Tracking Samples in A Tribe Called Quest’s “Award Tour” and “Oh My God”
The roles of the author and the reader have been analyzed and dissected by many. Perhaps most notably by Roland Barthes in the 1967 essay “The Death of the Author” and Michel Foucault in the 1969 lecture “What Is an Author?” Foucault asserts that “the coming into being of the notion of ‘author’ constitutes the privileged moment of individualization in the history of ideas, knowledge, literature, philosophy, and the sciences” (205). In effect, the author is an articulation of a very precise moment in history in which the individual was prioritized. The influence of the author obscures the true meaning of the text. According to Barthes, “the author is a modern figure, produced no doubt by our society insofar as, at the end of the middle ages, with English empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation, it discovered the prestige of the individual, or, to put it more nobly, of the ‘human person’” (143). As the West began to emphasize the role of the author, texts became overshadowed. Instead of allowing the text to be interpreted by the reader, the perspective of the God-like author is prioritized. Society has created a literary hierarchy that places the author above the reader. Within this framework, the individual perspective of the reader is deemed unsatisfactory. Ultimately, Barthes encourages us to disturb this hierarchy and allow the text to stand on its own, outside the purview of the author.
Although the roots of sampling are hazy, it rose to prominence during the nascent hip hop culture in the late 1970s. In the midst of Ronald Reagan’s presidency in the 1980s, black and Latino people in inner cities experienced tax-supported programs, poverty, racism, police brutality, and the deterioration of housing projects. The South Bronx is where hip hop was born. DJs would spin their parents vinyl records for drum breaks within songs and loop them into breakbeats which were necessary to keep people dancing. A thirty-second drum break could be spun for minutes, thanks to a technique perfected by Grandmaster Flash, as duplicate copies of the record would play the “get down,” also known as a drum break, back to back.
Sampling in songs is an extension of this innovation in DJing. Producers searched for drumbeats, horns, bass lines etc. to incorporate into their work. Sampling, a key element in hip hop, is subversive. It disrupts the traditional roles of the author and the reader. Sampling is referential at its core, as producers read previously authored musical texts and author new music. Often, when music is sampled, its sound is purposely distorted or the tempo is slowed or accelerated. Although many view sampling as a form of appropriation, as those who sample use found, pre-existing material, the act of altering samples to aid in the creation of a song’s tone allows sampling to arise as a valuable art form. The aura of the sample adds to the musical landscape of a song. The sample is removed from its original sonic context and assigned a new meaning. Just like an original melody or bassline, a sample is manipulated and tweaked. It is important to note, however, that sampling can violate copyright laws if permission to use the sample is not granted. Musicians rarely use samples as is. They must possess the ability to read music in a way that allows them to understand how a sample will enhance a song.
As I thought about the use of samples to create a new musical text, I couldn’t help but to think of A Tribe Called Quest’s 1993 album Midnight Marauders. A Tribe Called Quest, a Queens, NY hip hop group composed of Qtip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and Jarobi, are most notably known for their sharp, witty lyrics and use of tight jazz samples. Midnight Marauders is often regarded to be one of Tribe’s most powerful albums. The album employs bass-heavy jazz and funk samples which provide the work with a distinct texture and fullness. The sampled drums and funk instrumentals provide an unmistakable warmth to the record that could not have been achieved by using a drum machine or programmed, digitized instruments.
I focused on two songs, “Oh My God” and “Award Tour.” Both of these songs feature clear samples that are layered to produce unique, intricate sounds. Each timeline features the samples and the music video for either “Oh My God” or “Award Tour.”
The album cover, often considered the Sgt. Pepper’s of hip hop, highlights several of A Tribe Called Quest’s hip hop contemporaries. On the one hand, the presence of the faces of various rappers and producers may be seen as the appropriation of images. On the other, these portraits serve as documentation of various hip hop luminaries in their prime. A Tribe Called Quest pays homage to those that influenced the sound of Midnight Marauders and hip hop culture. There are several version of the Midnight Marauders album cover, I decided to focus on the records with red and green borders. If you hover your mouse over a portrait, the identity of the person will be revealed.
Midnight Marauders emerges as a musical texts that forces the listener to question the role of the sample, as it is used to create a new text. A Tribe Called Quest’s samples extend the lifespan of genres of black music such as funk and soul by introducing them to a new audience.
Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Image, Music, Text, translated by Stephen Heath, 142-48. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.
Foucault, Michel. Translated by Josué V. Harari and Robert Hurley. Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology. Edited by James D. Faubion. Vol. 2. New York: New Press, 1998. 205-22.