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Dusty but Digital: How Producers Went From Crate Digging to Youtube Surfing

Trust us, there's a difference.

“The need to find that break, the need to get that twelve [inch], the need to find out what that sample is from your favorite rap song, the itch that you get buying records and getting into records is so much more powerful than any MP3 collector can ever understand” – Gaslamp Killer on Fuse TV’s Crate Diggers

Hip hop production was built on having to get up and go somewhere—record stores, yard sales, church basements, record conventions. Taking a shot on a scratched piece of vinyl because the cover was cinematic might yield the next loop for “T.R.O.Y (They Reminisce Over You)”. It was a crusade for horn stabs, basslines, and James Brown drum breaks. Groups of beatmakers in the early ‘90s like Q-Tip, Large Professor, Pete Rock, and the Beatnuts formed twenty-year friendships not from pick-up basketball or quizzo or college, but by meeting up to go diggin’. The pursuit for the crate digger was just as important as the reward.

But how can you dig when your favorite record store closes? The Death of the Retail Record Store during the mid-2000’s put a hurting on the consoles of beatmakers. The old school rites of passage were permanently disfigured; how can you mine gold when iTunes forced the vinyl stewards into early retirement? Where’s the joy in being an MP3 collector? There’s no adrenaline rush attached to ninety-nine cent remastered, high bitrate piece of binary code.

The need for discovery outweighed the limitations of the marketplace. Hip hop producers began evolving in response to the shuttered windows of record stores, because as one door closed, two more opened. In 2005, the birth of YouTube and the widespread access of free obscure music via blogs changed the process for traditional hip hop sampling forever. This began the separation of “Collection” and “Tools”; a crate digger’s vinyl collection stalled as their online tools for the trade of making beats expanded exponentially. And with the lack of record stores, the demand became higher for vinyl, phasing out producers who wouldn’t be gouged for a sample source that was now available somewhere online for free.

Following the Jim Jarmusch Rule of Two out of Three, things can be good, fast, or cheap. If it’s good and cheap, it won’t be completed quickly. If it’s good and done quickly, it will cost more. The MP3 is fast and cheap, sacrificing the unmatched sound quality of vinyl. The feel of vinyl, and its traditional place as the primary ingredient for classic rap songs, slowly became secondary to availability and convenience.

“I started off being mainly vinyl because you can physically touch it and hold sections you want to sample,” says Paul White, a producer from the UK who made his bones contributing to Danny Brown’s full length albums. “I've been sampling off YouTube, MP3s, cassettes, everything at the same time too. It really doesn't matter. Too much thinking can be damaging to the purity of a feeling. That includes where [the sample is] from. Sometimes you spend ages trying to dirty something up, when an MP3 off YouTube is dirty as shit already. You'd be surprised how much material released has come from YouTube.”

“When you find something on vinyl it has a more magical feel for potential than when you find it on the internet,”says Quelle Chris, the lo-fi loop dreamer from Detroit who has crafted classics with Danny Brown, Roc Marciano, The Alchemist, and more. “When I first started sampling off the ‘net, I honestly didn’t think other folks were doing it. I thought I had stumbled onto some sort of goldmine.”

He was not alone in his assumption. Producers began digging less through crates and more through URLs. “I was never a fan of buying a record that I only planned on sampling for like 50 bucks. I could give a shit about paying the guy who decided this rare but ultimately half assed record is worth what it was,” says Blockhead, producer of Aesop Rock, Billy Woods, and several instrumental albums for Ninja Tune. “I'm not in the habit of giving money to greedy collectors. So I find shit online. It's enabled me to find samples I would never have been able to afford to even hear otherwise. My record player doesn't even work anymore. The fact I haven't fixed it speaks volumes of how much more simple and rewarding the blog digging has been for me.”

J-Zone has been making beats since the early ‘90s using the most unorthodox techniques, from sampling forgotten black and white films off of his VCR to playing live drums on his new album Peter Pan Syndrome. He has incorporated MP3s into his repertoire while keeping an analog sensibility. “I try to minimize staring at a computer monitor as much as I can during the process. I'll catch a YouTube thing here and there or an MP3 I find somewhere. My sound is naturally lo-fi and I usually chop things up into smaller pieces, so it's not like I have an 8 bar loop where you notice whether the source was a FLAC file or 128 kbps MP3. I never gave a shit about the quality because I use a ‘wall of sound’ approach to beats - the sample gets ruined once I pile it into the beat anyway.”

Younger producers like Small Professor who started in the early 00s recognize the lineage of sampling off vinyl but didn’t have to make the slow transition to MP3. “I started making beats ten years ago. I've been almost strictly sampling from MP3 for my entire beatmaking existence. I think MP3s definitely lack that special something that vinyl has, so I've always tried to compensate by layering different samples in my beats, mostly static sampled from vinyl, to achieve that 'full' feel.”

The search for enigmatic grooves now tend to be plucked from search engines rather than bugged out album covers excavated from a lost era. “[On]YouTube you can just type in something crazy and see what comes up. I use the word 'trippy' quite a lot in my searches: ‘trippy 70's cartoon’ or something like that. You find something, crack up to yourself, have a load of fun, and 15 minutes later you got a beat done!” says Paul White.

Blockhead does his digging based on anonymity, looking for genres and obscurity—he never wants to know an artist existed prior to finding them. Quelle Chris looks for cable access casualties—commercials and under-the-radar movies. J-Zone still blends the old with the new. “Sometimes if I find something on YouTube and the song is really dope, I'll try to hunt down the original record and sample the record. But if it costs a fortune, I'll sample it off YouTube. Shit, why not?”

Small Professor is the RIAA’s worst nightmare. “When it comes to online 'digging', I use a couple different methods. The first one is the easiest: find out what such-and-such sampled, and download [the sampled artist’s] entire discography. The second one is searching by category: 'OST', '1974', or 'Ahmad Jamal'. The third method takes a little more time, as it involves using Wikipedia/AllMusic.com/Discogs.com: I can type in an artist and see not only their most popular, most downloaded works, but also the rarer stuff that a general search might not yield.”

With vinyl sales hitting a twenty-year record spike in 2013, wax has never been more available and collectable. But will beatmakers go back to the traditional methods for better fidelity, or at least to stay retro-contemporary? Quelle Chris finds it necessary for his process. "I hit the vinyls, even when I don't have any money. I raid friends' record collections. I've even left albums at the shop and listened to them later on the internet, and suddenly didn't feel it anymore."

Paul White has changed his mind after discovering gems on YouTube. "I used to [be] critical of people not digging, but now I feel differently. The musicians themselves would want as many people to hear their music as possible."

Blockhead is honest about his approach that might rattle production purists. "I think most producers are still only rocking vinyl. That's why those of us who don't care about that shit get frowned upon so quickly. I'm not mad at those dudes but they definitely have a different value system than me, both in the sense of how they view music and how they value vinyl. I can't front though -- it does feel like cheating compared to how I used to make beats."

J-Zone recognizes the advantage of vinyl for live crowds. "Playing out as a DJ is different because you're dealing with sound quality of an entire song in a loud venue, and MP3's never sound as good as a 45. But for sampling, you can doctor it up. Nobody knows whether you used an OG, a repress, a file, or whatever. It's about skill."

But regardless of the format chosen, it still comes down to the art of the sample. Small Professor might use MP3s exclusively, but doesn't look at vinyl as Jurassic. "There is still nothing like finding a good groove on record, because unlike a .WAV form on your computer screen, you can't see what's about to happen with the music. You have to rely on your instincts to them breaks."

Photo courtesy of Laura Lynn Photography

Zilla Rocca has flipped through more records than you own, bub. He's on Twitter. - @ZillaRocca