more examples of sampling (right click and open links in a new tab)…

1. DJ Shadow – Midnight in a Perfect World

A truly magnificent blend of samples, from obscure Finnish composer Pekka Pohjola’s dreamy keyboards (click here for the original) to those mysterious vocals, all held together by a thumping hip hop beat. Check out this mix to hear loads of interesting tunes Shadow has sampled, best of all the beautiful ‘I Cry in the Morning’ by Dennis Olivieri, as heard in ‘Six Days’.

2. Moby – Find My Baby

Moby’s 1999 album Play was actually one of the first CDs I bought and, being only 11 at the time, I now realise that I didn’t have a clue what was actually going on. I loved the album but, having never heard of sampling, it pretty soon lay buried under a stack of more conventional rock records to await rediscovery years later.

What I failed to realise was Moby had ingeniously mixed his home territories of house and techno beats with samples from Alan Lomax’s field recordings of blues singers and prison songs recorded in the Deep South in the late thirties. In spite of the fascinating glimpse into America’s musical past these songs provide, Lomax was to spend the next three decades being hounded by the FBI for alleged “Communist sympathies”.

3. Public Enemy – Rebel Without a Pause

From the revolutionary It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back, ‘Rebel Without a Pause’ is typical of an album created by looping snippets of old soul tunes. Taking its recognisable beat and horns from James Brown songs and adding a tirade of overtly political rhymes, Public Enemy influenced countless rap artists and producers with The Bomb Squad’s sample heavy sound. This is just one of many songs to use the Funky Drummer break. Click here to listen to the classic drum breaks which helped form the basics of hip hop and jungle.

Remember, it’s not only hip hop and dance acts who use sampling. Radiohead used samples from experimental electronic music to give ‘Idioteque’ a more organic feel. This song, and many more, can be found on the Spotify playlist here featuring all kinds of tunes famous for their use of samples. Check out this article for more on the Mtume comment I referred to at the start, and also have a look at this guy (DJ Funktual) for his brilliantly enthusiastic demonstrations of various samples.