Breaks With Tradition

Breaks With Tradition: “Rock Steady”

Welcome to the first installment of Breaks With Tradition! This is a new column that examines a certain song that’s been frequently sampled and how that song has been used through the years. We’re launching this franchise with a look back at the great legacy and many lives of a 1971 hit from the recently departed Queen Of Soul, Aretha Franklin.

There are a thousand ways to think of the late Aretha Franklin — as a singer, as a songwriter, as a performer, as an activist, as an American icon — but the way other artists have used her voice and her music as a piece of their own composition is an under-discussed one.

There’s reason for that: Not only was she a brilliant composer on her own terms, few others were so brilliantly capable of inhabiting the songs of others as if she’d written them herself, famously outdoing Otis Redding on “Respect” and doing the same for artists ranging from ? And The Mysterians to the Band to Giacomo Puccini. So good luck doing the inverse — Gram Parsons came closest, and he had to work in an entirely different genre just to have his own space.

Not like that stopped anybody. She hasn’t been as widely sampled as some of her less-famous peers like the Honey Drippers or Lyn Collins, but Aretha’s music has seen enough repurposing in the works of others to give her secondhand appearances in more than 400 songs, and “Rock Steady” is far and away her most popular.

It should be obvious why — the bassline is killer, there’s a monster of a drum break, and the whole thing is ruthlessly danceable — but the funny thing is that not that many tracks have really taken advantage of it except in the most minimal of ways. Still, there are more than a few exceptions — here’s a selection of moments that find a few different ways to try and … well, not improve on perfection, but at least try and capture a little of that perfection for themselves.

The Original: Aretha Franklin, “Rock Steady” (Atlantic 7″, 1971). #9 Billboard Hot 100; #2 Best Selling Soul Singles. Later appeared on Young, Gifted And Black (Atlantic LP, 1972).

One of the things I’ve remembered (or at least had reinforced) while listening to Aretha’s records in the wake of her passing is the idea that she helped R&B transition from a singles genre to an album genre just by sheer numbers. Look at an album like 1967’s I Never Loved A Man The Way I Loved You, which leads off with “Respect,” and ask yourself: Which of these songs should be considered potential B-sides, or “deep cuts,” or even filler?

Full-length conceptual statements like What’s Going On and excursions past the usual capacity of the 7″ — like Funkadelic’s albums on Westbound — were still a few years off, so it’s not some grand artistic statement Aretha’s making, beyond the fact that she’s just doing masterpiece after masterpiece that can still fit in a jukebox. She would just put out an album with 10 or 11 or a dozen tracks on it, and none of them felt like they were needed to pad out the running time. Sure, she did a ton of covers, which saved a bit of time spent composing at the piano, but she’d work so hard to make her version of a song so thoroughly her own that “I’ve heard this song before” was never at the forefront of anybody’s mind. If you lifted the needle on an Aretha LP, it was for one reason only — to turn the record over. (Unless you wanted to listen to “Chain Of Fools” or “Spirit In The Dark” again, which is also more than acceptable.)

So when I say that I’m not even sure “Rock Steady” is the best song on Side 1 of the album it appears on, this shouldn’t do anything to diminish it as a piece of music. Instead, it should only serve to elevate what an astounding run Aretha had from — let’s be conservative — her first recordings with Atlantic through about 1972. I mean, “Rock Steady” is sandwiched between “Day Dreaming,” which is the best bossa-style/Tropicalia-adjacent song ever written by a non-Brazilian, and “Young, Gifted And Black,” which is as strong a reinforcement of the bond between the church and the civil rights movement as you’ll hear from the ’70s or any point afterwards. What it is, though, is far and away one of the best dance cuts she’s ever helmed, which for an album as packed as Young, Gifted And Black is still something worth celebrating.

The Personnel: Not only do you have some of the greatest session players of all time — drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, for instance, the only man who could give Clyde Stubblefield and Jabo Starks a run for their James Brown-distributed money, along with the omnipresent and masterful guitarist Cornell Dupree and bassist Chuck Rainey — you’ve got Donny Hathaway on organ doing that fantastic lead-in, and a cameo from Dr. John on additional percussion. Arif Mardin, Jerry Wexler, and Tom Dowd (who arranges the Memphis Horns) round out production.

The First Sample: Scritti Politti, “Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin)” (Virgin 7″/12″, 1984)

Speaking of Arif Mardin. The longtime Franklin producer/collaborator was brought in to handle Scritti Politti’s “Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin),” which hit a year before “Freeway Of Love” gave Aretha her biggest hit since her early Atlantic heyday and notched her another Grammy (Best Female R&B Vocal Performance — her 10th of 11). Green Gartside’s tribute to Aretha added another level of homage when the track dropped in some Fairlight-aided samples of Aretha’s voice from the break shouting “rock!” dropping them in like they were orchestra hits. It’s a stark and striking example of a familiar voice used as a blunt instrument in early sampling technology: The Fairlight could only store a little over a second’s worth of Aretha’s voice, turning it into a truncated exclamation, but that one second’s all you need sometimes.

The Early Sample: Public Enemy, “Miuzi Weighs A Ton” (from Yo! Bum Rush the Show, Def Jam, 1987)

As the sampling revolution started to pick up steam in the mid ’80s thanks to the early work of producers like Marley Marl and Ced-Gee, a significant number of circa-1987 tracks started picking up on “Rock Steady” as the source of a good drop — usually a cameo as a distorted scratch, like on Roxanne Shanté’s “Payback” (check the 13-second mark), or a brief refrain as heard in Whodini’s “Whodini NYC” (starting at 0:48).

In fact, that’s been the most popular way to use “Rock Steady” ever since, just using a brief piece of that divine voice to lace tracks like Dr. Dre’s “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat” and OutKast’s “Jazzy Belle.” But the best of these comes, unsurprisingly, from the Bomb Squad. In ’87 they were still a short distance out from fully perfecting the layers-of-noise brilliance that could be heard on Public Enemy singles like “Rebel Without A Pause” and “Bring The Noise” later that year. But thanks to some clever voice-collage juxtaposition, a powerful drum break (the perennial “Synthetic Substitution” slowed to a sidewalk-cracking march pace), and Terminator X’s serrated scratches, their usage of Aretha’s voice just sounded harder than everyone else’s — like they remembered she was a force of nature and not just a soundbite.

The Breakthrough Sample: EPMD, “I’m Housin'” (from Strictly Business, Fresh/Sleeping Bag Records, 1988)

In a year where everybody from Public Enemy to Eric B. & Rakim to Boogie Down Productions were putting out legendary sophomore albums, it was a wave of debuts — including EPMD’s party-rap masterwork Strictly Business — that sealed 1988 as one of the greatest years in hip-hop’s golden age. Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith won listeners over with rhymes that took Rakim’s sense of smooth and calm yet authoritative and powerful flow and backed them with beats that were so bass-heavy and funky that early listeners thought they were from Los Angeles. According to Erick in Brian Coleman’s Check The Technique, Parrish got his copy of “Rock Steady” from his mom’s house, at which point they flipped it into a full, song-sustaining groove — not settling for a snippet of Aretha’s voice or even that wide-open drum break in the middle, but the bassline, the guitar, the whole meat of the backing track. This might be the best sample of an Aretha Franklin song that doesn’t actually use anything Aretha sings or plays herself.

The Weirdo Sample: Invisibl Skratch Piklz, “Rock Steady Graffiit Mini-Skirt” (from The Shiggar Fraggar Show Vol. 1, Hip Hop Slam, 1995/2000)

The maniacal supervirtuoso turntablist collective that gave us DJ Q-Bert, Mix Master Mike, Shortkut, A-Trak, and a host of others had a strange place in hip-hop history: Some of their greatest routines were with old-school hip-hop breaks that had been in rotation since Kool Herc’s park jams, but the way the crew actually scratched was miles beyond what most people were familiar with — at least until their members started appearing on albums by Dr. Octagon (Q-Bert) and the Beastie Boys (Mix Master Mike). Their series The Shiggar Fraggar Show!, a number of live pirate-radio shows recorded in Oakland in 1995 and ’96 and released a few years later, is a must-have for anyone interested in turntablism, classic breaks, and weird comedy, and Vol. 1 — the first recorded and the last released, because why not — is an early classic that incorporates everything from the Wild Style soundtrack to Herbie Hancock to Slayer.

“Rock Steady Graffiti Mini-Skirt” feels like a lull in the middle of a set otherwise dedicated to some of the most preposterous scratching you’ll ever hear — the way they immolate Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” on “Planet Cow And The Soulsonic Rodeo” alone justifies their rep, and maybe they needed a breather leading out of the Drunken Puss mix of their signature cut “Invasion Of The Octopus People” — but hearing the host make weird in-jokes about California ballot measures (“don’t support Proposition 1,000,002, it’s trying to retrieve all the post office crates from DJs”) and questionable sartorial choices (“we got [DJ] Disk in the house, he’s got his cowboy hat on … he’s sitting on a little rocking horse right now … he’s got a green leather wig on”) while the break from “Rock Steady” is spun back over and over with James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” countdown cut to ribbons over it? It’s that particular indie-hip-hop comedy weirdness rooted in the ’90s underground that’s just *chef’s kiss*.

The Recent Sample: Wale, “Lacefrontin” (from The Eleven One Eleven Theory, Maybach Music Group, 2011)

There haven’t been a lot of high-profile “Rock Steady” uses in hip-hop in the last 10 years or so, but hey, there’s this, which ain’t bad. I’m going to make a confession here — I haven’t really been able to keep up with Wale over the last several years, especially since he signed with MMG, and part of my aging brain keeps thinking The Mixtape About Nothing was released a lot more recently than 10 actual what the fuck years ago.

So I don’t know exactly how often he’s been at his peak as an MC recently — though if it’s anything like this, where he takes Tone P’s flip of “Rock Steady” as a challenge/excuse to go off like he’s trying to outdo the rolling oomph of Rainey’s bassline, it’s still something to get at least a bit geeked out over, no matter how rare it’s supposedly been. Caveat in that it’s a bit lyrically suspect: This beat uses nearly all the parts of the buffalo, including the bridge with the Memphis Horns riffing over it, so it’s kind of a shame that what we hear of Aretha’s voice is drowned out by Wale blustering about what supposedly separates “being queen and being bitch.” (“No girlfriends, I know a lot of bitches/I say ‘bitch’ a lot, though I’m proud of my sisters” — well, he’s self-aware, at least.) Cop the instrumental if you can find it.