How Mediums Make Culture (Hip Hop’s Vinyl Librarians Edition)

Language forms around common words. Anything that bottlenecks words into being “more common,” influences the language, and in turn, how we all communicate. Music history is full of examples. The lessons for marketing and basic communication strategies are nearly endless. 

And we don’t talk about Breakbeat Lou nearly enough. 

In the 80s, sampling was a new technology. But having records to sample from? There wasn’t a public library for this stuff. Yes, you could go crate digging, but that stuff took… money. Enter Breakbeat Lou and Lenny Roberts. 

Their “Ultimate Breaks and Beats” compilation records changed hip-hop and sampled music from the mid-80s to the late-90s. Instead of buying 1000s of records for a few hundred songs, they put the few hundred songs they figured everybody would want onto a series of records. They’re legendary. 

And accordingly, they’re legendary because they changed the common language of music. 

It’s where most producers found “the Amen break” (aka the most sampled song ever, jump to 1:26 if you’re curious), amongst others. 

Dan Charnas’s latest piece is titled, “Hip Hop is the Music of Vinyl Librarians.” If you’re looking for ways to understand how language evolves, and how technology (or other mediums) influence what becomes “common,” you need to read this. Here’s a key quote (emphasis added):

As hip-hop compositions began to be released on records in the early 1980s, D.J.s became producers and beatmakers, using new tools like multitrack recorders and digital samplers; now an entire song could be composed of prerecorded sound. The canon of break records grew into a vast, shared database, particularly via the work of uber-collectors like “Breakbeat Lou” Flores and Lenny Roberts, who created compilation albums of the hardest-to-find tracks. This series, “Ultimate Breaks and Beats,” was distributed to small record stores around the country and then the world; those nearly 200 songs became hip-hop’s common musical tongue.

Hip-hop tracks retell parents’ and grandparents’ histories, their migrations both great and small. Each sample source recalls an ancestor; each song is a layer cake of historical reference, an orgasm of memory. When producers compose with a sample, they not only use its sonic information, they reminisce, tapping its meaning and numinosity — for them, for us, for the producers and artists who found it, for the musicians who made it.

One generation to bring it into existence, another one to uncover it and repurpose it to bring it new and broader meaning. It happens over and over again. It’s worth learning to watch for. 

My question for you: What’s today’s common-language mouthpiece? Something to do with the algorithms? Influencers? Something else? Let me know what you think

Ps. numinosity – seriously?! NUMINOSITY. Work that into a sentence today. 

Pss. this interview is pretty amazing