By Nadirah Simmons
Much of the conversation around Afrofuturism and how it operates within music centers the performers themselves, focusing on their fashion, instruments and lyrics. It makes sense, and is part of the reason why artists like Sun Ra, George Clinton, Parliament Funkadelic, Erykah Badu, Missy Elliott, Janelle Monae and others on a list that is far too long to write here in its entirety are positioned as the embodiments of the philosophy. This sentiment is valid, but my conclusion on how Afrofuturism presents itself not just in music, but in Hip-Hop more specifically, is an often overlooked point: how the music itself is created. If Afrofuturism is an exploration of the intersection of the African diaspora and technology, then sampling in Hip-Hop-a process in which classic cuts often made by Black Soul artists are integrated using digital hardware or software-is inherently Afrofuturistic.
Thomas Porcello describes digital sampling as one’s ability to encode a fragment of sound, from one to several seconds in duration, in a digitized binary form which can then be stored in computer memory. He adds that “this stored sound may be played back through a keyboard, with its pitch and tonal qualities accurately reproduced or, as is often the case, manipulated through electronic editing.” That ability to store a fragment of sound in something or someone’s memory with certainty that it will be played back at a later point in time is not just central to the technical side of sampling, but also to the ears of any human who enjoys music. In fact, it is this notion that arguably makes sampling in Hip-Hop so great.
Music is characteristically communal, especially within the context of Black communities. A quick examination of the role music played in slavery to the creation of genres like Blues and Hip-Hop asserts this fact. So it should come as no surprise that my fondest childhood memories involve myself and an elder, riding around in the car listening to music and rapping or singing along to a song. But beyond rapping JAY-Z’s Reasonable Doubt word for word along with my dad and picking out tapes so I could sing the O’Jays and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes with my Pop-Pop was the moment these two worlds meshed, the generations of my father and my father’s father.
Anyone born into my family is musical by default, and at the age of five we definitely knew the words to songs that came out when our grandparents were young. That being said, I’m not quite sure when I recognized my first sample. Nonetheless I vividly remember a younger me picking up on The Stylistics’ “Hurry Up This Way Again” in JAY-Z’s “Politics As Usual.” Ski Beatz had managed to flip a song released 16 years prior about a man longing for his lost love into a track that details both the highs and lows of hustling. Ytasha L. Womack, author of Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture, says that Afrofuturism can be “a total re-envisioning of the past and speculation about the future rife with cultural critiques.” Thus “Politics As Usual” is more than just JAY-Z rapping over a sample of a classic. It is also a musical representation of past, present and future.
What gets tricky is when sampling is done not-so-well or at the disapproval of the original artist themselves. Every flip is not going to be as seamless as Mtume’s “Juicy Fruit” into the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy,” and drawing upon the music of our elders without their consent can land you in court-think Leroy Hutson suing Jeezy over the sample on “Time.” Yet what cannot be denied, as author Greg Tate notes, is that “sampling is a way of collapsing all eras of music onto a chip – a digitized race memory.”
It’s hard to imagine Hip-Hop without sampling. Not only would many of our favorite songs cease to exist, but we would lose the musical borrowings that have and continue to create a lineage between Hip-Hop and older genres of Black music such as Funk, Soul and R&B. Afrofuturist music goes far beyond simply how an artist dresses, their lyrical subject matter and the tenets they practice in their daily lives. Afrofuturism takes on the role of forging a path for our future as Black people, and asserts that history should remain a part of identity, especially in the context of our race. And the inherent Afrofuturism in sampling asserts where we’ve been, where we are and that we are always going to be here.