Since emerging in the mid-’90s with fun-crushing progressive heroes Company Flow, El-P has held a unique spot amongst hip-hop’s most revered sonic architects. In his classic beat building for Co Flow, Cannibal Ox, or his own acclaimed solo projects, he’s continually creatively challenged hip-hop’s sonic status quo, pushing the boundaries of the art-form’s musical and emotional intensity. Yet he’s also managed to maintain a spiritual allegiance to hip-hop tradition as only someone wholly committed to the craft can. El’s definitive musical juxtapositions continue this May with two highly anticipated back to back releases: a collab with ATL word warrior Killer Mike, R.A.P. Music, that’s already spawned superb singles like “Big Beast,” and the dolo endeavor, Cancer 4 Cure, whose title suggests all kinds of caustic goodness. With a reunited Co Flow taking it to the stage this month at Coachella, what better time to hit up El Producto for a list of his favorite sample flips. (In no particular order)
1. Kool G Rap & DJ Polo - "Road to the Riches" (Cold Chillin', 1989)
PRODUCER: Marley Marl
SAMPLE SOURCE: Billy Joel - "Stiletto" (Columbia, 1978)
El-P: Most of the [sample flips] that I like are things that are sort of unexpected. That piano line is just savage, and I didn’t know for years [what it was]. As a kid, ["Road To the Riches"] was one of my favorite rap songs. And I had no idea that [sample] was a Billy Joel song, and never would have thought that it was a Billy Joel song. I just liked the fact that it just kinda shows that even early on hip-hop producers were really listening to music. And like pulling from anywhere where they heard something that might sound good. For me, some of the [sample flips I chose] are just ones that I admire. But a lot of them are from the '80s and I put 'em on the list because they influenced me to be a producer and collect records.
When I was a kid I loved Billy Joel. But I loved the cheesy '80s Billy Joel because I didn’t even really know he existed before that. [My favorite was] "Pressure," of course. "Pressure" was my shit - the video when he sank into the carpets.
2. Public Enemy - "Public Enemy #1" (Def Jam, 1987)
PRODUCER: The Bomb Squad
SAMPLE SOURCE: Fred Wesley & the JBs - "Blow Your Head" (People, 1974)
El-P: When I figured out that [the sample for "Public Enemy No. 1" was Fred Wesley & the JBs, it freaked me out. Because you don’t really associate the JBs and that era too much with synth work. In my mind I wasn’t really looking for that. I had no idea that that was where it was - until I did know. Until I got the record in a dollar crate. I don’t know, I must have been 13 or something when I found that. So that was always one of my favorite shits. I just always liked those surprise finds.
For Killer Mike's "Big Beast" I made [a similar synth] sound. I sat in the studio and made that sound with a couple of different synths, actually. And that was an obvious reference to ["Blow Your Head"]. That was me flexing the fact that I’ve basically spent the last 10 years nerding out on synth shit and trying to learn how to do all this shit like all these records that I love. So yeah, that was definitely an obvious Public Enemy/Fred Wesley reference.
3. Boogie Down Productions - "Illegal Business" (Jive, 1988)
PRODUCER: Boogie Down Productions
SAMPLE SOURCE: John Braden & Bill Cosby - "Fat Albert Creativity" (Kid Stuff, 1981)
El-P: That’s one of the first records where I was like, I know where the fuck that [sample's] from! 'Cause I had that Fat Albert record as a kid. I still think I have it somewhere. It’s ill. And the whole, “What can we get for 63 cents?” That’s on the record. That has a special place in my heart. Also because of how raw it is. They took a children’s record and just flipped and it’s just the meanest thing ever.
4. M.F. Doom - "Hey" (Fondle 'Em, 1997)
PRODUCER: M.F. Doom
Hoyt Curtin - "The New Scooby-Doo Movies" (CBS, 1972)
El-P: For "Hey!" Doom basically flipped the intro music to the theme song to Scooby Doo - all that stuff that’s at the beginning right before it gets kind of silly. Obviously [Scooby Doo] was one of those things you watched as a kid. So Doom got that off because everybody watched that show. That’s the shit that impresses me – when you’re taking something that everybody knows on some level and just never thought to use it. Doom just heard it. He heard that part as being sinister. And he was right. So that was an amazing flip, right there. With Company Flow when we would perform [back in the day] we would rock over that.
5. Run-DMC - "Peter Piper" (Profile, 1986)
PRODUCER: Rick Rubin
SAMPLE SOURCE: Bob James - "Take Me to the Mardi Gras" (CTI, 1975)
El-P: This is just an all-time 100% sample record and an all-time classic hip-hop record, obviously. But like I said the theme for me is when people take something that in [its own] context isn’t necessarily aggressive, but they hear something and use it and change the vibe. "Peter Piper" was just the hardest record ever at the time, and it wasn’t even them really talking shit. It’s a nursery rhyme, and yet you felt like it was this crazy tough record. And that was because of that sample, and because of the aggression in their voices, and the way they played off each other, and the drums.
You have to hear how corny "Mardi Gras" is for the rest of the song [other than the break] to really appreciate it. You almost felt like [artists like Bob James] made this stuff for someone in the future to take a small part of. Like when you discover breaks - and any hip-hop producer worth his salt knows all these breaks, in my opinion - but when you really discover them you start to look at them and see the switch of the groove in the record. And you know that for the most part probably the eight bars before that break is gonna be the apex of the cheesiest possible thing you can hear. And then it'll break down into the hardest shit that you could hear. That was an art-form. That was something people did. "Huh? Sounds terrible, sounds terrible... And… it’s incredible!" I don’t think people do that enough in music anymore. People just want to sound cool the whole time now.
6. LL Cool J - "The Boomin' System" (Def Jam, 1990)
PRODUCER: Marley Marl
SAMPLE SOURCE: En Vogue - "Hold On" (Atlantic, 1990)
El-P: I feel like LL Cool J, and really Marley Marl, shocked the world with this. Because no one was taking songs that were released like a year [earlier] and flipping them. "Hold On" came out like maybe one year before "Boomin’ System." And [sampling it] was so brazen to me. It was kinda what everybody was thinking too. I remember being like, damn, "Hold On" - this shit is hot. But then when [LL] came out with that shit it was just the coolest shit ever, and he made it even bigger.
In a lot of ways the sampling era has changed and maybe even disappeared to some degree. When you talk about what the art of sampling is, people talk about the technical aspect of it. But I think a big part of what sampling is is playing with people’s expectations. Intellectualizing things. Using things that wouldn’t seem like [things] you should use. And playing off of the way that people felt about other pieces of music to create an impact for when you use it. And I think that ["Boomin' System"] is a really good example of that because no one expected that. He certainly wasn’t the first person to flip a current song. We all remember the [Tears For Fears] "Shout" remix with Craig G. and all the early hip-hop records which were flips of relatively current songs. But for its time this was a different thing. It was a very different thing.
7. Jeru the Damaja - "Come Clean" (Payday, 1993)
PRODUCER: DJ Premier
SAMPLE SOURCES: Shelly Manne - "Infinity" (Mainstream, 1973)
Funk Inc. - "Kool Is Back" (Prestige, 1971)
El-P: ["Come Clean"] was just such a simple, beautiful combination of things. And [Premier] just heard it. He heard those notes. Those notes [from the Shelly Manne sample] are the first notes on the record, and then it goes into some other shit and it changes. Premier is really the god of just taking a couple of simple, really good elements and putting them together. Just hearing that they need to be together.
And plus the way he chopped up "Kool Is Back was incredible. At the time everybody who was producing had every single volume of Ultimate Breaks & Beats. Even if you didn’t have the original records, you had Ultimate Breaks & Beats 1 through 25 or whatever it was. Everyone had that break ["Kool Is Back"]. But somehow Premier made it work. I know there are other examples of [productions in which] "Kool Is Back" is prominent. But that’s the one where it’s like, okay, you can put that break away now.
8. EPMD ft. K-Solo - "Knick Knack Patty Wack" (Fresh, 1989)
SAMPLE SOURCE: Joe Cocker & the Joe Stainton Band - "Woman to Woman" (A&M, 1972)
El-P: When I grew up there was one Joe Cocker song that I knew. It was from the soundtrack to 9 1/2 Weeks. Remember that shit? “You Can Leave Your Hat On”? I had that. [laughs] I bought that shit. I also furiously masturbated to that movie probably about a hundred times.
A lot of the relationships I had with samples apart from them just being from favorite songs - like that [EPMD/K-Solo song is] one of my favorite songs of all-time - are also [about] what they meant to me. Sometimes it meant that it made you go back and discover something. Like with the Billy Joel thing, with ["Woman to Woman"] it was like, oh shit, Joe Cocker wasn’t just some old guy in the '80s. So that’s just a personal favorite. EPMD is my favorite group of all-time.
Ultra got it too. [Ultramagnetic MC's "Funky," which used the same sample] was also a classic. And I guess I could have mentioned them both at the same time. But the EPMD/ K-Solo going back and forth shit just blew me away. I think I probably wrote several rap songs just trying to sound like K-Solo on that record.
9. Ed O.G & Da B.U.L.L.D.O.G.S. - "I Got To Have It" (PWL, 1991)
PRODUCER: Joe Mansfield, Teddy Ted, Special K
SAMPLE SOURCE: Bohannon - "Singing a Song For My Mother" (Brunswick, 1973)
El-P: That’s just a great one. A great record, and a dope find, I thought. That was such a big record and Ed O.G was the shit. No real story behind it. I just love this.
10. Mhz - "World Premier" (Fondle 'Em, 1998)
PRODUCER: Camu Tao
SAMPLE SOURCE: Rolling Stones - "Monkey Man" (London, 1969)
El-P: Bobbito put out a group by the name of Mhz, which consisted of Camu Tao and Copywrite. And Camu Tao was a very good friend of mine who passed away a couple of years ago. Their first song was on Fondle 'Em Records. It was produced by Camu. It was a song called “World Premier.” This was the song that deservedly got them a lot of love in the underground scene, and in the Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito scene. And that kinda made me become friends with Camu - just through me being a fan, and me just being like, who are these dudes? And just meeting them through Bob, or whatever.
On “World Premier” they sampled the Rolling Stones' “Monkey Man.” And I remember that because Camu told me the story. He was literally at a store and the shit came on, and was like what the hell is this? [Someone] told him and he ran to the used record store to try to find it, bought the Rolling Stones record, ran home that night and looped it up and they rocked over it. And to me that’s just such a pure and recognizable story. I’ve experienced that so many times. Where you’re just like, what the fuck is this? And then you have to run and go find it. This was before frankly the Internet was the place where you could find records. The context just wasn’t there. I mean, youtube didn’t even exist. (If you can believe that!) So if you heard something you had to go to a record store and find it. But it was just such a dope find. And also one of those joints where I was like, you know, I have that record and I never did [anything like that with it]. So you just kinda gotta like give it up.