A white person discusses rap music

Sampling, the foundation of all hip hop, is a strange business. In its highest form, a producer understands the mixing table as its own instrument and the recording catalogue he has available as the source of that instrument’s sound. In its more basic incarnation, sampling is really nothing more than hypnotic advertising that comforts the listener with recognizable music from the past in order to make them feel more at home with some new rapper or singer or what-have-you. This divide between artistic and commercial sampling is a lot like the divide between artistic and purely commercial hip hop.

Let’s take a couple of extreme examples: Vanilla Ice vs Wu-Tang Clan. Now, some people say that the iceman stole “Under Pressure” from Bowie, but as we all know, there’s totally a high hat in “Ice Ice Baby” that isn’t in that other piece of crap. Wu-Tang Clan, on the other hand, totally ripped off Booker T and the MGs along with Aretha Franklin and countless other classic soul acts. And the jerks don’t even try to hide it. Did you know that they think money isn’t cool? Apparently, they believe that it rules everything around them, and that people feel the need to “get the money, dolla-dolla bill[s], y’all.”

Vanilla Ice, or Robert Matthew Van Winkle as he is known to his mother, liked money very much at the time of his chart-topping showstopping hit, and did everything SBK Records asked him to do, which included changing his image and style to suit the market, publishing false biographical information and unlawfully sampling a hit song. After realizing this was probably not the most sincere move, and failing to kill himself in shame, Van Winkle became much less successful than he was before, going on to star in the E! Entertainment TV show, The Surreal Life. To the best of our knowledge, not one of the nine members of the Wu-Tang Clan has ever starred in such a prestigious reality show.

So, dear reader, you are no doubt beginning to understand that real art will get you nowhere and that only by listening to what other people tell you to do can you ever hope to be successful. That is, if you have no talent like Robert Matthew Van Winkle. Whatever success he had, much like that of The Surreal Life, relied on some perverted sense of nostalgia employed by the people in charge.

But Wu-Tang Clan was also aware of the power of nostalgia, and put its effects to great use. By sampling the sounds and dialogue from their favourite kung fu movies, they not only connected to their childhood but to the ancient past, giving their lyrics a pretty unshakable foundation to stand on. Theirs is a bizarre brand of American mysticism, influenced by TV and film and vinyl records, and it's actually really fun to listen to it. Many producers have attempted a similar application of nostalgia and succeeded commercially only to be condemned as a fad years later, but the Wutang remain the giants of their world.

Most commercially successful rap sucks. Yet, such is the sensibility of industry. Really ugly, useless things can sell if people feel comfortable around them - like, for example, a pet rock. How could you not feel comfortable around a rock? You should buy it. The best stuff, however,  always looks good and has a purpose. Like a Dyson Brand Cyclonic Vacuum Cleaning Machine (in this analogy, Vanilla Ice is the pet rock whereas Wutang Clan is the Dyson Vacuum [it's a really good vacuum]).

It’s a shame that most of the hip hop we consumers are exposed to is basically noise, but at least a few rational and intelligent voices have the strength to cry out above the clang and the clamour. Still, the industry is dominated by tycoons and images, with the genuine article often being disregarded for a fun and less dangerous fabrication.

We shouldn’t blame industry, though. You can’t punch it in the face, so what’s the point? The source of the problem is really the consumers, not the market; industry usually adapts to the desires of the people it serves, like when the transportation industry transitioned from horse sales to petroglobocorporate madness. Back in the day, people just wanted to get from one place to another with a little less horseshit on the streets.

The good news is that nobody likes Vanilla Ice anymore, and everybody likes Wu-Tang Clan. I mean, seriously, Wu-Tang Clan ain’t nothin’ to fuck with. They got mad metaphysical insight, yo. And they used it to get rich. I love it when people use the weaknesses of industry to make great art. It just makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside, like the muzzle of a freshly fired glock.

Sky Hester is a small, hairless ape currently coping with a crippling addiction to parentheses.

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