Jonathan Kaslow Reverses the Sampling Equation
I’ve known Jonathan Kaslow since he was a youngster growing up in New Orleans. He comes from a musical family with particularly strong influences from his late mother Allison Minor, one of the founders of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and the subsequent foundation of the same name. It was Allison, who succumbed to bone marrow cancer a number of years ago and was one of the great people in my family’s life, who stood her ground and insisted that Jazzfest be operated as a not-for-profit by the Foundation. As a result the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation has done great work ever since, with many musicians benefitting from Jazzfest’s success. Allison was one of the most thoroughly music-immersed people I ever met and Jonathan is a living embodiment of her zest for music.
Though he is an enthusiast of many forms of creative music, Jonathan’s principle entry point in the music industry is on the hip hop side. He is a freelance A&R man, Producer, and Music Supervisor based in New York City. Jonathan’s credits include work with Def Jam recording artist Ghostface Killah and the documentary film Boys of Summer, which follows the Curacao Little League national team on their journey to the Little League World Series. Among his most recent projects have been combing through the vast archives of the Concord Music Group (which owns the Fantasy catalogue — including such rich jazz motherlodes as Riverside, Contemporary, Prestige, and Milestone Records) for material to recommend for sampling potential to some of the leading artists in the hip hop game.
That Concord vault also houses the classic R&B label Stax. Earlier this year Jonathan Kaslow produced the striking compilation Stax: The Soul of Hip Hop. The disc includes 14 R&B tracks which have been liberally sampled for hip hop hits. When the disc arrived in the mail I was struck by the relative obscurity of many of the tracks. Who on earth recalls the song "Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth" by 24-Carat Black, or "Why Marry" by the Sweet Inspirations for example? Being a boomer like Jonathan’s mom Allison, these tracks were like a coming of age soundtrack — except many of them are shrouded in relative obscurity, B and C level in terms of impact in their original incarnations. This got me pondering the whole sampling aspect of the hip hop game and the intrepid cleverness of that aspect of the form. Immediately I started pondering so many of the jazz-oriented tracks that have been sampled and how many of them were also somewhat unlikely. Immediately a conversation with Jonathan Kaslow seemed in order.
What was the motivation for doing this Stax: The Soul of Hip Hop project?
The motivating factor was to provide history to the hip hop community of both the Stax records catalog and sampling roots in general. It was also to educate the Stax generation to the wonderful way in which hip hop has honored and upheld the rhythms and melodies from their own era. One thing I have always been interested in is creating bonds between generations through music. To me hip hop is not only, as Chuck D famously said, the "CNN of the streets" but also the History Channel. It can educate you to the past, present and future and I think that has always been part of it’s worldwide appeal. My hope would be that people who own the hip hop albums I discuss in the liner notes will discover this compilation and learn more about the history of both soul and hip hop music. I liken the compilation to a multimedia textbook of sorts.
How did you go about researching the tracks you decided to include? Obviously there must have been other sample source material in the Stax catalogue, so why these particular 14 tracks?
The process involved providing the most robust initial investigation into how the Stax catalog has been sampled. I wanted to make sure that we would include songs from the early days of Stax through the mid-seventies when they shut their doors. In addition, it was important to give a semi-sequential order to the liner notes, reflecting the changing artists and producers through the years who have sampled from the Stax catalogue. It’s interesting that many of the songs in the compilation are not very well known at all on their own but are the backbone of some of the most famous hip hop records of all time.
Some of these tracks are so obscure I don’t even remember the groups, let alone the tunes. What was your detective process in uncovering these gems?
I have been lucky enough to have much of the knowledge passed down to me by some of the producers I speak about in the lner notes. Also, thanks to the internet much of the additional research was right at my fingertips. Having a general knowledge of the catalogue, I was able to look up different artists I knew had sampled Stax. Once I had a list of potential songs I would use different websites to verify certain information. It’s incredible how the combination of websites like allmusic, wikepedia, and various fan created pages, along with easy access to audio sources from online retailers can provide unprecedented education into the previously shrouded-in-mystery world of sampling. The [compilation] album aggregates much of the info that is out there into a digestible format.
Given the relative obscurity of some of the tracks on this sampler, how do you suppose they had such initial appeal to the MCs and producers who chose to sample these tunes?
Part of hip hop involves authenticity and especially in the late 80s-early 90s era of hip hop it was important to have a tone that was authentic but not representing consumerism. The Stax catalogue represented the same ethos during its tenure and I think that appealed to artists like Public Enemy, Ice Cube, and Geto Boys, and continues today for artists like Ghostface and Freeway who aren’t making mainstream urban pop. No disrespect but there is a reason these guys aren’t sampling Motown.
The opening track, "Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth", is by the group 24-Carat Black. In your liner notes you cite an obvious family connection: DJ Hi-Tek’s (of Eric B. and Rakim) father was a founding member of 24-Carat Black; but besides that track some of these tunes beg the question of how the MCs, deejays, and producers who sampled snippets of these tunes go about digging up this material.
I think that Stax in particular has developed a reputation for being prolific for sampling. Also, since sampling is rooted in DJing, many of the famous breakbeats from Stax were being looped live in the parks and parties before samplers were even invented, so they were familiar to the producers. Once technology increased the possiblities for manipulating these sounds the floodgates opened. The environment you are in definitely affected sample choices as artists like George Clinton and Roger Troutman were hugely popular on the west coast and were sampled heavily by LA hip hop producers.
The whole sampling universe is very fascinating because from a jazz listener’s perspective I’ve often been very surprised at the effective use of samples from jazz pieces — some of the CTI catalogue for example — which were otherwise rather forgettable pieces of music in their original form. That begs the question again, how do these guys come up with this stuff?
I think a song being forgettable, but then years later being sampled, is a testament to the fact tht some musicians are truly ahead of their time. It’s like in the art world many times an artist is not appreciated until they have passed away and people discover their work and contextually, for whatever reason it resonates with the current time more than when it was first created. The response of hip hop to years of airwave bombardment from disco, new wave, Lite FM, and the other mediocre genres in the late 70s and early 80s was to resurrect the sound of the streets. At the end of the Reagan era the advancements made by the civil rights and the soul generation were washed away by crime and urban neglect. 1988 needed a soundtrack that sounded more like 1968 and it was Stax that provided a large portion of the musical direction.
Would you say this is also in some instances — like track one for example — of MCs, deejays, rappers and producers growing up with this music from their parent’s collections?
Absolutely. I can tell you from first hand experience that from the day I started listening to one of my parents’ records and found a breakbeat that was the instrumental of a hip hop song I liked I was hooked on digging. Digging is a term we use to describe scouring record stores and collections of music to find the source material for hip hop tracks. It was a way that DJs would show people how knowledgeable they were about old and new music. In the 90s it became a competitive game of who had the original records and how you could mix them with the new songs at parties and on mixtapes to make people go "Oh, that’s what that’s from…" Definitely if your prents were Parliament/Funkadelic, Stax, The Meters, and James Brown fans you had a leg up on the competition.
When we first talked about this project you mentioned how home studios are increasingly prevelant, perhaps even threatening the traditional recording studio business towards obsolescence. It seems that this whole sampling universe is part and parcel to that, after all its not exactly profitable to rent studio time digging through crates of old vinyl to find these beats and samples — though that level of investigation would seem to require the kind of superior equipment generally found heretofore only in studios. Talk about how these artists go about the research and extraction of these source materials.
Sampling is at a crossroads today. Much of the best material is controlled by large corporations that understandably want their businesses to be profitable but demand licensing fees that due to the decline in record sales today, many record companies aren’t able to provide. This either limits artists to release music that does not contain any derivative material or making the decision to simply include the sample and hope that they are not discovered, as is the case with many smaller indie labels. That being said, there are also numerous new opportunities for sampling that never existed in the past which are pushing the boundaries of creativity to new levels. With the advent of Pro Tools, multi-track masters which once sat dormant for years in warehouses are being digitized and given to producers as source material to create arrangements and sonic lanscapes never before even imaginable. The access that producers have to go into the iTunes or Amazon store and stream a preview of an obscure old tune and then buy and send straight into their sampler makes me confident that sampling will continue to play an important if not dominant role in modern songwriting.
How much more viable material is there in the Stax catalogue that has been engaged like these 14 tracks have?
With the proliferation of more digitized sessions the possibility of new material being created from previously unremarkable songs with the exponentially larger sample choices by using the multis is staggering. This will serve to grow the value of the Stax catalogue and enhance its market share in newly created songs that generate revenue streams in licensing and other non-traditional means, along with album sales. As more young artists discover the catalogue for songwriting inspiration and previously unusued songs are chopped and repurposed in new ways to create derivative material, the manner in which the original songs can be marketed will grow as their sound becomes subliminally embedded in the ears of young consumers.
If you had a dream opportunity to put together a box set of such sampled tracks, what would that be?
There are literally hundreds more songs that have been sampled in the Stax catalogue, so hopefully one day we can complete the multi-volume set as a comprehensive examination into the history of the sampling of Stax. Entire volumes could be created for Isaac Hayes and Rufus Thomas [both of whom are represented on this compilation] alone. What I envision is taking the concept one step further by creating a computer-based visual component that gives the user music and information together in an interactive format. Ultimately I would love to be able to take the concept to music education programs at schools to give young people an interesting way to learn about the history of music.