Bass! How Low Can You Go?

I’ve seen a couple of references to this great interview with Hank Shocklee and Chuck D about the classic Public Enemy sound of the late 80s. Since the interview largely concerns the mechanics and business of copyright and clearances, of course BoingBoing is all over it, but Brad Sucks also mentions it on his weblog. Chuck remains the man, and this interview gives a lot of insight into the evolution of their sound, driven mostly by the fact that by 1991 it was too expensive to use all the samples they did on It Takes a Nation of Millions and Fear of a Black Planet. Here’s a bit I like:

Chuck D: Public Enemy’s music was affected more than anybody’s because we were taking thousands of sounds. If you separated the sounds, they wouldn’t have been anything–they were unrecognizable. The sounds were all collaged together to make a sonic wall. Public Enemy was affected because it is too expensive to defend against a claim. So we had to change our whole style, the style of It Takes a Nation and Fear of a Black Planet, by 1991.

Shocklee: We were forced to start using different organic instruments, but you can’t really get the right kind of compression that way. A guitar sampled off a record is going to hit differently than a guitar sampled in the studio. The guitar that’s sampled off a record is going to have all the compression that they put on the recording, the equalization. It’s going to hit the tape harder. It’s going to slap at you. Something that’s organic is almost going to have a powder effect. It hits more like a pillow than a piece of wood. So those things change your mood, the feeling you can get off of a record. If you notice that by the early 1990s, the sound has gotten a lot softer.

This naturally leads to a question: will hip-hop find a common cause with artists that support the Creative Commons? If making records the way they want to is too expensive for PE to do using major label, high lawyer coefficient music, can they get what they need from artists that use the CC to explicitly allow sampling? Can hip-hoppers find what they like from Magnatune artists like Brad Sucks, who will probably let them have the sampling licenses way cheaper than, say, Metallica? It would be fantastic to me to see Cory Doctrow and Flava Flav with their arms around each other at a press conference. Then we would truly know we are living in a sci-fi world.

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Dave Slusher is a blogger, podcaster, computer programmer, author, science fiction fan and father. Member of the Podcast Hall of Fame class of 2022.