Mystery solved: “Bronco” settles Mobb Deep sampling question that’s remained hidden since ’95
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A couple of weeks back, “Bronco,” a member of the hip-hop forum the-breaks.com, helped solve a musical mystery dating back to 1995: From where did Mobb Deep sample the bass line for “Shook Ones Part II”? This may seem like insider hip-hop baseball — and it is — but within the subculture of sample sleuths who care about such things, this was a Really Big Deal.
“Shook Ones Part II,” from “The Infamous” album, is Mobb Deep’s most-cherished hit, so iconic that when Eminem needed a draught of sonic courage in “8 Mile,” he turned to it, with its distinctive tick-tock drums and dark, minor-key bass line.
Except, it turns out, the source of that bass line wasn’t a bass line at all, one reason the sample eluded discovery. The longer “Shook Ones Part II” kept its secrets, the more it became a holy grail for sample seekers, complete with debated theories and false leads. In solving this cold case, Bronco (born Timon Heinke) and his revelation harkens to a seemingly bygone era of competitive sampling and sourcing.
In the late 1980s, as affordable digital samplers such as E-mu’s SP-1200 and Akai’s MPC-60 entered the market, beatmakers discovered the creative potential of looping and manipulating bits and pieces of music from other artists’ recordings, called “samples,” to build new songs. They sought out unused sounds on increasingly obscure records to stay ahead of their peers — and possibly copyright attorneys — and sample hounds followed just as intensely. The adage that “knowledge is power” gave samples cultural capital — DJs could build sets using “originals” while vinyl sellers could mint small fortunes by selling records sporting “known” samples.
This quest for knowledge inspired self-described “professional computer geek,” Blaine Armsterd to create the Sample FAQ in 1994. It was a database of original samples sourced from his record collection, album-liner notes and user contributions culled from the pre-www “newsgroups” of the early Internet frontier. In an ironic case of intellectual property theft, the FAQ eventually became so definitive that someone began selling bound bootleg copies of it, retitled “The Holy Book of Hip-Hop.”
By the time Armsterd turned the FAQ into the-breaks.com in 2003, it had documented almost every major rap sample of the ‘80s and ‘90s, save for a handful of famous holdouts, including “Shook Ones Part II,” Raekwon’s “Ice Cream” and Nas’ “Nas Is Like.” Armsterd had ceased doing much sourcing but his forums’ users stayed vigilant and one by one knocked most of these mysteries down.
However, what the Internet giveth, the Internet can taketh away. The cultural capital that came with mastering sample knowledge was premised on scarcity, both of the records themselves and simply knowing about them. The social media revolution of the last 10 years has made scarcity irrelevant; you can download a file containing every sample Mobb Deep used on “The Infamous” in less time than it takes to listen to “Shook Ones Part II.”
Ethnomusicologist Joseph Schloss, author of “Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-Hop,” suggests that the Internet-powered ubiquity of sample information has diminished its value. “You can find both the information and the recording online, so you can satisfy that urge without buying the record or even working very hard,” says Schloss, adding, “ironically, it almost seems that what we miss in retrospect is the work itself, rather than the rewards.”
Sometimes “the work” comes through chance. Heinke cracked the code of “Shook Ones Part II” while listening to “Jessica,” a 1969 recording by Herbie Hancock. It turns out that Mobb Deep rapper-producer Havoc took a piano melody from the song and slowed it down at two different pitches to create a two-bar loop more reminiscent of a bass guitar than keyboard. After Heinke announced his discovery, another Internet denizen, “Hawkeye,” created a sound file (now on YouTube, natch) that re-creates that transformation process.
Is this unveiling the end of an era? Sample-based production — though hardly dead — no longer dominates hip-hop’s aesthetics, and artists still known for extensive sampling, such as Kanye West, do so with full credits listed in the liners. There’s little mystery left when a video playing all the samples used on West’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” can appear on YouTube the day after the album’s release.
At least with “Shook Ones Part II,” Schloss suggests that this “residual case” finally has some closure, “like an antique collector finally completing a set.”
Appropriately, Heinke — who hails from Germany — was asked via email why he remains passionate about sourcing, and he compared it to “collecting stamps. It’s like finding a Blue Mauritius [a prize amongst philatelists]. We’re all nerds in here.”
Surely, sample sourcers have always been minutiae-obsessed, and whether the pursuit is more or less arcane today than it was 15 years ago, for Heinke and his ilk, as long as producers continue to sample, they’ll continue sleuthing.
-- Oliver Wang