Sampleface wouldn’t live up to its name without looking at great album samples. Today, we look at N.W.A’s Efil4zaggin.
Let’s start by putting this in context. When Efil4zaggin was released, in 1991, N.W.A were under pressure to deliver. The success of straight outta compton had been unprecedented. The group had lost one of it’s stars. Ice cube had moved on to pursue a solo career leaving behind a chasm in the mc roster and filling it with poisonous ill will. Dre and Eazy had a point to prove.
The Dre of 1991 was not the Dre you know today. In 1991 hip hop was very much a minority sport (in numbers and ethnicity). N.W.A were under fire from politicians for their ‘attitude’. Nobody could have imagined that 20 years later Dre would be a darling of corporate endorsement using his name to hawk headphones and laptops…and pop music. Sadly it was much less surprising that Eazy would be dead. I recently found myself thinking that perhaps it was time to re-appraise ‘Efil4zaggin’. The majority of Dre’s modern day audience probably think his career started with 2001. I don’t mind that album but it’s not a patch on the blistering work that Dre did on ‘Efil4zaggin’. In this article I’m referring to the original vinyl release and not the bonus track CD version which is now in the shops.
Before we get into the real meat of the album I feel I should address the elephant in the room. Efil4zaggin is largely hideous in message. It’s a mess of juvenile, misogynistic, fantasies about violence. As a teenager I wasn’t particularly upset by any of it. Probably because I was too young to really understand the full implications and context of what was being said. As an adult it makes for pretty revolting listening. That’s not to say that the MCs on duty don’t perform well. They do. It’s just that I really don’t care to hear a lot of what they have to say. The album caused outrage upon release in the UK. The government went so far as banning and confiscating it under the obscene publications act. It had to be on sale for a few hours in order for the confiscation to be legally applied. Luckily my friend’s older brother (you had to be 18 to buy the record) managed to get us copies of the album before it disappeared from the shelves. I’m not here to praise this work for the politics it disseminates though. I’m here to praise this album for being a masterpiece of hip hop production. This album may be lyrically abhorrent but it is musically exquisite. My initial intention for this article was to present you, the reader, with a comprehensive guide to the samples that were employed to construct this hip hop mana. After some investigation I realised that Dre deserves more praise than I had imagined.
Think back to 1991. Hip hop production mainly consisted of finding a super dope break and looping the shit out of it over a fat beat. Nowt wrong with that. Find the sample source and you can hear the exact break that you heard on the record. Which most of us find to be a joyful experience. The astonishing thing about efil4zaggin is that it’s quite hard to replicate that experience. Most of the tracks utilise samples in such small fragments that they are almost completely unrecognisable. What Dre demonstrated with that album was that the art hip hop production was more than automated dj-ing. Dre creates beat tapestries which are so much more than the sum of their parts. I am not suggesting that he was the first or the only person doing this at the time. I’m pretty sure The Bomb Squad worked in much the same way. It’s just that Dre’s intentions are different. The Bomb Squad wanted to make music that was alarming. They wanted to make music that made your brain itch and they were largely successful in their aims. Dre, in contradiction to that ethos, seems to intend to make his music pleasing. I’m also beginning to suspect that parts of the album were actually new creations rather than samples. I think that there may actually be live instrumentation on some of the tracks and that Dre was using samples as synth sounds and then composing new melodic soundscapes using those samples. I have no real evidence for this but some of the songs have elements that don’t seem to be lifted straight from other songs.
There are maybe three tracks on the album that are more obviously constructed from loops. I’m not taking ‘Automobile’ or ‘I’d Rather Fuck You’ into consideration because they have always seemed more like extravagant skits than actual songs. Also they are both more like novelty cover versions, than constructed beats, of Parliament’s ‘My Automobile’ and Bootsy Collins’ ‘I’d Rather Be With You’ respectively. ‘Dayz of Wayback’ is a straight lift of The Ohio Players ‘Players Ballin”. ‘One Less Bitch’ is a combination of Barry White’s ‘I’m Gonna Love You Just A Little More Baby’ overlayed with a horn sample from Tom Browne’s ‘Funkin’ For Jamaica’. The last of these more recognizable sample sources is used Lalo Schifrin’s ‘Scorpio’s Theme’, from the Dirty Harry soundtrack, which Dre used for the basis of ‘Approach To Danger’. It’s no small achievement that a hip hop album from 1991 only has three tracks which are constituted from easily recognisable loops. It’s also astounding that more than twenty years later it still sounds so good. I still find the majority of the album spellbinding. ‘Real Niggaz Don’t Die’, ‘Niggaz 4 Life’, ‘Appetite For Destruction’, ‘Alwayz Into Somethin’’, ‘Findum, Fuckum & Flee’, ‘Approach To Danger’ and ‘The Dayz Of Wayback’ are stone cold hip hop gold.
Musically there are few examples that so perfectly demonstrate everything that is right with hip hop production. If only somebody would get around to releasing an instrumental version of the album. If you can stomach ignoring the deeply unpleasant lyrics it’s well worth inviting a hip hop classic into your headspace.