Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Sample

Jameson is right: we live in an age that has forgotten how to think historically. Yet history registers in many of our everyday things. This makes sense since the structures of everyday life are expressive of the slow moving currents that have made us who we are. We are embedded in history but we find it nearly impossible to locate ourselves in that embedding. We have been taught to believe that our world was made by us as the product of our longing and desire. Thus we struggle to think of ourselves as the objects of history and not only its subjects. The closest we seem to get to a historical sense is the reference. We invoke the past as a kind of affectation, a superficial and empty gesture. The past serves mostly as an index of cool, a catalogue of trends and styles, a graveyard for the social pressures that generated the artistic expressions that we have reduced it to. We have turned the past into a sample, as it were, and it is for this reason that Flo Rida’s “Good Feeling” and Kanye West and Jay-Z’s “Otis” are so interesting to me. Both these songs sample important artists in the annals of black music in America. In sampling the past these songs raise the specter of history, which makes claims on them and the listener even if we choose to ignore those claims.

To be perfectly honest, I really don’t like Flo Rida’s song. And I don’t like it because of the Etta James’ sample that serves as its recurring phrase. I can’t change the station fast enough when the song starts playing. Flo Rida has reduced Etta James’ swinging, lusty “Something’s Got a Hold on Me” to a cloying, repetitive hook. The past is put in service of the present in this song in a way that means to contain and discipline it. Unfortunately, it’s mostly effective, I think, and the song suffers artistically because it does not open itself more fully to the past.

“Otis” is a different case. The whole song is structured around the concluding bars of Otis Redding’s slow-burning masterpiece “Try a Little Tenderness.” Redding’s plaintive, pleading voice serves as the songs introduction. As the tempo and the intensity of the original pick up Jay-Z asks: “Sounds so soulful, don’t you agree?” And after that we’re off. The rest of the song is the usual Hip Hop self-indulgent bullshit delivered with Jay-Z’s virtuosity and Kanye West’s verve. (A brief opinionated and probably incorrect aside: I’ve never quite gotten why these two love performing together. Or maybe I don’t get why West likes performing with Jay-Z since it always highlights the former’s limitations as an MC.) Although Redding’s delivery seems to drive the rappers' song, this isn’t exclusively the case. Just as significant is the music playing behind Redding, the distinctive sound of the greatest house band ever in all of American popular music, Booker T. and the MGs. The MGs defined the Stax sound and we hear their playing behind Rufus Thomas, Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave, and Otis Redding among others, that is, behind some of the most iconic performers in the history of black music--which means that although Steve Cropper and Donald "Duck" Dunn of the MGs are white, in my mind they still belong in the history of black music. Through "Otis" Jay-Z and Kanye West connect directly to that history. This song both samples the past and tries to find its relationship to it. Whether listeners will hear that attempt or not is a different issue.


  1. Did you have some kind of insider information that Etta James was going to die right after you wrote this? Or did the realization that Flo Rida had diminished her legacy destroy her will to live?

  2. I was introduced to the Etta James sample in Pretty Lights' song "Finally Moving," a muted, jazzy, dubby version. The sample comes in very powerfully yet the song is melancholic.

  3. It seems like hip hop is one place where Benjamin's notion of history can come into play. I really like the reading you do here to illustrate the sort of constellative work that these artists do (although I definitely prefer to Jay-Z to West). Interesting stuff. You seem to be having a good time, M