Breaks With Tradition

Breaks With Tradition: “Handclapping Song”

When Art Neville’s passing was announced on Monday, the role he played in the musical heritage of postwar New Orleans was given the kind of close-look appreciation that echoed the introspection that followed the death of fellow pianist/singer/cornerstone/collaborator Dr. John last month. Losing two of the biggest titans of New Orleans R&B, soul, and funk in the same summer is the kind of thing that makes you reflect on the ways their music intersected, and in that sense, you absolutely have to give the In The Right Place backing band the Meters all the credit in the world: Even if James Brown, Sly Stone, and George Clinton were all given free rein to do whatever they wanted, funk still wouldn’t be at its full potential without the crack band of players that Neville assembled in the mid ’60s.

And in the context of sampling, well, you know the deal — or at least you can guess. They’ve been given the honor over 500 times — by the Bomb Squad, Ced Gee, the 45 King, DJ Muggs, Scarface, Pimp C, Timbaland, Organized Noize, Amerie, and Khrysis & 9th Wonder, for starters — and none of their tracks have been given the treatment more often than 1970’s “Handclapping Song.” Just why that is should be at least partway answered by this roundup, though “it has a mother of a beat” is at least a good place to start.

The Original: The Meters, “Handclapping Song” (from Struttin’, Josie, 1970)

Neville’s role in the Meters was an unusual one: considered the frontman of a band whose biggest establishing hits (“Cissy Strut,” “Look-Ka Py Py”) and deep-cut favorites (“Stretch Your Rubber Band,” “Here Comes The Meter Man”) were short on lead vocals, his more prominent role as a singer on the band’s records for Reprise only emphasized his already-existing place as one of the group’s main creative forces. Sure, Ziggy Modeliste caught much of the attention (and deservedly) for how he made polyrhythmic second line-style rhythms sound like an inextricable component of funk, and there aren’t many bassist/guitarist pairings that match the get-down/melodic interplay of George Porter Jr. and Leo Nocentelli.

But it doesn’t take a Hammond-in-the-front single like “Chug Chug Chug-A-Lug (Push And Shove)” to play to Art Neville’s strengths — even deep in the mix, he keeps those pistons turning. “Handclapping Song” is a great example of this: it kicks in with swampy-as-hell intertwined riffs from George and Leo, and runs off the paired oomph of Modeliste’s beat and the titular handclaps in question. But it’s when Neville’s keyboard darts in for a little flourish here and there — like it does at the tail end of that first drum break around 42 seconds, or when it finally triples up the melody in the song’s waning half-minute — that it becomes clear it’s been sizzling under the surface the whole time. Go back and listen to how that Hammond seems to creep further to the forefront over each ensuing verse until it crests with the last go-round, and you’ll hear some clever engineering behind a deceptively simple-seeming crowd-participation groove. That’s his voice amongst all the chants, too, so he wasn’t necessarily content to hang back.

The First Sample: Salt-N-Pepa, “Beauty And The Beat” (from Hot, Cool & Vicious, Next Plateau, 1986)

When the dam broke for sample-based hip-hop tracks around 1986, things went far beyond simple drum loops in a hurry. On Salt-N-Pepa’s late-in-the-year debut Hot, Cool & Vicious, Hurby “Luv Bug” Azor gave rap’s first great all-woman crew early claim on Parliament while Dre was still in the Wreckin Cru and snuck in an early Grover Washington Jr. jazz-hop nod into their go-go crossover bid. Get into the deep cuts and you get something even better: the kind of quick-cutting but structurally impeccable funk groove that slots into hip-hop rhythms with a minimum of fuckery, used as a hook and a refrain and a callback and a Spinderella drop. The drums and the vocals from “Handclapping Song” would be flipped plenty of times afterwards, but it’d be a few years before anyone took advantage of the Meters’ melodic qualities this way.

The Early Sample: Audio Two, “I Get The Papers” (from I Don’t Care (The Album), First Priority Music, 1990)

And then one of the best tracks to do so (1) uses just a subtle fraction of Art Neville’s keyboard riffing (with accompanying Nocentelli/Modeliste guitar/drum rhythmic interplay), and (2) makes it secondary to an absolutely unholy amount of bass. Audio Two’s mostly been relegated to “Top Billin'” in short-form hip-hop history, and there are definitely worse fates than to be almost solely known to all but the deepest heads as the perpetrators of one of the greatest/weirdest/luckiest “Impeach The President” sample flips known to man, woman, and child. But even if Milk Dee’s taunting delivery and short-verse-then-back-to-the-hook feel like more of the same (complete with more “Impeach The President” drums), having that snippet of “Handclapping Song” — and a counterintuitive one at that — does bring out the enthusiasm-spreading bounce in his voice. The bass is just there to make him (and you) feel 40 feet tall.

The Breakthrough Sample: Tony! Toni! Toné!, “Gangsta Groove” (from Sons Of Soul, Mercury, 1993)

For the most part, though, at least in high-profile hip-hop tracks, the samples were usually just the drums or the “clap your hands” hook. Sometimes you got the Boogiemen and Ice Cube’s inspired idea to make a whole composite tribute track out of a ’69/’70 Meters four-fer for Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, and sometimes you just got a hook out of it, whether you were Das EFX or A Tribe Called Quest. (Props to Erick Sermon for weaving it into Redman’s “Da Funk,” even if it’s more of a mid-track cameo.) But as R&B gravitated further towards hip-hop production tropes in the early ’90s, the idea of using sampling to create a more prominent backbone for a song became an effective way for some groups to carry forward nods to their predecessors in soul. And Tony! Toni! Toné!’s classic Sons Of Soul expanded that throwback concept by using both vintage instrumentation and an Ali Shaheed Muhammad-aided boom-bap that integrated repurposed loops with contempo-throwback songwriting, acknowledging R&B in the sample era as a musical continuum. The slinkiness of the guitar riff and bounce of the rhythm from “Handclapping Song” was just a start, one piece of the framework, but its presence elevates an already rich song.

The Weirdo Sample: Jaylib, “Louder (Blast Your Radio Theme)” (from Madlib Medicine Show #11: Low Budget High Fi Music, 2010)

Damn it, now I’m sad: every time I think I’m over Dilla passing away, I’m confronted with something like this. So let’s (re)acquaint ourselves with a piece of evidence that the already-excellent creative meshing of his creatively restless sample de/re/construction with Madlib’s breaks-from-anywhere surrealism that we got on Champion Sound had even further-flung places it could go. The Meters loop comes from the mid-song scat/guitar solo, butts up against a scratch-routine SFX that segues from an angry cat to an angrier Donald Duck, and lopes along straight-faced under all its in-the-red bass that it’s almost possible to overlook how that loop shifts into the titular “a little louder” chants, then a drum break that plays subliminally choppy havoc with Nocentelli’s guitar riff even as the beat holds steady. There’s a million other little things happening in the beat (those “Ante Up” shouts!), but the main thread of that Meters loop is knotty enough to monopolize the vibe.

The Recent Sample: Grace, “Clap Your Hands” (from Uncle Drew OST, RCA, 2018)

I don’t know if there’s a way to connect “Kyrie Irving pretends to be an old man” with “pop/R&B lifting the kind of music Uncle Drew might’ve listened to when he was Actual Kyrie Irving’s age.” Maybe there is, but I spent enough time trying to find out which Grace actually sang this — turns out it’s the one Discogs uses the parenthetical (71) to describe, which seems like a pretty long line of succession. I feel like I’m being cynical in stating that this sounds like it could’ve been released anytime in the last 15 years — it doesn’t sound that much more Now than a B’Day B-side might — but it could also have a pivotal role in the movie that transcends all that, maybe. I don’t know; I haven’t seen it. I have read this in-depth review of it, however, which uses the phrase “Shaquille O’Neal’s tremendous nude ass.” So I think I get the gist.