- Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-Hop
Investigating how a specific sense of sonic identity is articulated, how one learns the basic ropes of conventional composition and then subsequently joins a specific aesthetic community, is a staple theme of many studies on popular music culture. From Simon Frith’s outstanding theoretical work on the subject (Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music) to Lise A. Waxer’s more recent The City of Musical Memory: Salsa, Record Grooves and Popular Culture in Cali, Colombia and Tim Lawrence’s excellent history Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970–1979, we have gained a richer understanding of the difficult socio-aesthetic terrains that comprise popular music and how groups and individuals have negotiated it to both create and fit into these worlds.1
Like the aforementioned examples, Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-Hop is interested in the issue of aesthetic identity as it exists within a particular social dialogue. Unlike Frith, Waxer, and Lawrence, though, who investigate larger frameworks such as club scenes and fan groups in conjunction with music makers, Schloss centers on an element of production. Specifically, he focuses on how U.S.-based DJ culture engages a specific set of aesthetic criteria and sensibilities that comprise the hip-hop genre. Whereas past academic work on hip-hop has tended to focus on the MC as the primary unit of analysis, Schloss’s investigation of the world of the DJ/producer provides us with a penetrating illustration of the aspect of the genre that most hip-hop crews find most influential: the creation of the beats over which the MC performs. While Schloss peppers his work with some formal analysis, the majority of the book relies heavily on more ethnographic methods of analysis. Schloss mainly uses field interviews for analysis that bear great fruit. By representing the thick and sometimes tangled set of conversations that producers have regarding hip-hop style, ethics, and practices, he provides a glimpse into the various material practices involved in the manipulation of the previously recorded media objects.
Key to Schloss’s study is his claim that the “social processes” that produce “beats” trump any simpleminded and straightforward claim that hip-hop is reflective of African American aesthetics. While Schloss does not deny that the “rules of hip-hop are African American,” he notes that one need not “be African American to understand or follow them.”2 This statement may seem obvious, but it is important. [End Page 154] Numerous Afrocentric processes are revealed by looking directly at social processes, community standards, and debates about how one should find a potential beat as well as how one should decide whether or not to use it. Consequently, Schloss’s analysis provides a formal understanding of how those outside the African American community are able to weave themselves into the hip-hop fabric as creative and vibrant forces. He is “concerned with the aesthetic, moral and social standards that sample-based hip-hop producers have articulated with regard to the music that they produce,” and as a result, creates an impressive work that shifts the reader away from the interpretive exercises that most scholars offer vis-à-vis hip-hop (or popular music, for that matter) and instead places the analysis on the processes of sampling.3 According to Schloss, “Looking at sampling as a discrete activity that individuals choose to engage in for specific reasons allows us to ask questions about who those individuals are, what their reasons may be, and what their choices can tell us about these questions.”4
To answer these questions, Schloss’s work relies on ethnographic methodologies. As interesting as this research strategy is, Making Beats often feels more like a set of interviews with interpretive commentary than it does anything resembling the rich variety of techniques that go under the banner of participant observation—the method that is most often associated with ethnographic research. Schloss’s research is certainly interesting, but...