When trying to understand a culture, whether in the present or in the past, it can be difficult to determine the level of influence of certain ideas, or to the significance of certain creative works. Hip-hop overcomes a lot of these problems.
Before we start, a quick word on how hip-hop is made. Rap music is the product of collaboration between rapper and producer. The rapper writes and delivers the lyrics; the producer puts together all the instrumentation: drums, bass, piano, vocal samples – everything except the words delivered by the rapper. Solo rap albums tend to see the rapper collaborating with a range of different producers, working with each one for a couple of tracks . In Word … Life, the rapper O.C. (Omar Credle) teams up with producer Buckwild on most of the tracks, and the two gel fantastically.
In hip-hop, the producer does not usually compose and play the backing instrumentation himself. Rather, he creates by assembling a series of audio samples. By taking snippets of audio from other tracks, modifying the pitch or tempo, and arranging them together, he builds up a backing like a collage. Sampling recognises a snippet of audio, and the place it comes from, as worthy of commemoration, but also makes it into something new in its new context. This double-life of the sample is a rich and profound vein of meaning running through the body of hip-hop. Hip-hop is a live – living – creature, and the sample helps us appreciate this.
Sampling another artist endorses and promotes them, whilst also binding the sampled work into the new creation. Hip-hop samples praise something great, and go on to make it even greater by reworking it and using it as the base for further creative activity. By unravelling this process we can massively enrich our appreciation of hip-hop. This process also allows us to understand which cultural works and artists are seen as significant by the people making rap music. The influence of O.C.’s mentors was not confined to a shout-out in the album sleeve: Slick Rick, Rakim, KRS-ONE, Chuck D. and Kool G Rap aren’t just printed names, but living and breathing in new ways through O.C. and Buckwild’s work.
By following the multiple lives lived by samples, we can trace threads of significance through hip-hop culture and back to its roots. We can also deepen our understanding of the message of rap music, by adding an understanding of the meaning of the backing to the meaning of the lyrics.
We’re going to look at the samples used in O.C.’s ‘Word…Life’ album, to see the influences that the rapper and producers saw as important to them, and how these samples might have contributed to the meaning of ‘Word…Life’. We’re also going to look at how ‘Word…Life’ itself was sampled, taking its place in the ever-growing creative body that is hip-hop. This will let us assess how important and influential this album was. In sampling ‘Word…Life’, we begin to sample hip-hop culture.
I’m making a lot of analytical boasts here, so lets go out there and test them.
Title track ‘Word…Life‘ samples Nancy Wilson and Cannonball Adderley’s ‘Never Will I Marry‘. The lively – and wonderfully poised – bass and percussion introduction to gets sped up a touch and used as the frame for O.C.’s lyrics. Buckwild periodically interjects, dressing the backing with a little saxophone passage or distant voices. (Check the links to hear for yourself.) Nancy Wilson sings about about unrestrained wandering through life, observing things as they come and not getting caught up. “Born to wander till I’m dead / No burdens to bear / No conscience, no care / No memories to mourn / no turnin’”. This fits with the mission of confident observation that O.C. talks about in his lyrics. The album’s next track – O-Zone – has a laid-back, thoughtful backing, adding to this idea of contemplative freedom. But the chorus is a lyrical sample from Mobb Deep‘s Shook Ones Part I: “Your first time’ll be your last earth memories…” – rapper Prodigy’s menacing warning for the naïve, “Unaware fools who be dealt with in time”. That O.C. can confront such harsh realities in the context of this calm backing suggests that he’s in control. Through use of these samples, Buckwild and O.C. are saying that he’s got wanderlust and the street knowledge to back it up. He’s no shook one, and can hold his own in the world he’s rapping about without losing his cool.
Not everyone can live this detached observation. The album’s next track – Born 2 Live – is a lament for lost youth. O.C. paints some memories of his childhood friends, abruptly wrenching himself back to the present as the first verse ends: “…now while I write this song, /It’s like some are still alive and a couple are gone.” We’re thrown into the chorus, a repeating vocal line taking us out of this space and into looped contemplation – “We’re born to live, a life and die / Life’s so damn short, man I wonder why.” Where can these reflections on life get us other than round and round in contemplative circles?
From an early age O.C. realised that death doesn’t have any grand meaning: “As kids, you’re overlookin’ death; / It didn’t seem important or serious, it just seems curious.” A seven year-old Spanish friend of his got run over on the way back from receiving a Little League Baseball award. Later in life, his friend Mike Boogie (who raps the eighth verse in Big L’s ‘8 Iz Enuff‘ track) got killed on the streets. O.C. doesn’t know what happened, and so is just left missing his friend – “…who knows what went down?/ Bottom line is wishin’ that he still was around.”
The backing to this track helps convey this message of wistful and painful reminiscing, and reflection on the lost potential of youth. The main sample comes from Keni Burke‘s ‘Risin’ to the Top’. The sample Buckwild took is light on its feet, driven, and going places. It’s got a real sense of aspiration and hope, and Burke’s lyrics talk about dreaming and gradual improvement. The backing of Born 2 Live is a cut-up version of this story: dreams and hope cut short, leaving us looping over and over in reflection. Good times and promise for the future came to an end.
The next track is ‘Time’s Up’, the true centrepiece of the album, and O.C.’s most praised work. This is where he sets out his message for his fellow rappers. The track swings into life with an amazing sample from Les Demerle‘s ‘A Day in the Life‘, alive with dark swagger. This sets a fantastic backdrop for O.C.’s message – something serious, dark, and real, but massively compelling, and something you can dance to. O.C. and Buckwild are showing us that entertainment doesn’t have to be superficial.
O.C.’s first verse is a masterful demolition of vacuous gangsta posturing. Having utterly dismantled this bogus rap agenda, he shares a two-line punchline with a sample from Slick Rick: “Those who pose lyrical but really ain’t true I feel:” / “Their times limited, hard rocks too”. This is a master-stroke of rapping and producing, and is absolutely crucial to the meaning of the track. By sampling Slick Rick, one of the fathers of rap music, Buckwild and O.C. are telling rappers that such posturing is creatively barren and will end up failing, just like the “thieves” that Slick Rick was originally dismissing. O.C. and Buckwild are also telling rappers to remember their roots and to raise their game. They’re implicitly linking anyone who doesn’t with thievery, both literal and metaphorical, by misappropriating the genre bequeathed to them by the legends of rap.
Earlier in this article, I suggested that we could use samples to show how a track and its message has been received. Let’s do this for ‘Time’s Up’. O.C.’s first verse starts “Fuck those that I offend, rappers sit back I’m ’bout to begin” – a call for people to listen to his uncompromising message. O.C. then lets loose with honest, heartfelt criticism, drawing attention to a neglected truth. Big L‘s track ‘The Enemy’ samples these lyrics, playing them by way of opening as a sign of commitment to truth rather than posturing, readying the ground for a scathing attack on the police system.
A more prominent sampling of O.C.’s track in another context is in the film 8 Mile. The beat from ‘Time’s Up’ is used as the backing to one of the freestyle rap battles. When this backing came through the speakers, people made the connection to O.C., and reflected on his message: what’s rapping about? What should rappers be talking about? The final freestyle in the film hammers home the need for rappers to raise their game, and O.C.’s backing was a great inclusion in the soundtrack, as it mirrors this question.
This track was also sampled in Nas feat. 50 Cent’s ‘Ridin’ Time‘. O.C.’s words – “Admit it, you bit [plagiarised/fabricated] it” – are used as an interjection to question the legitimacy and originality of a rapper’s message. When sampled in Jedi Mind Tricks’ ‘Apostles Creed‘ – “Non-conceptional, non-exceptional… Your whole aura is plexiglass” – the effect is similar. O.C.’s message reminds us about what is real and significant in rap.
What do these samples from ‘Time’s Up’ tell us? First of all, the calibre of the artists shows that O.C.’s message was heard and passed on by those who achieved more prominence than O.C. himself. It also shows that his message about the importance of rap staying true struck a chord and is seen as an issue to constantly return to.
I’ve only discussed a small fraction of the references and samples in this album, so an exhaustive study would be considerably lengthier than this piece. There’s also a lot more I could say about creative referencing: it’s not confined to a producer sampling instrumentals or vocals. Rappers can do it as well, spinning a legend’s words in new ways, giving them new meanings, and taking up their mantle. In Eric B and Rakim‘s track ‘As the Rhyme Goes On‘, Rakim said “I’m the R the A to the K I M If I wasn’t, then why would I say I am?”. Nas later put his own spin on this in ‘Got Ur Self a Gun‘: “I’m the N the A to the S-I-R, / and If I wasn’t I must’ve been Escobar”, proudly flaunting his multiple powerful identities. Eminem subverts this trope, using it to highlight how the rapper’s apparent self-fashioning of identity is actually imposed by others in ‘The Way I Am‘: “And I am / Whatever you say I am / If I wasn’t, then why would I say I am?” There’s always more that can be written about hip-hop, so I’ve restricted myself so as to avoid an overlong article. Just be clear that there’s a lot more that could be said.
There is a caveat to this exploration of samples. By sampling hip-hop tracks and albums, tracing their influences, and the influence that they had on other albums and tracks, we’re only spreading the net so far. We’re getting to see what’s important to rappers and producers, but not necessarily what matters to people who listened to the music. O.C.’s ‘Word … Life’ album was a “slept on phenomenon” (in other words, it was ignored by the mainstream and only heard by dedicated few), and as such, analysing it only helps us understand rappers, producers, and hip-hop heads who followed closely. Given that these are the people I want to understand, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Hopefully this article’s shown how we can trace samples back to their source, to help us better understand their meaning. We’ve also had a quick look at how we can look forward, seeing how a track was received, allowing us to gauge its significance and impact, and seeing how it’s been used to contribute to a new meaning in a new context. Hip-hop is a lot richer and more vibrant than most people realise, and by sampling hip-hop culture, we can begin to understand it.