On a Friday night in December, I joined a sold-out crowd at Southpaw in Brooklyn to see the soul musician Syl Johnson. Johnson had recently released a comprehensive box set which was panned by music writer Douglas Wolk in his review on Pitchfork Media, creating a minor controversy. In the soul and “cratedigging” hip-hop communities, there was a palpable shock. Numero Group, the record label which released the box set, is easily the best out of the handful of labels dedicated to finding and releasing forgotten quality soul. Syl Johnson is no slouch himself; over his long career, he has written and sung a number of incredible songs (the hit version of “Take Me to the River,” “Sock It to Me,” “Different Strokes,” “Is It Because I’m Black?” “Any Way the Wind Blows”). However, there really should have been no surprise that Wolk on one side and such luminaries as the RZA on the other would come to such different conclusions. For this discrepancy was indicative of a greater gap, not only between two different aesthetics, but between two different histories, and two different worlds.
The show itself was truly amazing. Syl was remarkably spry and unsettlingly blue for a seventy-four year old man, a consummate performer despite his age. Remarkable versatile, he barrelled through R&B stompers and then slowed down to carefully enunciate each note, Al Green-style, in his ballads. He was so at ease performing that he was able to play rhythm guitar while singing, a relatively rare ability among soul artists.
Not only was the performance impressive, but the very existence of the show was poignant. Syl Johnson never did manage to make the impression on American pop culture that Marvin Gaye or James Brown did. A ubiquitious presence on the R&B charts in the ’60s and ’70s, he fell into obscurity during the ’80s and retired. He remained in retirement until a relative told him that one of his songs, “Different Strokes,” had been sampled by the Wu-Tang Clan’s “Shame on a Nigga.” Syl always had a mercenary streak, and he figured that the use of his music in hip-hop made the timing right for a comeback. Indeed, much of the audience that night had discovered Syl’s music through hip-hop. Part of what made that night an incredible experience was sharing it with the community often proposed but only seldom realized by hip-hop: a diverse brother- and sisterhood forged through a deep knowledge and love of popular music.Watching Syl perform before an appreciative audience, I felt joy at seeing a kind of justice done, at seeing a small group of dedicated aficionados defy the judgment of the market.
This joy, apparently, was not shared by Douglas Wolk. From his review:
Syl Johnson is– there’s no other way to put it– an also-ran. . . . He made the R&B charts 19 times over the years, but never really broke through to a pop audience. . . This isn’t even the full career survey its title implies; more than half of his 19 R&B hits happened after the period documented here, the bulk of them on Hi Records, where he was effectively the second-tier Al Green. (His only Top-10 R&B hit was a cover of Green’s “Take Me to the River”.) It’s a tribute to a local guy who really made good only long after the fact. . . . He spent most of the era covered here on tiny Chicago independent labels that didn’t have any other big acts, most famously Twilight, aka Twinight, in which he was a shareholder. A lot of his mid-60s material was indifferently recorded at best. . . . The broader problem, though, was that he was a totally solid talent in an era of greatness, a deft trendspotter in a period of nonstop innovation. He was a hard shouter, but not quite as hard as Wilson Pickett or James Brown; he was funny, but not as funny as Joe Tex, whose “Skinny Legs and All” he answered with “I’ll Take Those Skinny Legs.”
Wolk’s review is filled with questionable assumptions and small but significant errors. Quality production often improves quality material, but I enjoy quality material even when the production is flawed. Further, high production values are often out of reach for many performers. And Numero Group often must use material that has deteriorated over time, so what Wolk believes is “indifferent recording” may be nothing more than aged tape, damaged masters or even fidelity loss as the result of digital transfer. Wolk also argues that just because Johnson never broke out of a local market, he must have been an inferior artist. This view is anachronistic. In an era of fragmented radio markets, only a few artists, white or black, made the nationwide impact expected of big artists today. Irma Thomas, for example, never broke the Billboard Top 10 or even the Billboard R&B top 10, but is a veritable superstar in New Orleans.
The real problem here, however, is not in the details, but with Wolk’s suggestions that the value of someone’s art is forever fixed, and forever linked to money. After at least thirty years of underground/indie music and its corresponding D.I.Y. aesthetic, it’s jarring that a reviewer for a major music publication can equate commercial and artistic success without reservation. Why should anyone share Wolk’s strange preoccupation with setting up tiers of artists and hierarchies of quality? I am satisfied with performers who are only “totally solid talents,” a difficult enough standard to meet. Who cares that Johnson was never signed to a major label, or that he never made it on to the Billboard Pop Charts? Wolk’s points are all, of course, significant for those who need to assign each and every product in the cultural marketplace an appropriate cultural exchange value; that is to say, the needs and interests of capital. But for those interested in quality―that is, in our own values, determined not on the basis of exchange but on what these works do for us and our society―they’re not terribly informative.
Yet, while Wolk is incorrect about implications, he is mostly correct about the facts. Syl Johnson never had the widespread commercial success or popularity of the Motown superstars or even his labelmate, Al Green. So why have so many hip-hop producers sampled songs by artists like Syl Johnson or Marva Whitney and largely avoided, even before samples were outlawed, recognizable breaks from more popular works? Why are mash-ups of popular works the exceptions, and not the rule?
Perhaps, in a never-ending effort to distinguish themselves from the competition, hip-hop producers are always looking for rarer and rarer samples. Such competition clearly does play a role in the sampling of obscure beats. The very term “cratedigger” clearly valorizes those DJs who find the most obscure samples: the best diggers are those who can dig the deepest. But competition is not a sufficient explanation, however. For one thing, DJing is ultimately a practical profession. People never stop dancing to Madonna or Michael Jackson, why risk an obscure beat when you can play a surefire dance floor filler? More crucially, it doesn’t explain why DJs tend to quote the same obscure passages again and again. You may have never heard of “Amen, Brother” by The Winstons, but I guarantee that you’ve heard the five seconds of that song that constitute the “Amen Break.” Lyn Collins’ single “Think” never charted, but has been sampled for over a hundred different hip-hop songs. This sort of clustering disproves the competition theory: instead of avoiding each other’s samples, hip-hop producers eagerly quote each other’s material.
Looking at what gets sampled, we can discern another commonality, a tendency for
“cratedigging” producers to confine their samples to a very specific range of years. RZA’s samples, for example, almost exclusively come from one of three groups: southern soul, particularly acts associated with Hi Records and with Stax Records, from the years 1967-1971; Motown groups from the same period, after the writing team of Holland-Dozier-Holland left the label but before Motown moved to Los Angeles; and Philly soul from the early seventies to 1979. RZA was born in 1969; none of these records was released after his tenth birthday. Dr. Dre’s production style is known for its close association with the sound of L.A.-based Parliament Funkadelic, whose most notable albums were released from 1975 to 1978, when Dr. Dre was thirteen. Discussing his influences in an interview with Scratch magazine, Dre explicitly connects his beats to a pre-adolescent nostalgia:
I’m a big P-Funk fan, that was it for me growing up. Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes, I was influenced by all of those guys. . . . Just listening to the way they put their records together. That appreciation came from my mother. There was always music being played in my house when I was growing up, and that’s all I heard was 70’s soul. And then the DJing thing came along.
Dre spent his childhood listening to these records, not just as a cultural product to be consumed, but as formative familial and communal experiences. At a later point, Dre became a DJ―significantly, not a musician who mimics what he heard on the record, but an artist working within a contemporary context (i.e. the MC/DJ culture of hip-hop). However, instead of aiming for novelty, Dre consciously made records that sounded similar to the ones with which he grew up. Curiously, unlike other DJs, Dre often opts not to sample: “Most of my music has been played. . . . if we were going to sample something, we would try to at least replay it, get musicians in and replay it. If it was something we couldn’t replay, we would use the sample. I’ve tried to stay away from it as much as possible throughout my career from day one.” The artistic philosophy is essentially modernist. Dr. Dre defines a traditional past in which all signs were understood through a shared context, then creates works that reference that past but do not attempt to retrieve it.
Like many Modernists, the cratediggers reconstruct a past that never existed. RZA’s parents may have owned Syl Johnson’s “Different Strokes,” but even if they did, they probably spent more time listening to the Motown classics. The work of RZA and similar producers instead draws from the margins, the music only occasionally heard, the incidental music. Dialogue shorn from context and soundtrack cues from the kung-fu movies float in and out of his productions, a reference to days freely squandered watching films at a dollar theater with Ol’ Dirty Bastard: “Early on, Ol’ Dirty Bastard and I used to watch kung fu movies, leave the theater, do some kung fu fighting, get on the train, keep fighting, and then run into MCs and musically battle them like it was a kung fu fight. That was my weekend habit.” The kung-fu films represent not only a free and innocent part of his childhood, but also a childhood fantasy. RZA clearly identified and perhaps still identifies with the heroes of those films, heroes who are disadvantaged and isolated and rely on skill, heroes who stand up for the defense of their communities and combat unjust government agents. The nostalgic narrative constructed by RZA does not accurately represent his childhood, but improves on it. RZA’s production fulfills a childhood dream, in which RZA is empowered to combat social wrongs and the Syl Johnsons of the world are honored along with their more commercially successful counterparts.
In his recent autobiography, written with the assistance of dream hampton, Jay-Z concisely describes this ethos:
We were kids without fathers, so we found our fathers on wax and on the streets and in history, and in a way, that was a gift . . . We got to pick and choose the ancestors who would inspire the world we were going to make for ourselves. That was part of the ethos of that time and place, and it got built in to the culture we created. Rap took the remnants of a dying society and created something new. Our fathers were gone, usually because they just bounced, but we took their old records and used them to build something fresh.
Wolk is interested in the judgments of a monolithic music history, with winners and losers and one unalterable storyline. As a result, in his review of Syl Johnson, he misses the point entirely. The cratediggers do not passively receive the judgments of music critics and markets. They choose their own ancestors, defying the basic assumptions and realities of a world prepared to condemn them to poverty. The cratediggers return to history only to rewrite it. And when they emerge, it is with a new world.