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Formats Unpacked: Sample Breakdowns
How a music explainer format does a hell of a lot of explaining with very little
We have a mantra at Storythings that goes “Don’t do comms do culture.” Or in other words, make your content marketing so brilliant your customers can’t wait for the next piece to drop. We tell clients that to build trust and establish authority in a way that drives sales, they shouldn’t compare their content marketing to their competitors’. Compare it with the things your customers are opting in to. Compare it with the things your customers are subscribing to, returning to again and again, week after week, year after year. Make it look, feel, or sound like a piece of culture. Today’s format is a brilliant example of how this is done.
The unpacking comes from James Caig who previously unpacked History of the World in 100 Objects. James is a writer, facilitator and communications strategist who lives in Bristol. He’s the co-editor of a wonderful set of love letters to lyrics, A Longing Look, and you can find more of his writing via his newsletter, More News From Nowhere.
Over to James…
What’s it called?
Sample Breakdowns by Tracklib (video series)
What’s the format?
A series of short YouTube videos that champion the art and craft of music sampling. Each clip is based around a single track and lasts about a minute, with no voiceover. The videos use animated waveform graphics, which are synchronised with the audio they represent, to illustrate how original source recordings are spliced, chopped up and manipulated on their way to becoming the final sample in the featured hip-hop track.
What’s the magic that makes it special?
What I love about Sample Breakdowns is what I’ve always loved about sampling.
All extraneous detail stripped away. New life breathed into an isolated small snippet of sound. A tiny listening epiphany: ‘Oh it’s that, cut like that’.
Hip hop was always efficient with its resources - it can build a wall-of-sound from mere seconds of audio information. Likewise, Tracklib’s videos do a lot with very little. Set against the music podcasts I listen to, which tend to analyse and relive moments in huge depth, these videos are refreshingly short and to-the-point. They say, here is the art. Look at it. There’s no hour-long episodes on a single song, just a 60-second animated explanation. No words, just waveforms and synchronised audio. No context, just exposure to a certain kind of magpie genius.
In Sample Breakdowns, form follows subject matter. Both embody ‘less is more’. But the format also manifests another storytelling principle: ‘show don’t tell’. The clips highlight - literally, visually - the creative choices made, showing how judicious and imaginative producers can be with their material. These ‘flip clips’ show you a process unfolding, illustrating the point Rick Rubin makes in The Creative Act - creativity requires us “to believe in something that doesn't exist, in order to allow it to come into being.” Seeing the cursor move through each audio waveform, in vivid colour, puts you in the sampler’s seat. You’re left wide-eyed at the artistry involved. You’re left thinking of that quote attributed to Michelangelo: “Every block of stone has a statue inside it, and it’s the task of the sculptor to discover it.” That, but for breaks.
The creators have done the hard work so we can grasp things quickly. The visual grammar is clear. Individual sections of audio are colour-coded to make it easy to see and appreciate the manipulation that happens along the way. There’s no need to explain a concept like amplitude because it is accommodated so effortlessly into the design. And just because the experience is smooth, that doesn’t mean it’s not rewarding. You can know the sample and the track inside out and each time it still feels revelatory. Figuring out a sample, you realise, is as much howdunnit as it is whodunnit. Less Knives Out, more Columbo.
The mention of crime will be apt for those who see sampling as stealing. But if you’ve watched Chuck D’s Fight The Power series, you’ll know the stark circumstances that sparked the birth of hip hop. The whole genre is a triumph of creativity and self-expression over adversity. As street artist Lee Quinones says in the documentary: “we made something happen - with nothing.” For graffiti artists, that meant making a canvas of subway trains. For musicians, it meant using two copies of a record to isolate a break and keep the beat going indefinitely. Sampling followed the same principle, with producers painting from a palette made of whatever music they could find.
Sample Breakdowns captures that resourcefulness. (The longer-form compilation film shows how the craft evolved over half a century of innovation.) The format presents DJs as visionaries working at the quantum scale - the scale of beat and bar. To them, manipulation and repetition are a way to control time. Those loops offer escape. “A minute of that beat would make you feel uplifted, give you therapeutic power - you wanted to extend that,” says Quinones. From all this came music that reflected the community’s world, and gave them the means to survive it. Imagination and brevity is a powerful combination. Maybe that’s what Quinones means when he says, “a minute is a long time in the ghetto.”
He also means a lot can happen in sixty seconds. This is poetic licence, but I like to think that’s why Tracklib’s clips are so short. They certainly prove that brevity still sells, even in the age of abundant information and Internet business models. Because here’s the thing: these clips are content marketing. Tracklib is a subscription service to a library of music that is pre-approved for sampling. The purpose of Sample Breakdowns is to inspire prospective beatmakers. To cut through the noise rather than bring it.
It seems to be working. My son follows Tracklib on Instagram, entirely independently of me writing this. But it does beg the question, is the business model compatible with the spirit of hip-hop? Pre-approved material might reduce legal admin, but does it cut off an essential part of the craft? The digging. The creativity. One producer I spoke to about Tracklib compared it to using stock imagery for your visual art. It risks being a recipe for blandness.
But perhaps, in the end, the clips will do what hip hop itself has done for 50 years - inspire new talent to push the form further. Shown a few of these short and to-the-point clips, a nascent sonic genius might think, a minute is a long time in sampling - what am I going to do with it?
The first one I watched - which Sean shared with me on Twitter - wasn’t even hip hop. It was this piece of pop brilliance. I hadn’t known the source recording so it was a proper epiphany. When it comes to reliving my favourite samples, it has to be two tracks that showcase the high-water mark of mid 90s hip hop. Both acts are from Queensbridge. First is DJ Premier’s production for Nas’ NY State Of Mind. And then it’s Mobb Deep’s Shook Ones Part II. Honestly, I could wax lyrical about these two for hours. Be glad I haven’t.
That longer form compilation video, charting the story of hip hop, is here. Austin Kleon put it in his newsletter and called it “a master class in stealing like an artist.” I’d agree with that.
If Sample Breakdowns captures the DNA of hip hop in 60-second videos, a fanzine called Sideburns did the same thing for punk in just 12 words and three simple diagrams. “THIS IS A CHORD,” it read, an arrow pointing to a grid displaying where to put your stiff little fingers in order to play an A. “THIS IS ANOTHER” - an E. “THIS IS A THIRD” - G. Then, underlined and in bold: “NOW FORM A BAND.” It was punk in form and function, ‘show don’t tell’ in action.
Also, reissues from The Beatles. Specifically, the outtakes that are included and tell the story of song’s development. Take Yellow Submarine. It goes from a raw cry of isolation to a proto-folk song to the redemptive Ringo-sung nursery rhyme we all know. Somehow the song ends up where it needs to, and being exposed to the process makes the final recording feel richer, not lesser. It’s like Rubin said: you hear the artist’s faith in something that doesn’t yet exist.
And since Sample Breakdowns is a kind of explainer video, I couldn’t let this article pass without mentioning Ros Atkins’ videos for BBC News. Hats off to Hugh for including Ros’ own short instruction manual in the Storythings newsletter recently. I also want to flag Phil’s excellent description of Ros’ work and the influence music has had on him. I wonder if he likes hip hop…
I know I shouldn’t have favourites, but I really loved reading this. Get in touch if you’d like to unpack a favourite format or have an idea for a format you would like to see unpacked.
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See you all next time,
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