It was the year 1971 when my brother and I made history.
We had a record player – you know, one of those things only DJ’s seem to be able to master these days – and sat listening to James Brown performing Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved with his band. At the time, it seemed like a parody of the previous funk Brown had produced. To my young ears, the horns sounded a bit atonal as they shouted back at Brown and Byrd, who would be a future employer of mine. The bass pulsated, playing a counterpoint against the horns. Meanwhile, the guitar played a rude, almost annoying riff that worked as the constant played a fourth below the tonic.
Take away these adult words this more musically mature analogy and you have the feelings I experienced listening to this music as a kid. It was incredibly exciting, almost embarrassing, because my brother and I would look at each other as if to say, “Oh listen to that! They keep repeating the same thing over and over again. I can’t stand the suspense. Play the record again!”
This is an example of how our ears “hear” when we are young.
My mother would let us listen only to classical music and opera. I saw many visions with such music as The Hall of the Mountain King, Ase’s Death, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and others. Our household was ripe with melody, but when we heard repetitious grooves like this one, our minds tried to figure out the purpose, and then finally we got it: we just let our minds go. In other words, we had fun—indications of things to come in my career as a jazz artist.
We were having fun that day in 1971 when we made an amazing discovery. It was a find made quite by accident, which happened from a single imperfection. To our delight, there was a skip in the Brown’s Get Up, Get into It, Get Involved, and instead of trying to stop it, we let it play on. Over and over again.
It was incredible what we started hearing: different rhythms came first. The skip was not a clean cut, which resulted in more like five and a half beats. My mind started spinning new songs based on the ‘skip’. We were creating something using this technique, but we laughed because we didn’t think we should take it too seriously.
But we couldn’t stop ourselves from trying.
We found we could create random skips in LPs by setting the weight differently on the phono arm. We used a weight or balance that adjusted the position of the arm, which held the cartridge, which held the needle. Soon, we were creating brand new songs based on the skips in the records we knew so well.
Today, if you visit the DJ booth, which you are likely to find in any profitable club and ask for special consideration to see the inner workings of the mysterious device I used to call a record player, you will see what I’m talking about. That is if you can catch the DJ’s attention, often difficult since they are busy manipulating the music that was a recorded by (maybe) talented human beings elsewhere. Do you see where I’m going here?
I thought about this: We musicians – even you drummers (okay, it’s a joke!) – never really have to play a single note again. Digital sampling is the new ‘musician’. We saw something coming back in 1971 when my brothers and I started manipulating recorded music using what is now considered fairly primitive technology, but I didn’t see it coming to this.
Electronic music took hold with the use of drum machines in pop-music. Many of us thought this was a great tool for making demos, but didn’t think it would weave its way into the fabric of recorded music. Next came a litany of hits using a drum machine. Although the thin sound of the electronic drums wasn’t exactly impressive or mistakable for live drums, when sampled drums came along, I wasn’t alone in saying, “Uh Oh.” They sounded pretty good.
Drums were one thing. We live musicians got over that in time and began to find new ways to invent with sampled drums. When I heard the first great sounding bass synthesizer, though, this bassist’s vague concern turned into: “Oh, man; I’m in trouble.”
Next came sampled orchestras. Many of us shook our heads, saying, “People are never going to accept this.” I thought of my mother and her love of orchestral music. No way. No one’s going to buy sampled orchestras.
I was right, but with a catch. The people of our generation didn’t accept the substitute. The bad news is that our children have accepted it.