The music industry is dead, there is no money left in it. Mention some new record you’re into, and some acid casualty will try and tell you there hasn’t been a good record since 1974. Every time a record shop closes, an artisanal cupcake shop opens in its place. A vape store. Other Music will be replaced by a Foot Locker. A Foot Locker annex, to complement the Foot Locker that took the space vacated by Shakespeare & Co., around the corner. Every good idea has been used, recycled, beaten to death. The suit against the creators of “Blurred Lines” by the Gaye family is in appeals. It’s a fucked time to be trying to do anything, and there’s no money in it. It’s all done. It’s all been done. There is no point left in trying anything new. Don’t try. Open a vape store.
But, fuck all that. There is still solace in the groove. There were only twelve notes to begin with in Western music. I miss the halcyon days of the sample, the good old early 90s, where commercial rap artists based new pop hits around elements of earlier hit singles. It’s been done over and again, by now; to its creative zenith reached with the appropriation of innumerable Parliament/Funkadelic classics by Dr. Dre and his ilk. I get a sick satisfaction when a tune comes on in the store, and I can’t tell right away if it’s the “original,” or the later sample. Here are six samples that do their source material justice.
6. The Clash’s “Straight To Hell” vs. M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes”
British rapper M.I.A. breathed life into this Clash song, which itself serves as a slighter, laconic sorbet to clear the palate after “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?”-the two songs were released as a “Double A-side” single from The Clash’s 1982 album Combat Rock. Where The Clash’s song opens with that indelible hook and descends into cool, dub reggae, M.I.A. takes the riff and soars giddily into an uncharted territory of deadpan rapping, gunshots as lyric and a children’s choir. This is the rare one where the sample is almost preferable to the source material.
5. Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wildside” vs. Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch’s “Wildside”
Lou Reed’s only true hit single, 1972’s “Walk On The Wild Side,” a groovy little paean to a handful of Warhol superstars, is all acoustic guitar and upright bass, and Lou’s monotone baritone. Strange, then, for Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch to build a rap hit around that same structure in 1991 for “Wildside” the follow-up single to his breakout hit, “Good Vibrations.” Where Lou speaks frankly about the drag queens and peddlers of the glory days of Warhol’s Factory-no small feat for a year in which “American Pie” and “Brand New Key” were both on Billboard’s Top Ten-Marky Mark opens up about the stark realities in early 90s ghetto life. A star cheerleader throws away her life for drugs, a young husband kills his wife and baby for insurance money, and a little girl is in the wrong place at the wrong time. Where everybody got down and got laid in Lou’s New York, no one is safe from cruelty in Marky Mark’s. That acoustic bass slides funkily along over breakbeat drums, and The Funky Bunch’s swansong sits proudly among the other cool, jazz-inflected rap tracks of the early 90s.
4. Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island” vs. Us3’s “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)”
Speaking of the jazz-inflected rap of the early 90s, it’s no stretch to say that Us3’s only hit, 1993’s “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia),” was the first exposure to honest-to-god jazz for many an MTV-obsessed, Middle American teen. There’s a handful of stoned, sleepy verses rapped over the mostly unaltered source material, and a kind of cutesie chorus of “Biddy-biddy-bop,” every time the hook comes around, but Us3 more or less copy-pasted Hancock’s original while rendering it palatable for younger audiences. Hancock himself is no stranger to keeping up with the times, either, his 1983 hit “Rockit” is as much a part of early 80s synth-heavy new wave as it is inspired by it.
3. Spandau Ballet’s “True” vs. P.M. Dawn’s “Set Adrift On Memory Bliss”
When the author was a kid in suburban Detroit, the only sources for new music were the radio and MTV. What was the airwaves was what was cool, and PM Dawn, kind of a corporate-sponsored version of De La Soul, were on the airwaves. The author’s parents were grossed out by a song that “copied” an earlier song, one from their youth (the author’s parents had become parents very young), they declared that kids today didn’t know what was cool. But, baby, kids always decide what’s cool and, today, the author has equal love for PM Dawn’s dishwatery rap AND Spandau Ballet’s quasi-reggae, New Romantic balladry.
2. Rick James’ “Super Freak” vs. M.C. Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This”
Don’t pretend like you don’t get down with that bassline, no matter which version comes on. If you don’t get down with that bass, you don’t got no pulse. MC Hammer’s Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em was covered in full in an earlier edition of this column, and it stands the test of time. Rick James was a tremendously gifted musician who ended up a meme and left us too soon. Both men, equally ridiculous, equally braggadocious, were doomed to fail. You and I are lucky enough to live in a world where Rick James’ powers have been used for good, twice. Where a funk musician has touched the Zeitgeist not once, but twice. Rejoice, join hands. You can’t touch this.
1. David Bowie and Queen’s “Under Pressure” vs. Vanilla Ice’s “Ice, Ice, Baby”
Everything about Queen is glamorous. It’s the band you want to be in, if you want to be in a band. Queen came out of the womb playing stadiums. Try and imagine Queen playing to a crowd smaller than 20,000. It can’t be done. Queen’s lone collaborative track, the excellent “Under Pressure,” written and recorded with David Bowie, stands among Queen’s finest hits. The pulsing simplicity of the rhythm track, Brian May and Freddie Mercury covering melody in more or less perfect sync. David and Freddie’s co-lead vocals sit nicely together; at the very least they’re not fighting each other for the spotlights, as on Bowie’s duet with Mick Jagger. Queen ended, albeit tragically, at the top of their game; no small feat for a band that basically sweats hubris.
In contrast, everything about Vanilla Ice is funny. The parachute pants that aped Hammer, the later stoner phase that aped Cypress Hill, the EVEN LATER phase that aped Insane Clown Posse. The video of Vanilla Ice explaining that he didn’t rip off “Under Pressure,” pointing out the extra note, in there? HILARIOUS. The “Ninja Rap” scene in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II? STILL FUNNY. Vanilla Ice is as funny as Queen is grand. Which is a big statement. And pop music is supposed to be funny. Pop music is supposed to take the listener out of their shitty lives, even for a moment. In Queen’s case, they give the listener aspirations to a grander life. Something to look up to. In Vanilla Ice’s case, you’re laughing at him, but really, he’s laughing right along with you. Laughing all the way to the bank.