Review: Various Artists, Droppin’ Science: Greatest Samples From the Blue Note Lab

This is not your run-of-the-mill “roots of rap” or “best breakbeats” compilation.

Various Artists, Droppin' Science: Greatest Samples From the Blue Note LabAt least in its presentation, Droppin’ Science: Greatest Samples From the Blue Note Lab suggests yet another appeal to hip-hop genealogists, the kind of people who obsess over and are diligent readers of Oliver Wang’s blog. But this is not your run-of-the-mill “roots of rap” or “best breakbeats” compilation, and not just because you won’t find “Impeach the President” (which has been, according to The-Breaks, sampled in 116 different rap songs) or James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” (181 songs).

A few songs here have been tapped for use only once, and more than half of them bear relevance solely to the early-’90s conscious-rap movement and groups like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest. The people who put together the compilation seem to be aware that the greatest samples often don’t come from the greatest songs—a fact often overlooked in the obsession over hip-hop’s antecedents. Quality and uniqueness, more than propensity to be sampled, seems to have driven the song selection.

Have you ever actually listened to “Impeach the President”? The sparse drumbeats, subtle groove, and the tepidly sung chorus make an only half-hearted call for revolutionary change. If you want to rile somebone up, better to play them “Wu Tang Clan Ain’t Nothing to Fuck Wit,” which samples “Impeach the President” but is eons more memorable than its ancestor.

In spite of its subtitle, then, Droppin’ Science offers more a snapshot of Blue Note history than a snapshot of hip-hop history. Once you get past the fact that the compilation doesn’t represent all of sampling culture, though, and you tune your ears away from just beat analysis and sample recognition, a great listen awaits. All of the cuts on the album originate from the late ’60s to the mid ’70s, a time when the distinctions between jazz and the rest of mainstream pop music were not nearly as delineated as they are today.

Listeners who think jazz ended in 1970 will certainly enjoy discovering some of the talents on display here. Although a few well-chosen swing, smooth R&B, and cinematic big-band tracks are thrown in seemingly for diversity’s sake, it’s the cool-tempered swagger found on Ronnie Foster’s songs “Mystic Brew” (borrowed by A Tribe Called Quest for “Electric Relaxation”), Grant Green’s “Down Here on the Ground” (Tribe, again, for “Vibes & Stuff”), and Lonnie Smith’s “Spinnin’ Wheel” (Tribe, Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, and no joke, Brian Austin Green) that provides the album’s dominant theme. Most of these bands run on the model created by Booker T. & the MGs: a tight rhythm section, sweltering B-3 organ runs, proto-funk guitar, and blustery horn ornamentals.

Forty years ago serious jazz groups were averse neither to recognizable structures (verse-chorus-verse, even without vocals) nor the covering of pop songs; Lou Donaldson’s version of the Isley Brothers’ “It’s Your Thing” rivals the MGs’ rendition of “Twist and Shout” (itself sung by the Isleys before the infamous Liverpudlians, by the way) in how it reconstitutes the original’s sexual, combustible energy into something wickedly understated and as beautiful as pure calculus. In a nod to earlier jazz eras, Joe Williams’ surly “Get Out of My Life Woman” (sampled by Kool G and Biz Markie) saunters across a track of squawking horns and tinkling keys. David Axelrod’s sweeping orchestral “The Edge” (probably the most ostentatious and instantly recognizable sample here, from Dr. Dre’s “The Next Episode”) may seem a little out of place, but listeners new to Axelroad’s cinematic visions will surely not complain once they hear it, and they should seek out the essential Axelrod at Capitol, 1966-1970.

The tracks on Droppin’ Science take us back not only to those more optimistic days of the early ’70s, post-integration and pre-urban decay, but also to the much tougher late ’80s, when producers like Prince Paul sought a sunnier, more sophisticated ambiance as a contrast to the harsh sound collages of the Bomb Squad. It makes sense why jazz with both a palpable connection to the streets and an aesthetic of an aloof intelligence sounded so good accompanying the cool-kid witticisms of Q-Tip and Guru. By informing our appreciation of those early hip-hop heroes, Droppin’ Science also points in the direction of its own voluminous back catalogue; these songs are “samples” in more ways than one.

 Label: Blue Note  Release Date: February 11, 2008  Buy: Amazon

Wilson McBee

Wilson McBee has written for Pop Matters, Southwest Review, and other publications.

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