The most sampled song of all time: How a forgotten Franco-American rap track made music history

Beside’s ‘Change The Beat’, a little-known rap track from the early ‘80s, is the most sampled record of all time according to WhoSampled. While it’s rarely played in full, the fragment of vocoder that appears at the end of one side has been enormously influential, appearing on well over 1,200 songs. FACT’s Mr. Beatnick tells the story of the song and delves into some of the famous tracks you never knew it appears on.

On first listen, it’s definitely not immediately clear what makes Beside’s ‘Change The Beat’ the most sampled record of all time. For starters, the sample is hidden away in the last few seconds of only one side of the record. Few listeners would be able to identify it from the opening bars of the song, despite it having been sampled over 1,200 times.

Like just about everything in old school hip-hop history, the popularity of this tiny fragment of sound in sampling is a case of serendipity. The happy accidents and experimentation that guided both the record’s original production and the way it was subsequently recycled in the years that followed.

‘Change The Beat’ was released in 1982 and produced by freewheeling musician and producer Bill Laswell in collaboration with Jean Karakos, the founder of Celluloid records, who Laswell had connected with after moving to New York. It’s interesting to consider Laswell’s experiments with hip-hop production at this time and how his ideas didn’t emerge on their own. Immediately preceding this, Laswell contributed to Brian Eno and David Byrne’s post-punk classic My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, an acclaimed New York staple that has forward-thinking electronic experimentation at its core. In 1981, he released Memory Serves with his band Material, blending funk with cavernous post-punk and avant garde techniques.

Both projects helped inform Celluloid’s cut ’n’ paste aesthetic and we’re not talking about sampling here, but the William Burroughs approach: literally cutting up tape and reassembling and rearranging sounds, ignoring the dividing lines between genres. Simon Reynolds neatly encapsulates this approach by quoting Orange Juice’s 1983 hit of the same name, ‘Rip It Up and Start Again’, as a way to describe the ethos of the time.

New York in the early ‘80s was a melting pot of musical influences, hip-hop was developing alongside no wave, new wave, punk and funk and producers at the time subconsciously threw all these colourful elements into their mixes. ‘Change The Beat’ was recorded at Martin Bisi’s studio, who went on to engineer Sonic Youth and Swans.

The forced collision of contrasting elements, pitting the funky against the funk-less, can also be seen at work in another early hip-hop staple, Malcolm Mclaren’s 1982 hit ‘Buffalo Girls’. Imagine how the World Famous Supreme Team felt when they were encouraged by Mclaren to scratch an African folk song over the top of an electro-tinged cover version of a traditional square dance song.

Similarly, ‘Change The Beat’ had a few gimmicks of its own. The track was anchored by a coquettish French-language rap performed by Beside, with an English language rap from Fab Five Freddy on the other side – a “female version” and “male version”, which was a typical trick at the time, as popularised by disco records like Loose Joints’ ‘Is It All Over My Face?’.

Fab Five Freddy needs less of an introduction than some of the other characters in this story, mostly thanks to the fame he accrued fronting Yo! MTV Raps from 1988 until the mid-90s. A stalwart of the graffiti scene, Freddy first came to prominence by painting burners on subway cars with his crew, The Fabulous 5. Later on, he was famously name-checked on Blondie’s anthemic ‘Rapture’, when Debbie Harry raps, “Fab Five Freddy told me everybody’s fly”. Freddy was a fashionable impresario who distilled a vision of hip-hop that encapsulated what he called “the four elements”; graffiti, breaking, rapping and djing. These were assembled – some would even say forced together – in another collision typical of the era, Charlie Ahearn’s cult hip-hop motion picture Wild Style, which was released theatrically in 1982, the same year as ‘Change The Beat’.

Wild Style introduced the world to scratching, with footage of Grandmaster Flash rocking two copies of Bob James ‘Take Me To The Mardi Gras’ in his kitchen. It’s thanks to this manual technique of scratching a record back and forth against the needle that ‘Change The Beat’ became such a frequently used sample source. The key part of the song comes in the last few seconds: a brief sine wave tone sounds, followed by the words, “This stuff is really fressssssssh”, spoken through an EMS vocoder.

These spoken words are used to modulate white noise, which makes the word “fresh” sound particularly rich and sibilant. When controlled on a turntable and moved backwards and forwards with one hand, using the other hand to control the fader, cutting in and out of the sound, it produces an impressive variety of percussive tones. This technique was later known as the “transformer scratch”, the name clearly referencing the ‘80s cartoon, Transformers, where the robots voices were spoken through a vocoder, rather like the one used on ‘Change The Beat’.

The first record to utilise the “fresssh” sample for scratching – an early showcase of the transformer scratch – was Herbie Hancock’s 1983-released ‘Rockit’. You can hear the “fresssh” at around 20 seconds in, cut up by GrandMixer D.ST, the first “turntablist”, who was also featured in Wild Style.

Hancock’s ‘Rockit’ was a watershed moment for hip-hop and electro. The track was co-written by Bill Laswell, giving it a direct link with ‘Change The Beat’ even without the “fresssh” sample being used for D.ST’s scratches. The track’s iconic Godley & Crème video became ubiquitous on mainstream TV channels in the US, thanks to its futuristic sound and dancing robots – as such, the song inspired a new generation of potential scratch DJs. Young listeners would cut up their parents records in the same manner, undoubtably resulting in plenty of damaged Beatles albums and a lot of lost pocket money.

The distinctive sound of the ‘Change The Beat’ sample being cut back and forth increasingly found its way onto many other records of the early hip-hop era, such as Eric B & Rakim’s ‘Paid In Full’ and Schooly D’s ‘PSK’. And thanks to scratch battle records like those made by Dirt Style Records – which would be packed full of samples useful to budding turntablists – and scratch competitions like the DMC Championships, it’s become such an infinitely replicated, repressed and resampled sound that many listeners won’t know about its humble origins. In that respect, it’s not unlike the ‘Amen Brother’ drum break that formed the backbone of so many jungle records in the ‘90s. It’s the perfect length to scratch, and contains a lot of texture in a tiny space of time.

You can hear the fragment of Freddy’s voice and Laswell’s vocoder on literally thousands of songs, from MARRS ‘Pump Up The Volume’, to ‘Needle To The Groove’ by Mantronix, Easy-E, and even Nine Inch Nails. If you’re looking for a mainstream example, just listen to Justin Bieber’s 2012 track ‘Right Here’ featuring Drake – sharpen up those ears and see if you can spot a familiar sound somewhere in there.

Mr Beatnick is on Twitter.



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