Through the years of being in and out of recording studios and creative environments, I’ve heard plenty of up-and-coming producers and beatmakers showcasing their sounds. As a producer, part of your gig is giving an honest evaluation of ability (not an ego driven one). This evaluation could apply to a singer you may consider working with on a collaborative level, or fellow producer your label may consider putting their stock in. Obviously, the whole process is subjective, but we develop an ear that can rapidly detect skill, production quality, and an IQ for what the musical climate is. When a producer showcases tracks that often features sampling, the conversation becomes a bit more complex. The ego part of my evaluating ear says, “Oh…it’s a sample”, as if there was less musical skill required to catch a listener’s ear. Without fail, the non-musicians in the room drinking/smoking would react to the sample driven tracks. Rappers interested in a more lyrical, storytelling vibe would also pick these more frequently. These people are only interested in the knee jerk reaction they receive when the track is turned on, not its originality, complexity of the process to make it, or what it would mean on the business side to borrow a key component from another already published song.
While writing this, I realize that most modern tracks borrow something from somewhere. Even if a composition is “original”, it most likely uses one of the tried-and-true chord structures that lay the tonal and harmonic foundation for the rest of the track. I believe firmly that electronic music is winning because other genres are running out of ideas, while electronic music relies on the dynamic and endless possibilities of synth, sound design and what we can do with the sonic experience of a song, not just its tonal/harmonic composition. Crafting the sonic experience (when the bass hits, how hard it hits, what’s moving left to right on the headphones, what elements fade in and out at strategic moments in the song) gives electronic music a wonderful stage for a sample to be heard in an artistically strong new context.
Electronic music and sampling have a two-way relationship. It uses samples from other genres quite effectively, and is sampled (by Hip-Hop artists primarily) frequently. Never being able to turn off my critical ear, I decide based upon a few important criteria whether the track is……
A – better than the original source of the sample
B – an effective translation for a new audience/an homage
C – a fun nostalgia generator, but nothing more
D – cheap artistic theft.
I won’t be going into detail regarding into the mountains of horrible music that fits the D category, so lets focus on A-B
Wolfgang Gartner’s take on Beethoven is a great example of the B on my list above. It would be impossible and musically ignorant of me to make the case he made Beethoven’s 5th BETTER (even if most listeners now would prefer to listen to Wolfgang Gartner’s remix rather than a classical song from years ago), but he did translate it for an audience that likes EDM, without bastardizing the original. The track works even if you haven’t heard its source. (and if you haven’t, turn off the porn, turn off the Kardashians, read a book).
Flux Pavilion and Watch the Throne crossed paths with Flux’s track “I Can’t Stop”, as Jay-Z and Kanye decided that the drums in the original track weren’t hip hop enough, and there was too much glorious buzzing resonance/high end in the bassline to fit their precious vocals in the mix. They also called their song “Who Gon’ Stop Me”, which is difficult for most of us from Caucasia to say without losing respect for ourselves. This evaluation is particularly difficult, because I do enjoy listening to the update (especially when it came on in Great Gatsby), but I don’t love the adjustments made when compared to the original song. The track is borderline artistic theft (I don’t care if they cleared it with Flux Pavilion and he got paid, I’m talking about the art form), but Jay-Z and Kanye still carry a listenability that warrants the track’s production/existence. After all, one of my critiques for trap/dubstep was that many songs would do better with vocals. I feel Jay-Z and Kanye could have treated this track better, given us more original drums (they use the cop out 808 kit, if you don’t know, google it. It’s in about 90% of new hip-hop songs, particularly the southern sound) if that’s what they feel they had to replace, and left the bassline alone. The original song leaves places open for vocals, when it backs off the full sound and breaks down a bit. Their track also goes off the rails for the 3rd verse and prompts me and other listeners with decent hearing to skip. Tough call, but it’s still a B on my list.
While Trance has been slightly forgotten at this moment when compared to the Electro-House, Dubstep and Pop-House, the only classical style/orchestral remix track I can think of at the moment that I can comfortably say made something artistically stronger is a trance piece. Often regarded as the best trance song ever made, Barber’s Adagio for Strings required two levels of remixing (first William Orbit’s translation, then Ferry Corsten’s remix of that) before it blossomed as the masterpiece we can enjoy today. Of course the original composition is beautiful in its own right, but its author, Samuel Barber lived in the 1990’s, over one hundred years after Beethoven and his buddies were having genius fights with their and racing symphonic music forward. He was standing on the shoulders of giants with the established musical conventions and methods just as remixers of classics are today. If we compare Barber’s work to Beethoven’s 5th, we see Barber’s impressive modern take on classical music being dwarfed by one of the most important works of art of all time. Gartner takes on Beethoven and makes a nice homage and modern translation that wouldn’t upset any music snobs, but Ferry Corsten/William Orbit transcended their source and used it to make something that defined a genre. This track set the pace for Corsten’s peers (Tiesto, Armin Van Buuren, Lange, Van Dyk, Oakenfold, etc), It successfully translates what is originally a sad piece of music, into a dramatic, epic trance song that dominated clubs for years.