When it comes to modern day hip-hop, sampling is beyond common place, it’s almost seen as a necessity. Producers like 9th Wonder and others have taken this staple of early day DJ culture, the idea of taking a previously recorded track and altering it in a way as to create something entirely new, and have turned it into a new way of making hip-hop an almost infinite artform. And while it has since become so present in the art that it’s almost become a joke, there is a real beauty and brilliance in the idea of sampling, especially when the sample becomes unrecognizable, turning into something wholly new and all its own.
But when did it all start? Well, not only is there a time period, but there is one single song that has since become the grandfather of sampling, forever changing the world of hip-hop music.
That song, and its impact on hip-hop, is the topic of a new documentary entitled Sample This, and while it’s not a genre-defining entry in the world of non-fiction cinema, it is yet again a superbly entertaining and rather enlightening documentary about the music world, released in a year where that seems to be common place.
Sample This tells the story of the Michael Viner and his crown jewel, the legendary Incredible Bongo Band. A collection of some of music’s greatest unsung percussionists, this group launched their career coming off the release of the soundtrack for a cult camp classic, The Thing With Two Heads, a soundtrack that turned them into stars, oddly enough. Their percussion-based songs became perfect fodder for hip-hop break beats, and their track “Apache” has since become the most influential songs in all of music, hip-hop or not. From New York block parties during the Summer Of Sam to today, this song is instantly recognizable, and while you may know it better as part of the beat for, say, Nas’ masterful “Made You Look,” it’s one of the most present of all samples within the genre.
And this film attempts to not only paint the picture of this group’s creation and the making of this song, but show just how influential it truly has become.
Aesthetically, the film is a blast. Never slowing down its pace, the film is a really loving look at this group, its creator, and its impact, all while being a lively meditation on what has become a culture, sampling, synonymous with hip-hop music. The film features interviews with the likes of Questlove of The Roots, Grandmaster Caz, Melle Mel and even Afrika Bambaataa, all of whom not only speak lovingly about this group, but add a great deal of scope to this otherwise small documentary. The group itself featured brilliant musicians, and with this song being so omnipresent in hip-hop music, it’s a subject truly deserving of a grand feel, and these interviews really make the film come alive and just jump off the screen.
But one thing has to be mentioned. Now, this is neither a compliment nor a criticism, but the first thing most people will see is that Gene Simmons of KISS narrates the picture, which may be its one odd “flaw.” He’s fine, and his voice is solid as a narrator, but it literally makes no sense to have him voice this entire picture. Thankfully the interviews here take up a chunk of the film’s runtime, but it’s a really bizarre and in many ways distracting narrator choice, a distraction this film didn’t really need. With artists like Questlove all over the film as an interviewee, its rather odd someone like he or, say, Fab Five Freddy, didn’t jump aboard as the narrator. Again, this isn’t a complaint as much as an acknowledgment of a distraction that appears to be bothering more than just yours truly.
Overall, this is a thrillingly charming documentary that tells a story that needs to be known. Originally a group of era-defining studio musicians (this group features players that played with everyone from The Beach Boys to Bob Dylan) that released an album that failed at its time of release, this group have since become, following the release of a mixtape by DJ Herc in 1973 featuring breaks from the original album, easily the most influential group in all of hip-hop music. Full of as much life and vitality as the original track, “Apache,” this engaging documentary is one that film nerds may find little new about (again, its focus is not on being inherently cinematic) but music fans will absolutely eat up. Hip-hop heads need to hunt this down as soon as possible.