Truth be told I don’t know the answer to this one. On one hand meaningful hip hop as a higher art form has always coexisted with other “diluted” forms. And that’s still the case now. But I do find the argument quite persuasive, and if nothing else it’s a reminder of all the classic albums that weren’t made because they became unviable once the lawyers got involved. Now excuse me while I dig out Paul’s Boutique, It Takes A Nation of Millions and Three Feet High.
That’s not to say sampling always resulted in the lyrics that educated, even during the “golden age.” The Beastie Boys’ 1989 album Paul’s Boutique, a sampling classic, wasn’t exactly concerned with social edification. But as Hank Shocklee, pioneering member of Public Enemy’s production team The Bomb Squad, told me, having open access to samples often did significantly impact artists’ lyrical content: “A lot of the records that were being sampled were socially conscious, socially relevant records, and that has a way of shaping the lyrics that you’re going to write in conjunction with them.” When you take sampling out of the equation, Shocklee said, much of the social consciousness disappears because, as he put it, “artists’ lyrical reference point only lies within themselves.”
When that lyrical reference point can be rooted in previous compositions, the creative possibilities become astonishing. Take the first 30 seconds of Public Enemy’s song “Can’t Truss It,” off their 1991 album Apocalypse 91: The Enemy Strikes Black. Lyrically, the song argues that in order to understand the present, African Americans have to understand the past—they’ve got to “get to the roots” and grapple with the historical legacy of slavery. To reinforce the song’s message, there’s an entire storyline of samples underpinning the lyrics, beginning with Richard Pryor’s voice saying, “It started in slave ships.” Then, immediately following, is a distorted sample of Alex Haley, author of Roots (hence the connection to the song’s focus on “roots”), describing the horrors of the Middle Passage. That clip then cuts to a sample of Malcolm X’s voice, arguing for violent resistance, which ultimately foreshadows Chuck D’s vengeance later in the song when he raps, “Still I plan to get my hands around the neck of the man with the whip.” All throughout these opening moments, we hear churning helicopter blades, providing a sonic connection to the present and a reminder of the ways in which police and military power are still used to maintain the hierarchies that trace back to slavery.
The complex use of samples to comment on and reinforce the song’s message continues throughout; at one point, there’s a sampled bass line from the group Slave, an obvious connection to the lyrical content, and a subtle call to collective action with a recurring but not immediately identifiable sample of James Brown’s “Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved.” Calling and responding to one another, the samples and the lyrics create complementary, interconnected narratives that take listeners on a historical tour through music and politics, in the process offering a reminder that rap music resides within creative, intellectual, and communal traditions that are, in the words of Dead Prez, “bigger than hip hop.”