Essay

The Immortal Soul: The Revival Of Soul Music And Its History In Hip-Hop Production

Last week, the internet was taken by storm with scheduled and unscheduled hip-hop releases. Mac Miller premiered the track “100 Grandkids” off his long-delayed upcoming release, GO:OD AM; Lil B and Chance The Rapper fulfilled their Instagram post’s collaboration promise with the silent release of Free (Based Freestyles Mixtape); and Curren$y, with nothing to gain or lose aside from continuing a consistent stream of releases, dropped his Cathedral EP.

The similarities in production behind each of the tracks is something worth noting. In comparison to probably almost any other record you might hear on DatPiff or recognize as heavy-hitting, chart-topping material these days, several of the aforementioned bangers embrace what once seemed to be a dying art: soul-sampling production. Miller’s “100 Grandkids” has the rapper dropping verses over the trumpet melody from Norman Connors’ “Last Tango In Paris” thanks to Sha Money XL, while Lil B’s longtime producer Uptown Greg channeled his inner College Dropout-era Kanye by flipping Gloria Scott’s “Love Me Or Leave Me” on “Last Dance.” This throwback style isn’t simply limited to this past week, though; earlier this year at the SXSW Fader Fort, Hudson Mohawke DeLorean-ed listeners back to 1973 with the debut of his single “Ryderz.” Needless to say, the vociferous trumpets and chipmunkified vocals of D.J. Rogers ripped from his soulful track “Watch Out For The Riders” were a pure hit of nostalgia.

Until 2015, though, it appeared that soul as a mainstream genre was, for the most part, dying out. The few times that I remember hearing such ’70s- and ’80s-tugging melodies blaring at a public venue were at genre-specific DJ sets, and since the turn of the decade, hip-hop producers have even begun shifting away from relying on it for samples. As a result, the aforementioned tracks at times seem anachronistic considering the computerized percussive sounds that have flooded the genre’s production scene.

Over the course of this year though, numerous contemporary producers (even those not historically tied to hip-hop such as Jamie xx) have joined the production vanguard in stepping away from the wave of trap and trillwave production inundating the mainstream hip-hop scene, championing a soul-sampled production revival for fellow contemporary and future producers to come.

To understand how soul wound up being featured so prominently in the archives of the aforementioned producers, it’s necessary to take a trip back to soul’s rise to pop stardom. Since the ’50s and until the late ’80s, soul music in one way or another had itself cemented within the music scene. In the 1960s, Ben E. King’s moonlit “Stand By Me” served as the gold standard for defining soul: a secular brethren of gospel music with similar roots in classic rhythm & blues that, split from the sectarian background, could hone in on commentary regarding the ongoing crises faced by the African American community. Eventually, by the mid-’60s, the, emotive vocals and electrifying instrumentations affiliated with Motown artists such as Stevie Wonder even crossed over into pop music. Thanks to soul, DJs had themselves the perfect soundtrack for keeping the clubs packed all night long.

Post-’60s soul music found itself branching out. “Soul” could refer to Detroit’s pop-oriented Motown, but there was also the orchestral-leaning Philadelphia Sound à la the Delfonics, or even the horn-blaring Southern soul. Further out, soul developed arms of disco and funk, genres that later became influenced by psychedelia, and eventually, blended with electro. By the early ’90s, soul had digressed far enough from from its original gospel and rhythm & blues roots that record companies christened it with a new label: contemporary R&B. This new genre, while still incorporating some of soul’s gospel-related features, used slick production and voluminous vocals, enabling it stand on its own and tower over its predecessor.

After soul relinquished its pop-culture crown, the genre maintained a notable presence through its elder-statesmen status. As many are wont to do, fans of soul and funk musicians held fast to those classic LPs they had amassed over the years: Sam Cooke, Sly And The Family Stone, and Aretha Franklin, to name just a few. For children whose formative musical years came in the ’80s, those records favored by their parents and DJs at the local radio stations became the basis for their lexicon of music. These kids formed deep attachments to the likes of Al Green and Smokey Robinson, be it via their parents and friends, or by themselves in their room — headphones and all.

For producers whose careers would take off in the late ’80s and early ’90s, such tracks most likely rooted themselves into their early memories. Since these producers’ parents had those records from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s on shelves in their homes, the material was easy to obtain for DJ sets or instrumental productions, an essential feature for producers who didn’t have much in terms of cash when starting out. As an old associate of Kanye West once told Complex, Kanye started out using beats from a crate of soul records given to him by his then-girlfriend’s father. “Kanye wasn’t a big old record collector like that. He didn’t have lots of old records. His girl’s father gave him a crate of records that a lot of [samples on the album] came from.” If not their parents, the record stores’ bargain bins — a favorite source of material by J Dilla and Madlib — was always flush with rare and previously unused tracks.

But more importantly, the primary challenge faced by DJs and producers is to compose collages of sound that seamlessly link together at particular breaks and signs between different tracks. Given that this essentially requires knowing the music by heart from front to back, the best material for their artistry would be music that they’d heard since they were able to crawl. It’s also essential that these are songs that they feel a strong personal connection to, and can connect with listeners. Thus, the parents (and radio DJs) of these future producers prompted one of the first waves of soul revival.

Just a quick once-over of the roster of golden-age hip-hop producers reveals this generation of producers’ preference toward soul and funk. Starting with Marley Marl as one of the first producers to sample breakbeats, Pete Rock followed with his eclectic, funk-leaning instrumentals. RZA and J Dilla took this a step further by co-pioneering the then-unorthodox method of ripping apart old-timey tracks for scraps of vocal and instrumentation samples, using them to map a scenic masterpiece of production (a quick spin of “Wu Wear: The Garment Renaissance” and its unabashed gospel-esque crooning via the Soul Children is all the further proof you’ll need). So when it came time for the late-’90s- and early ’00s-era young producers such as Kanye West and Just Blaze to showcase their own styles of production on The Blueprint, or Ayatollah with the Aretha Franklin-sampled feelgood workings on Mos Def’s “Ms. Fat Booty,” they were finally cementing in the public’s eye soul-sampling as a staple, something their musical forefathers had been constructing for years.

In addition to sample-based production, neo-soul comprised the other half of the first-wave soul revival. Emerging from the velvety croons and buttery production of R&B that profited from the submission of soul, D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar and Erykah Badu’s Baduizm provided an archetypical understanding of neo-soul, a genre that embraces musical ideologies belonging originally to soul as well as rhythmic and melodic characteristics affiliated with R&B and funk. True, many musicians disdained the term for its corporate origin — Kedar Massenburg of Motown Records is to thank — but it’s hard to deny neo-soul’s right to the soul throne. Like Gaye and Robinson, their music promulgated a necessity for a modern-day social consciousness, particularly socio-political issues such as race and class that were often ignored by pop R&B. The Soulquarians group, which in addition to neo-soul artists included several alternative hip-hop artists and producers, all followed a similar line of neo-soul thought: a necessity for addressing these greater issues while also borrowing musical compositions and structures from the original genre. With both sampling and neo-soul forces dominating the music scene, soul music returned once again, if only briefly, to the contemporary mainstream.

As soul-laden hip-hop and neo-soul began to plateau and decline in mainstream popularity at the end of the 2000s, the EDM and IDM scenes had been bouncing along steadily, amassing a large enough following to cross over to the mainstream. The second coming of trap, whose synth-heavy grooves find their origins in Southern-fried hip-hop production, was a constant at the clubs and festivals. Dubbing this second wave of trap and “ratchet production,” producers such as DJ Mustard and Mike Will Made It became recurring figures on Soundcloud’s exploration section for turnt-igniting anthems — bullish synth-heavy tracks layered with brain-blasting 808 sub-bass kicks and hi-hat hits — while fellow bass-heavy artists such as Skrillex and Diplo began reaping headliner status with their predilection for wub wub wubs. On the flipside of this shift in beatsmithing was the trillwave movement. Popularized for its dreamy smoke-filled productions, producers versed in this spacey realm of purple haze like AraabMuzik and Clams Casino often relied on tracks from electronic, pop, and indie artists such as Björk and Baths to construct glitchy atmospheric beats. With such similar end goals in the respective genres’ producers’ minds — to create contemporary, catchy beats that could easily be rapped over — it was almost fated that these two production scenes would emerge as the choice beat styles for hip-hop’s 2013 newcomers amongst the likes of A$AP Rocky and Danny Brown.

Yet near the end of 2013, there were hints that soul-driven production might return. Ratchet and trillwave styles still dominated the majority of the production work, and even now continue to pervade the up-and-coming output of beatsmiths, but Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, rife with the funk and soul thanks to inspiration and album assistance from Chic’s Nile Rodgers, at least momentarily reminded listeners of the classic productions styles that they quickly shirked for the trillwavers. Similarly, Kanye West’s Yeezus didn’t forget its MC’s origins, dabbling between nightmarish twists on soul samples (“Blood On The Leaves”) to the College Dropout-throwback “Bound 2.” The resurgence gathered more force, with the 2014 year-end release of J. Cole’s ’90s-nostalgia throwback, Forest Hills Drive, and PRhyme’s self-titled record. Now, in 2015, we’re starting to see the return of soul.

Within the first few weeks of January 2015, Mark Ronson knocked Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” from the #1 spot on the charts with his Bruno Mars-featured “Uptown Funk.” Kendrick’s jarring To Pimp A Butterfly arrived, swathed in bass-thumping throwbacks. Hudson Mohwake, as mentioned earlier, dropped in the mix “Ryderz” — and let’s not forget Jamie xx’s anthemic, Persuasions-sampling “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times),” featuring the reggae-inclined Popcaan and upcoming Cash Money firecracker Young Thug. Oh, and we’re only now warming up in 2015’s third quarter.

In a way, this second wave of soul-sampling production is a sort of snake eating its tail. Like the producers of the ’90s and early ’00s, these guys are using what their parents gave them (Jamie xx recalled in an interview listening to soul records belonging to his parents as a child in London, and Mohwake and Ronson’s respective fathers were both radio DJs who also had stacks of funk and soul records lying around). Once again, soul music earwormed its way into the memories of these producers, and as a result, ended up being the ideal tool for creating their mixes and beats. Mark Ronson’s Uptown Special bathed in the nostalgia of his decades of DJ sets in New York City, as he explained in an interview with Stereogum. But unlike their elders, these producers aren’t sampling these old records because it’s all they were able to access. In this day and age, discovering new music as sampling material is extremely easy — torrenting is a second language to most millennials, and music-streaming offer unlimited libraries. Rather they’re following the primary motive of their predecessors, trying to find a way to connect to the past.

A few years ago, Ronson admitted that when spinning at a nightclub set where Prince was in attendance, he featured a bootleg 12″ of Stevie Wonder to connect with the “Little Red Corvette” crooner. When utilizing these historical relics, though, the modern producer does so with a respect for the past (in Ronson’s case, grabbing Prince’s attention), but also the future. “You can’t just hijack nostalgia wholesale,” Ronson explained in his 2014 TED Talk. “It leaves the listener feeling sickly. You have to take an element of those things and bring something fresh and new to it.”

And this is just what many of today’s producers are doing with soul tracks. Jamie xx may have been criticized by Jimmy Hayes for “not understanding the message” by mashing the sample of “Good Times” with Popcaan and Young Thug’s, er, casual verses — one can only imagine how far up Hayes’ heart rate spiked after hearing Thugger squelching, “I’m gonna ride in that pussy like a stroller.” But this is exactly what Ronson meant. The original track offered a conservative, more positive outlet about love prevailing in times of monetary distress; nowadays, with even higher education-necessitated jobs barely sufficing for rent, and romance reduced to the swipe of a thumb, such concepts aren’t so relatable. Such is it that a sample winds up being reinterpreted in ways that, while discussing the same subject matter, actually relates to the modern generation. Sure, there might be some distaste from the old guard for repurposing their tracks in ways that could misconstrue the message to the newer generation, but like previous generations of producers, these artists wouldn’t be sampling said tracks without the strong emotional connection, be it their own nostalgia or, as Chance’s notable producer Nate Fox hinted at, giving artists another chance when they were “super overlooked.” When it comes to soul, this contradiction of a passé yet timeless genre, sampling allows today’s producers to do just that.

Of course, this isn’t to say that ratchet and trillwave productions will be taking their bows anytime soon. Just throwing darts at the DatPiff “Hot Week” section or keeping an eye on the general trend of the headline-garnering hip-hop artists, it’s apparent that you’re more likely than not to hear a record whose production is somehow tied to the New Atlanta trap or Chicago’s drill scenes. In a sort of self-perpetuating cycle, this has led many A-list rappers to hop aboard this current trend that entails spit-slurred and choppy verses over those purple-streaked synth haze and iconic electro high-hat claps. It’s obvious that soul music won’t in any way dominate the production industry as it did in hip-hop’s golden days. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t starting to seep back in.

Surprisingly, by loosening up on the heavy doses of ratchet in his production, DJ Mustard found himself veering toward a banshee-like sample of “Say You Love Me, One More Time” on Big Sean’s anthemic “I Don’t Fuck With You,” while hip-hop’s self-proclaimed trend fiend, once the star of the aforementioned production styles, was rolling on a soul trip earlier this summer. And even within last week’s Lil B x Chance mixtape, amidst Keyboard Kid’s swampy synth claps and electro-percussive beats that comprised a large chunk of the album, Uptown Greg found his organic-tinged production samples sitting comfortably as some of tape’s catchiest beats.

Given that these figures and others in tune with this experimental mindset were at one point the poster children of this avant-garde style, it’s hard to say what the future holds for soul production. It’s possible that it’ll simple wane into a truly passé stylistic choice, one preferred by older producers and rappers hoping to avoid losing their relevancy; on the other hand, it may end up hybridizing with the mainstay characteristics of trap due to newer producers hoping to experiment with previous generations’ trends alongside the high-hat staccatos. But as long as there is a drive to connect in some way to the past and set a precedent for the future, soul music in hip-hop production will remain eternal.