Old Siam SirA Tribe Called Quest
Luck of Lucien
When Jeff first had the idea to do a Beatles cover collaboration I immediately knew I wanted to do something with the Beatles and hip-hop. The Beatles, believe it or not, have been part of hip-hop since the beginning. The drum break from “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” is one of the classic breaks of early hip-hop, a perennial favorite of Afrika Bambaataa and other New York DJs in the 1970’s, spun alongside “Apache” and “Scorpio” to equal b-boy enthusiasm. But while those songs, along with artists like James Brown and Parliament/Funkadelic, and at this point at least a song or two from almost every major rock and roll band, have been absorbed into the hip-hop musicscape, the Beatles never have. In the 80’s the Beatles were sampled as rampantly as any other artist for hip-hop beats, but once copyright law changed to finally catch up with rap music (as usual the music business was about 10 years behind. See also: digital downloading.) the Beatles faded out of the canon. To understand why this is, it helps to know a little about publishing.
The Beatles catalogue is generally accepted to be one of the most valuable in the music business, worth an estimated $500 million and showing no signs of wavering in popularity. The owner of the vast majority of this catalogue (basically anything written after 1963
) is, as I think most people know, Michael Jackson. But what I think a lot of people misunderstand is that what Michael Jackson owns (actually now, thanks to a spiraling debt problem, half-owns along with Sony) is the Beatles publishing; their songs as intellectual property. To put it in slightly oversimplified terms: if you want to cover a Beatles song, quote a Beatles song, play it on the radio or play it in a public place – the money goes to Michael and Sony. But if you want to use a Beatles recording
, the money goes to Paul, Ringo and the widows of John and George. (The Beatles are one of the few bands who do actually own their own masters. Normally your record company owns your recordings and you are paid an artist royalty.) This difference between publishing and recording becomes key when we’re talking about sampling because U.S. copyright law requires you to have both a mechanical license (Michael/Sony) and
a master use license (John, Paul, George, Ringo) to use a sample. Both of these licenses require a large sum of money, a relinquishing of some portion of the copyright, and permission. And if you pay enough attention to hip-hop you will notice - the Beatles don’t give permission.
The reason the Beatles pop up on several seminal early hip-hop recordings is that in those days the music business wasn’t paying much attention to sampling, or to rap music in general. It was considered a passing fad. And although sampling had existed for years (The Beatles of course ironically being pioneers of sampling in pop music via songs like “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Revolution #9”), there was never much money to be made in it. Hip-hop changed that. It changed everything people knew about sampling. Producers began to use sampling not just as a studio novelty but as the backbone of their compositions; they forged a new artistic aesthetic, invented new rules that didn’t give a fuck about the musical conventions of the western world. In these days before the regulation of sampling, if artists did object to their songs being pillaged for beats, they received a one time fee for use of their composition. But once the industry realized that, not only was this rap music thing here to stay but it had turned into a multi-million dollar industry under their noses, laws regarding sampling changed and a new era of hip-hop was ushered in.
Some people don’t get the difference; a lot of people in my class when I studied this in school couldn’t comprehend why owning part of the copyright of a song was more substantial than receiving a one-time fee, even one for hundreds of thousands of dollars. A one-time fee can be spent up over a weekend, but owning the publishing of a hit song can keep you rich for the rest of your life. One of my teachers used the example of two songwriting friends of hers who wrote a song in 1980 that they were trying to pitch to Rod Stewart. Before Rod could even hear the song his record company gave it instead to another artist on their roster. The songwriters at first were disappointed that the considerably less successful Olivia Newton-John was going to record their song. Now they never have to work again. They can live comfortably for the rest of their lives off the royalties generated by the ridiculous refrain “Let’s Get Physical”.
But despite the financial gain to be made by sharing copyright of a potential hit song, The Beatles have never officially licensed a sample for a hip-hop recording. Paul McCartney is especially notorious for not clearing samples. But, to be fair, he’s spent decades since the Beatles split fighting court battles over copyrights, ownership and royalties, with both record companies and band members and then suffered the heartbreaking blow in 1985 of being outbid by Michael Jackson for the publishing to his own songs. So I understand him being a little wary about giving permission for someone to fuck with his music. One of the rare exceptions
where Paul granted sample clearance wasn’t even for the Beatles, it was for a relatively obscure Wings track from the 1979 album Back To The Egg
It may seem a little like cheating in a Beatles covers week to talk about sampling, and then to further depart from the theme by posting a song that samples a post-Beatles Paul McCartney, but “Muzik” is just too good not to post. The song, by west coast rapper Knoc-Turn’Al, was a modest radio hit a couple years ago and was produced (pre explosive fame) by none other than Kanye West. Although most heralded for his sped-up soul technique, Kanye knows a killer rock and roll hook when he hears it (see also Jay-Z’s “Takeover”) and the beat in “Old Siam Sir” is absolutely vicious. Knoc-Turn’Al is an emcee who’s not the most technically skillful; his flow and vocabulary are basic and he’s not particularly clever, but what he lacks in these areas he more than makes up for in pure hunger. He rips into the beat with such energy it doesn’t matter that he’s more ranting than rapping. (I saw him in concert around the time this song was garnering radio play and he was just as electrifying on stage.) The song also boasts an incredible swaggering falsetto chorus. It doesn’t sound like Kanye or Knoc-Turn’Al, and whoever it is isn’t credited in the album’s liner notes, but it’s the best part of the song for me.
I had a tough time narrowing it down to just one hip-hop song that samples the actual Beatles. A couple Boogie Down Productions tracks were in the running, as was the Beatles-sampling medley “The Sounds of Science” from the Beastie Boys' Paul’s Boutique
album, but I was only going to post that if I could find an instrumental version of it. But I think the song that best illustrates the ideas of today’s post is “Luck of Lucien” from A Tribe Called Quest’s stellar debut album People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm
. Listen carefully. No, not that cracking snare drum beat. Not the softly thumping bass line. Not even the prominent horn pattern. It’s the couple of brass notes under the main horn melody and, even I'm not positive but I think, the echoing two-chord guitar pattern. Sound familiar? Of course not, that’s why I picked it. It’s a sample from “All You Need Is Love” by the Beatles.
It’s a concept that doesn’t exist today; you rarely hear multiple samples in the same song, let alone a hint of a sample so subtle as to be unrecognizable. This kind of sampling is financially inconceivable now. Now if you are going to go to the trouble of clearing and paying for a sample, and then get lucky enough to get permission, you’re going to use it as much as possible. Maybe add your own drums and bass line, maybe adjust the tempo, but otherwise these expensive acquisitions remain intact. “Luck of Lucien” is a song that couldn’t be recorded in this modern era of hip hop. Gone are the Prince Paul and Bomb Squad days of collage-sample production where you would lift a single kick drum from a James Brown record, or a few stray brass stabs from a Beatles song, just because you liked the way they sounded. And it’s not a coincidence that time in hip-hop is referred to as “The Golden Age.”
to buy the Knoc-turn'al EP L.A. Confidential Presents
to buy Back To The Egg
to buy People's Instinctive Travels