The Tropin’ Monkey: A Debate

Troping Vinyl: Grandmaster Flash

The Argument: Medieval chant troping constituted the first documented instance of altering, recontextualizing, and fragmenting musical materials for new purposes. Fast forward a millennium, and we find that hip-hop musicians applied a similar principle (sampling) in the creation of new beats. The sampling process involves “cutting” segments from old records and “pasting” them into entirely new contexts, often alongside samples from other records. The result of such a process, like troping, warps the musical narrative’s sense of time, as material from different eras and genres are mashed together into a unified whole. Thus we have “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel,” where he samples from Chic, Queen, salsa music, television from the 1940’s, etc. As Mark (MC Samples) points out in his The Telling Trope post, adding commentary to and framing preexisting text and chant allowed monks to reinterpret the liturgy and, in effect, personalize it. Similarly, in hip-hop, sounds from old records (a beat from one song, a horn hit from another, James Brown’s grunt from yet another) are used to form a link with the past – what Chip Gates calls “signifyin'” – while also allowing for some dramatic editorialization over the source material (ie. rapping). Sampling JB is a gesture of homage, it’s a way to confirm his stature, but it’s also a way to confirm one’s own stature as a producer or an MC. Like monks confirming the validity and truth of Biblical passages through their tropes, sampling serves as a framework that, by pulling sonic materials out of the original environment, allows the troper/sampler to both show respect for tradition and break tradition by doing something new and personal with old material.

Many valuable critical perspectives have come out of the nascent body of scholarly literature on hip-hop. A smorgasbord of theories and approaches have been brought to bear on the topic of sampling, including postmodern theory, Marxist theory, Kristeva’s idea of intertextuality, Bateson’s concept of “play,” Gates’s “signifyin’ monkey,” ethnomusicological comparisons to African musical practices, etc. Since sampling resembles the practice of troping to a remarkable degree, issues and perspectives from hip-hop theory should be brought into the musicological discussion of this repertory.  Furthermore, what better way to engage a 9am undergraduate music history survey class than to introduce the topic of tropes with video of Grandmaster Flash?             — DJ Tropesphere

The Counterargument: Comparing Medieval troping with hip-hop sampling is all too tempting. On the surface, both techniques share much in common. Furthermore, certain generic parallels can be drawn between the two practices: tropes framed old material, commenting on it and confirming its content; sampling, generally speaking, can do the same. Both are steeping in a paradigm of musicking that is agglutinative, intertextual, and – for lack of a better word – “cut and paste.”

But beyond these passing similarities, the argument falters. Monks did not trope in order to engage in any sort of postmodern play or cultural rebellion whatsoever. They did so for practical reasons – to lengthen the liturgical day. Additionally, their reasons were not musical per se: they were informed by spiritual, theological probing. To compare the authority of the Bible with the authoritative groove of James Brown is fallacious and wildly off base. Moreover, this form of music scholarship – finding examples of a creative process and cutting it wholesale out of its original context to apply to another music – damages the specificity of each repertory/composer/era/technique by collapsing important differences for the sake of convenience (or the sake of waking up a class of sleepy undergrads). Mark (Dr. Samples) meditates eloquently on this idea in a recent post.

In conclusion, jumping between eras, languages, cultures, spiritual contexts, and musical use functions in the pursuit of The Same can be fun and rewarding – indeed, it’s easy to make novel and interesting scholarly connections between completely different practices when historiographical exactitude is disregarded. Unfortunately, such scholarship does little to shed light on the actual truth of past (or present) musical practices. It can only obfuscate the truth to draw false parallels between traditions when the commonalities are far outnumbered by the differences.    — Dr. Wallmark


  1. Jeff Purdue says:

    I’m a latecomer to this blog, so forgive the response to a slightly older post. This blog has inspired me to take down the Taruskin from my own shelf and dive in, though I have some catching up to do before I reach where you are. I enjoyed this post–I’ve done a bit of thinking and research on this topic, and I’ve been struck by the lack of real musical analysis on the role of sampling in general. What struck me from your list in the Argument section of the post is that it’s almost wholly focused on the social and ideological dimensions of music–important factors, I admit. But I just haven’t come across any work that tries to really analyze what’s going on musically with sampling.

    That’s why I like your Argument, and why I think the Counterargument is too dismissive. Musicians have always been able to “quote” from other musical sources (I use “quote” to distinguish from sampling). What’s the actual difference between a musical passage being quoted and being sampled? There’s a difference, but it’s hard to account for musically, which is why I think people have generally turned to other analytical tools (pomo theory, etc.). These approaches may shed some insight into the social practice of music, but they don’t adequately address for me how this all sounds. In other words, sampling a James Brown grunt may be an act of homage and may increase the djs status–but maybe it serves a purely musical function as well?

    There’s an interesting book called Making Beats: the Art of Sample-Based Hip Hop that addresses this a little. I don’t remember exactly where, but at some point the author is talking to Prince Paul and reads him an academic article where the author of that article makes some extravagant claims about Paul’s use of a Hall and Oates sample and what that was supposed to represent. Paul was asked if that’s what he was after and he replied “Naw! It just sounded good!”

    Sorry for the long comment, but I find this topic pretty interesting–and if you’re aware of articles that delve into musicological analysis of sampling, I’d love to hear about them.

    1. Zach Wallmark says:

      Jeff — Thanks for your encouragement and welcome to the Challenge!

      Sampling really is a fascinating technique, and I agree that not enough scholarly work has been done on it yet. It certainly bears a close relationship to good ol’ fashioned quoting, but the sampler quotes from actual performances, not just songs. This distinction was important in the early years of hip-hop: The Sugar Hill Gang, Afrika Bambaataa, et al. rerecorded the segments of recorded music they wanted to use in order to avoid a lawsuit. Legally speaking, it was easier to cop a groove with a live band than it was to quote the actual recording, which was protected by the mechanical copyright.

      There are a slew of critical perspectives one can bring to sampling, from postmodern theory to intertextuality to ethnomusicological approaches (sounds ideals of African(-American) people) to the politics of dissent, etc. “Making Beats” is a fabulous source. In addition, the following writers have dedicated large chunks of their books to it: Tim Taylor, Joanna Demers, Paul Theberge, Tricia Rose, Susan McClary (“Conventional Wisdom”), Mark Katz, Simon Frith (“Music and Copyright,” ed.), Mark Coleman, and Jeff Chang. If you access to a U library, I might also humbly recommend my own Master’s Thesis, “Making Music in the Digital Age: How Technological Developments Shape the Way We Create and Listen to Music.” (U of Oregon, 2007)

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