Monday, March 19, 2018


By Steve Knopper, Knight-Ridder News Service - 1996

I've always thought Otis Spann's smoky piano breaks in Koko Taylor's "Wang Dang Doodle" would make a terrific hip-hop sample. Or jumpy guitar from any of Elmore James' slide-guitar classics. Or any of the Bo Diddley songs with the famous shave-and-a-haircut beat - a precursor of the classic rap rhythm.

Yet for all the plundering of old soul records - James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, George Clinton, Eugene McDaniels, Marvin Gaye, Sly and the Family Stone - rappers have studiously avoided the blues.

It makes no sense to me. B.B. King's voice, spliced into the Primitive Radio Gods' new hit, "Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand," is a natural, perfect for the song's lazy beats and gloomy emotion. Maybe it will open the floodgates. Until then, here are some of the few pop and rap songs that have sampled the blues:

Primitive Radio Gods, "Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand" (from "The Cable Guy" soundtrack, 1996). What's this? B.B. King's voice coming from that skinny long-haired white guy in the phone booth on MTV? "I been downhearted, babe - ever since the day we met," King sings, in a hypnotic snippet from the 1971 "Live at the Regal" version of his classic song "How Blue Can You Get."

It's a terrific sample, opening and closing the song as a complement to singer Chris O'Connor's depressed, mopey voice. Where many hip-hop singles warp the source song's personality, "Standing" actually renews the original's power. Most people think of King as a warm blues personality and a terrific electric guitar player, but this blurred sample is a tribute to the emotional strength of his voice. The last time King hit MTV was in the 1990 duet with U2, "When Love Comes to Town." The late critic Leonard Feather wrote the song; the jazz purist is probably rolling in his grave, but his estate can't be upset with the royalty payments.

Beck, "Loser" (from "Mellow Gold," 1994). Beck Hansen steals from all kinds of sources - his beats are hip-hop, his slide guitars come from the country-bluesmen Lightnin' Hopkins and Mississippi John Hurt, and his lazy delivery is pure Bob Dylan. This huge hit, which came to be known as the ultimate slacker anthem, derives its catchy rhythmic bounce from Dr. John's slow, psychedelic 1968 blues "I Walk On Gilded Splinters."

The original song, recorded on the New Orleans pianist's debut album "Gris-Gris," is spooky and scary, with Dr. John repeating the rhetorical question "Did I murder?" at the top of his lungs. It's hard to pinpoint the exact fragment that went into "Loser" - there's no slide guitar on the original - but it's probably a portion of the bass and rhythm. You can sing the "Loser" lyrics along to "I Walk on Gilded Splinters." Also, the playful Beck, who carefully credits the original in the liner notes, slips in a sly lyrical reference to a termite "choking on the splinters."

Little Axe, "Ride On" (from "The House That Wolf Built," 1994). Where Beck and the Primitive Radio Gods mined the blues for catchy samples that stick in people's heads, Little Axe's purpose was more pure. The band of producers, best known as the core behind the electronic British band Tackhead, set out to redefine the blues as an important reference for '90s dance culture. "Although the method of expression inevitably changes," Steve Barker writes in the liner notes, "the message will remain the same."

The album - which contains samples from Howlin' Wolf, Son House, Leadbelly and an uncredited Muddy Waters - is a fascinating concept, but it rarely swings. "Ride On," built on Leadbelly's old chorus, is the exception, riding a new gospel chorus to achieve an apocalyptic Mississippi-Delta-in-dark-of-night effect. Unfortunately, the rest of the album tries too hard and lapses into proselytizing: "A man has to go back to the crossroad to find himself," goes one of the fakest lines.

Arrested Development, "Mama's Always on Stage" (from "3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days in the Life of . . . ," 1992). A big hit and critical favorite at the time, this album's most familiar songs sound dated even four years later - "Tennessee" and "People Everyday" just don't have the emotional resonance they had when they first hit the radio. The exception is "Mama's Only on Stage," built on a harp sample from the old Buddy Guy-Junior Wells song "Snatch It Back and Hold It."

The swinging song complements Wells' circular harp riffs with a hard, staccato electric guitar. You can hear lead rapper Speech, who occasionally falters under the weight of his convictions, getting loose and having fun.a

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