March 10th, 2012

My Brain the Sampler

The customary song-stuck-in-head is rarely a mystery. It’s either present in its entirety, or at least some self-evident chunk like the chorus or a key bit of lyric. When we only have a snatch of melody, it falls into another category. Unidentifiable, incomplete, and caught between irksome and haunting, these fragments have no value in themselves. They are signposts toward a whole—unsatisfying riffs, wordless melodies that defy Google—and can cause you to itch out your skull for entirely different reasons. Lately, though, I’ve hit on a third, and altogether less torturous, variation on this: the phantom sample.

I can’t really claim any intimate knowledge of samples. I’ve listened to hip-hop since elementary school, and plenty of soul and jazz after, but never much got into staking out or cataloguing source material. I’ve had very little first-hand experience with making beats, even as a spectator, and never felt the need to stock up on awesome breaks or totally flip-able joints. Yet just from having hip-hop on around me for so long, my brain has, on some level, wired itself to work like a sampler. I can’t help but catch myself thinking “that would totally work,” and over the last couple years, finding myself with prospective samples stuck in my head—stripped, however, of all context or identifying markers.

I know where they come from: Somewhere in the stack of records (these days mostly funk-less 70’s and early 80’s soul) that I listened to the day before. Once or twice, before I had an infant around, I’ve gone back and tried to track them down. Most of the time, I’m content to let them cycle, usually while I’m out on a walk with a stroller. I’ve got no use for them, and I’m sure I’m not the first person to home in on them. I’m most interested in the way that my brain seems capable of segmenting, even packaging, musical information in a way that doesn’t scream out for the whole. It’s as if I’ve become so accustomed to the sample that it’s now an acceptable unit of meaning in my brain. Or, to get even more aggressive about it, these loops rise to the surface, keeping out the distracting “what song is that” queries or the debilitating song-in-the-head (the violence of that metaphor is both apt and a little shocking).

Certainly, no one making these records was thinking in terms of atomization, and the best sample-based music is never as simple as one single loop. And I don’t think I’ve developed any great ear for samples. On some cognitive level, though, it’s become an ingrained part of how I make sense of whatever musical information is sloshing around in my head. I like to think of it as part-cultural symptom, part-coping mechanism.