Trying To Get To You

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Stax And The Soul Of Hip-Hop

Hip-hop is clearly the most impactful and important musical genre that has emerged in the past thirty years. And much of it has been built on the rhythmic foundations of soul. Stax has just released The Soul Of Hip Hop, a compilation of Stax songs that were used for tracks and beats in famous hip hop songs, including De La Soul, Rakim, DJ HiTek, Cypress Hill, DJ Muggs, LL Cool J, Public Enemy, DJ Quik, Ice Cube, Notorious B.I.G., Wu-Tang Clan, RZA and more. Featuring songs by Isaac Hayes, The Emotions, Booker T. and the MG's, William Bell and others, it's a great and funky look at the impact that Stax has had on hip-hop.

I spoke with the compilation's producer, Jonathan Kaslow, a former co-worker of mine at Island Def Jam. Jonathan is one of the most knowledgeable and passionate hip-hop and music fans I've ever known, so doing this interview was a true pleasure.

Q: What was the genesis of The Soul Of Hip Hop?

I'm a consultant for Stax, and I've been going back into the vault and taking multitrack masters from the Stax catalog (including the above title) and converting them to Pro Tools sessions. I then take sessions that I feel producers will be interested in and give them to use for sampling. An example of this would be producer Jake One who took the multitrack from "Masquerade" and created a beat that ended up as the music for the Freeway song, "It's Over" on his Def Jam album Free At Last. Some of the producers and artists working with the material are Dr. Dre, Kanye West and Ghostface Killah.

From that, we sort of came up with the “soul of hip-hop” idea – we wanted to educate people how influential Stax has been in the sound of hip-hop. We were in talks with Def Jam to try to make an album of new material using all the Stax multitrack masters. I had arranged something with Rondor Publishing to do a blanket license – but for various reasons, it got shelved.

Q: I know you as a enormous hip-hop fan – what’s your relationship to soul music?

I’ve always had personal relationship to soul music. My mom, Alison Miner, was one of the managers of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and she managed Professor Longhair for a while. So growing up, I was more exposed to the r&b and blues side of things. I wasn’t as educated about the Memphis sound. I discovered it through my love of hip-hop – going back to find where my favorite rap tracks came from.

There are some Stax artists that my mom booked for Jazzfest – she had booked the Staple Singers and Margie Joseph. So the circle of life – it’s incredible. My mom passed a few years ago, I’m working with the masters of the artists she booked, and I’m thinking “Who was my mom talking to to make this happen…was she talking to (Stax head) Al Bell?”

But my education came through hip-hop. I felt like I had to find my own sound. And hip-hop was that. Hip hop is the music of my generaton. But you have a moment when you’re a kid if you’re into hip-hop and if your parents have a big record collection. You have curiosity about how these sounds came. I'd listen to these old albums, and then I'd discover a track that one of my favorite rap songs was from and I'd be like, “Oh shit…that’s from that?” All these of these great rap songs are based on this old music. And when I’d try to find the hip hop sample, it all led back to Stax. I had no idea all this stuff happened in Memphis.

Q: One thing I noticed is that all of these songs come from the post-1969 catalog. The Stax catalog that is venerated is usually from the Atlantic era (up until 1968). But everything you have here is from the era after Stax left Atlantic.

Yeah – that’s a great point. Until I worked at Stax I didn’t have expertise in the catalog. It took me the last few years to learn it. And amongst the old-timers at Stax today, artists like Sam & Dave are the absolute pinnacle of the catalog. Absolutely – for them, it’s the pre-1968 stuff. But everything that moves me is from the post-1969 piece of the catalog when Stax got a lot funkier. For me, after 1969, things got much more interesting rhythmically. The BPM’s got to around 88 or 90…just the kind of tempos that would become perfect to rap to. And a lot of the beats that are sampled from Stax are just so perfect that they just loop it and do nothing else. They don’t have to layer it or anything. They’re perfect.

A lot of the artists in the catalog – Johnnie Taylor, Rufus Thomas, the Mad Lads – they went from that 50’s bluesy, doo-wop influenced sound to pure funk. Stax’s music from 1969-1974 brought us an era of music that for some reason, became the dominant sound in hip-hop from the late 80’s to the mid-90’s. For a guy like me from the hip hop generation, the later era of Stax speaks volumes more.

Q: Why would you recommend this to a hip-hop fan unfamiliar with Stax or old school soul?

For someone who grew up with hip-hop, but didn’t go beyond being a listener–if they never got into production, they can listen to this CD and really get the origins of hip-hop. We approached the project from the context of, “What are the most famous hip-hop songs that used Stax beats, and then what Stax songs comprised those.” A lot of soul fans are unfamiliar with the Mad-Lads, but for me, they’re more important than Sam & Dave. And the people that listen to the older part of the Stax catalog – they can get into it because it’s funky.

This whole project has been an education for the people on the Stax side. They’ve made money off of sampling – but they didn’t know what it was or how to make it interesting for them in a social context. A lot of people of the Stax generation – both artists and executives – would give sample clearances very grudgingly. But thanks to this project, I think the folks at Stax have an ever broader sense of the impact their music has had, and it's actually made them fans of sampling! Because if it wasn’t for the hip-hop generation, someone like me, I wouldn’t even have even 10% of the interest I do in this music. It’s been good for everyone involved.

Q: Do you have future plans with this project?

We have plans to do multiple volumes of this particular set. I want to create “the soul of hip hop” as a brand in that we can create an idea and a theme that is universal to this. It’s a bridge between generations between soul and hip-hop. What I’ve been doing with these is using the multi-track masters, which gives producers so many more options. When I opened the multi-track of David Porter’s “I'm Afraid The Masquerade Is Over,” I almost cried – for me, even though he's a legendary producer and songwriter, what he’s known for is that song, which has been sampled by Wu Tang Clan, LL Cool J, and Biggie. When I could hear the strings separate from the piano – if you mute out things, there’s an almost infinite amount of possibilities you can create. I’d love to give background on how these tracks led to hip-hop. Maybe even do a TV program and show how a hip-hop artist would approach these vaults.

It’s interesting how history is approached differently with rock and rap. In rock, artists will often be obvious and forthcoming about their historical influences - which can reach back decades. In hip-hop, so many of the artists, especially with their braggadocio, will try to portray themselves as a whole new thing – nothing came before, and nothing comes after. Yet the foundation of all their music is older.

It's true - it's a different relationship to history and the past. When I was 11 years old, I was way into the Geto Boys Can’t Be Stopped album, the one with “Mind Playing Tricks On Me.” The first song on side two of the cassette was “You Gotta Let Your Nuts Hang,” which Scarface is all over. I was at my mom’s in New Orleans – and I was going through my her record collection. She had managed the Wild Magnolias, who were this incredible band of Mardi Gras Indians. Their first album is seminal. I heard the loop from “Gotta Let Your Nuts Hang,” knew it was from the Wild Magnolias, and then when I checked the credits of the Geto Boys album, I was like, “I don’t see the song credited.”

So I told my mom, who then called band pianist Willie T, and she had me go to Willie T’s place and play him the Geto Boys. He listened and then said, “I’ve never heard of the Geto Boys, I’ve never heard this song, and no one ever contacted me about using it.” He ended up taking Geto Boys to court and won - I was a hip hop snitch (laughter) – and that money really helped him. Being around the New Orleans musicians growing up, I was taught that they’re the most important thing - and that you have to protect them. My mom taught me that history is a hugely important thing, and it can’t be let to fade in the background. Growing up in hip-hop I had a weird identity – I knew that it was built on the past, but it wasn't something you ever talked about. I think why there’s a lack of history sometimes is because of the socio-economic history of African-Americans in this country. It’s a very painful past sometimes, and I think denying the history can sometimes be a way to get past the pain.

You have tons of examples of that in black music history – middle class blacks in the 50’s and 60’s who hated the blues, and felt that that was old plantation shit to be left behind.

Yeah. I remember working at Def Jam when "Standing In The Shadows Of Motown" came out. The movie came up in a staff meeting, and a very high up black executive said to all of us, “You best keep me as far away from that shit as possible.” And I was like, “You don’t like Motown?” But for that person, their relationship to that music was very different from mine, and it was not to be discussed.

Download: David Porter - "I'm Afraid The Masqurade Is Over"

Buy The Soul Of Hip Hop at eMusic

Buy The Soul Of Hip Hop at Amazon MP3 store

Buy The Soul Of Hip Hop at iTunes


Cody B said...

That's a cool idea for a comp, more labels should do it, 'cause the bootleggers and DJ's have been doin' it forever.. at least Stax will get paid for this time. The RZA is especially fond of Memphis..Stax and beyond.
Highlights from the hip hop genome looks at the original sample finding records from the 80's:Ultimate breaks and Beats,

rashi kaslow said...

I always knew my brother was alright. I have to admit that hip hop became a part of my identity through him. He was a forerunner of a phenomenon that would sweep the planet. I guess we were just raised with good musical sensibilities. I do have a very specialized taste for hip hop, but it is one that I owe to Jon and value deeply. Thanks bro.

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