The Bassment Tapes
From the chart success of 'Bass (How Low Can You Go)' to an album and a 24-track studio in his lounge - Simon Harris talks sounds and samples with Tim Goodyer.
His single, 'Bass (How Low Can You Go)' played its part in the sampling madness of last summer, but there's a lot more to Simon Harris than a sampler and one hit single.
QUICK BEFORE HE COMES BACK. WHAT have we got here? AC/DC, The Carpenters, Tracy Chapman, Eric Burdon, Al Jarreau, the Blues Brothers, ELO, George Michael... I'm inside Simon Harris' studio, furtively checking through his collection of compact discs while he's fetching a couple of cans of Coca Cola from around the corner. And all is not quite what I'd anticipated.
This is more the sort of thing I'd expected - LL Cool J, Yello, Art of Noise, Bomb the Bass, Led Zeppelin, Public Enemy, even a couple of copies of Harris' brand new album Bass. My survey is barely completed before a beaming Harris returns bearing welcome refreshment. Now, where to start?
Perhaps a little history is in order. If Simon Harris' name is familiar to you, it's either through his work with his own record label, Music of Life, who are working to further the careers of British rappers like MC Duke and Einstein, or through his single, 'Bass (How Low Can You Go)', which climbed to No. 12 in the charts during the sampling frenzy of last year.
The story actually began when a 13-year old Harris received a stereo system as a birthday present. Not content to simply play records, he began pause-button mixing with it. Eventually he bought a cheap disco setup with which he began DJ'ing professionally, playing the jazz funk of the time: Light of the World, Central Line and Ronnie Laws.
Cheap turntables were replaced with Technics SL1200s, while a Citronic mixer gave way to a Formula Sound PM8O; the addition of a Tascam 32-2B tape deck enabled Harris to produce special edits for local radio stations and the Disco Mix Club that was just getting started at the time.
On the instrument side, he also began to collect the drum machines, samplers and synths that are the trademark of the late-'80s remixer, instruments like Roland's TR909 drum machine - a house music classic.
Nineteen-eighty-seven saw Harris invest in a multitrack setup with a Fostex E16, Seck 18-8-2 desk and a modest selection of outboard gear. The instruments also continued to proliferate. A Sequential Studio 440 satisfied both Harris' sampling and sequencing requirements. A D50 was called in to provide what he calls "quality" sounds, while an Alpha Juno 1 looked after the analogue duties.
"Already having the turntables, I had everything I needed", he comments. And it was with this equipment in the living room of his basement flat that he set about recording the Music of Life artists and 'Bass (How Low Can You Go)'.
The same living room currently accommodates a huge Soundtracs desk and 2" 24-track tape machine - along with the Tascam 32-2B, E16, Technics turntables, Formula Sound mixer, and the tuner from the original hi-fi. Harris describes the arrangement as "a mutated version of that first stereo system".
'Bass (How Low Can You Go)' conforms to all the rules of a sample record - a powerful house beat and synth bassline, a couple of upfront vocal samples serving as conventional "hooks" and a wealth of vocal and instrumental samples taken from a variety of familiar and not-so-familiar sources. In fact, 'Bass (How Low Can You Go)' helped define the rules in the first place.
Harris' main sample, the line "Bass, how low can you go" was lifted from Public Enemy's 'Bring the Noise'. But why make anything as simple as lifting it straight off vinyl?
"It was the a cappella version that Tim Westwood was debuting on his Capital Radio show", Harris recalls, "and, because I happened to be taping it, within an hour of its world radio debut, there it was on my record. It was recorded at 7 1/2 ips, grotty quality, I've never been able to get that sound since.
"'Bass (How Low Can You Go)' was only intended to be a rhythm track but I found that sample and never looked back. What I was actually looking for was a sample as good as 'Pump up the volume' because M/A/R/R/S' 'Pump Up The Volume' was big then. After I did 'Bass (How Low Can You Go)' but before it had been accepted by London Records, Bomb the Bass appeared with 'Beat Dis' on the Mister Ron label, and at the same time up popped S' Xpress as well. Around the same time 'Bass.. .' was being promo'd, Coldcut came out with 'Doctorin' the House' and suddenly there was a whole crowd of us out there trying to do the same thing. We'd all heard 'Pump Up The Volume' and wanted to do it again."
Harris followed 'Bass (How Low Can You Go)' with a similar sample-based single, 'Here Comes That Sound'. But the heavy use of samples that had spelled success for 'Bass...' were to prevent 'Here Comes That Sound' climbing above No. 38 in the British charts.
"Suddenly there was a whole crowd of us out there trying to do the same thing - we'd all heard 'Pump Up The Volume' and wanted to do it again."
"It wasn't as successful because I went too heavy, too late on the samples", comments Harris. "Because everybody was doing it by then, it started to go out - it wasn't such an unusual thing to do a sample record any more. With 'Here Comes That Sound' all based around samples, and London Records putting it out six months after I gave it to them, it was too late."
The comparative failure of 'Here Comes That Sound' did not, however, discourage London from asking Harris for an album.
"They said to me 'go away and do an album', so I thought 'what they're going to want me to do is sit in an expensive recording studio. There'll be a boy to make the sandwiches and it'll be air-conditioned, but it'll be my money that's paying for it. So I said 'I've got a 16-track, I want to upgrade it to 24-track, give me the money to buy the equipment and I'll give you the master at the end of the day. It'll cost you the same amount of money and it's better for you, because if you want something changed or a remix it won't cost a penny'. But at the same time, I keep the gear! So they gave me 30 grand, well, they gave it to Don Larking - a clever move on their behalf - and that bought me my desk, the Soundtracs CMX 3200, Soundcraft 762 Mk II 2' tape machine and all the other bits I needed."
Along the way Harris has collected odd instruments such as Roland's TB303 Bassline, an MC202 Microcomposer and an Octave Kitten. Most recently he has added an Akai S1000 sampler and Roland's flagship R8 drum machine to his collection.
"When I went for the 16-track I decided it was just as important to have one central piece of equipment that I could do everything from. At the time the only machines available were the Studio 440 and the Emulator SP12. I didn't have a drum machine apart from my 909 and I didn't have a sampler, so what attracted me to the 440 was that it was a sampler and a sequencer in one box. It's also very useful that it has SMPTE. Basically, the Studio 440 is a recording studio in a box.
"I needed the 16-track to do what the 440 wouldn't - that is run things at different levels and run them at once. I also felt I needed a quality synth and an analogue synth, and I didn't know what to get because I didn't know anything about sine waves and programs, so I went down to Rose Morris and found the sounds I like best. I knew I was looking for dance/house sounds from the analogue so I picked out the Juno 1, and I use that for all my bass sounds. I think programming sounds yourself is the big secret - otherwise you won't have an individual sound. I also figured I needed a quality keyboard so I bought a D50, but I only really use it as a keyboard controller now. I think a lot of the D50's sounds are totally unusable in a track. They sound fantastic when you're listening to them on headphones but because they tend to fill out a track so much they're almost unusable. I don't know what it is, maybe a pop track's different and they work well in a pop track, but I don't do pop tracks. The Juno 1 is much more usable. I don't know if that's a lesson to be learned for dance music, but it's the old analogue machines that seem to do the job the best. I go to the Casio CZ1000 occasionally, but I'm not really a synth merchant in a big way. I always use synths for basslines and for pads, but not much else really."
The single-oscillator Kitten was little sister to the company's Cat synth. Originally intended to rival the Minimoog and ARP Odyssey for sounds but undercut them in price, the Cat only really succeeded in getting Octave sued by ARP. The Kitten's presence in the studio is a source of considerable amusement to Harris.
"That was when I was having my acid craze", he grins. "I spotted it and thought 'that's got to be acid, look at it!'. It cost me 40 quid in the Notting Hill Exchange Centre and I've used it once. But everyone that looks at it thinks it must make brilliant acid sounds. I use it for the odd sound effect, but that's about all. I collect odd little things like that."
The R8, on the other hand, is one of Harris' current favourites.
"The sounds are absolutely fabulous", he enthuses. "It's interesting what Roland have done, because, for the first time, you can truly shape your own sounds from a neutral sound. That's what I've done with it. I don't know what they're talking about with this 'human' thing though. Why can't they just have a button that makes it go human? You have to alter so many parameters on it, surely it would be easier just to play the part yourself. But it is a brilliant machine. I've got just one criticism, are they cheapskates not giving you a backlit display? Another thing they've done is make you wait for the sound cards. I bought the machine with the intent of using it on my album, but the cards didn't arrive until after I'd finished recording it!"
Get Simon Harris talking about Roland drum machines and you'll find out that he has some definite opinions on the company's importance in the development of dance music - and responsibilities they're not necessarily living up to.
"The whole of dance music for the last seven years has been guided by one drum machine", he begins, "the TR808. And it's taken eight or nine years for Roland to re-release those same sounds on a card for their new digital drum machine. If the 808 hadn't been invented we'd all be doing something different now. It literally changed the course of dance music. Nick Martinelli made his name on the 808 cowbell, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis made their name on the 808, and without the 808 what would the whole Miami bass scene be doing?
"I rang Roland and they told me they didn't want to look backwards, they want to look to the future, which is something I totally agree with. But we're not looking to the future of the same market; they're looking at Sting and Dire Straits and ignoring the people who were brought up on the 808 and 909.
"There seems to be a battle between the equipment manufacturers, who want to make things better, and the kids on the street who want dirty sounds."
"It's what people want, why is it taking so long? The 808 was never MIDI, thankfully the 909 is MIDI and that's why it's getting so much use at the moment. Don't these people buy Inner City albums and hear Kevin Saunderson using 909s and 727s until he's blue in the face?
"I'll tell you something that is a real crazy rule - there seems to be a battle between the equipment manufacturers, who want to make things better, and the kids on the street who buy the records. The kids want dirty sounds, the manufacturers want clean sounds. The kids grow up and want to be musicians, so they go out and buy the equipment and all it will do is ultra high-quality digital sounds. It stretches right back to kids in the Bronx who started off the whole thing with grotty equipment.
"We want dirty sounds and that's one of the reasons we sample. We can't even buy a snare drum and recreate the old sounds because everything's too clean - they'll end up sounding like the R8. I love the sounds on the R8 but I play them to some of my rappers and they think they're terrible - they want to hear a snare from 400 years ago played through a cassette. What the hell is all this technology for? The whole point of having samples is for the people who want to hear those old sounds.
"But I've gotta say that, with the current swingbeat sounds - very high quality sounds like Cameo - the R8 is very good because it's got some fantastic snare sounds in it. If you play around with the internal sounds you can get the most fantastic dance drum sounds. But, again, it does take programming.
"Also, why the hell don't Roland release for their wonderful D50, a card of sounds that sound like the TB303 and MC202, so that people can take those old sounds and play them on new synths? I'm sure they can do that in their labs. It's a constant battle with the manufacturers to get the right things at the right prices."
RETURNING TO BASS, WE FIND HARRIS' LP debut to be a collection of songs that vary wildly in style - from the soul of 'Feel' and the garage feel of 'Sexy Lady' through the hip house of 'Another Monster Jam' to the hip hop of 'Run 4 Cover' and the reggae of 'London's Finest'. It's already been criticised as being simply a showcase for the producer's talents, but it also makes engaging listening. Between the nine tracks are short bridges built of samples (bringing the total number of tracks on vinyl up to 16), and beneath their surface is an intriguing patchwork of instrumentation and samples.
"I wanted to make the album playable", Harris explains. "I didn't want to make it a trendy album. A lot of people are saying about their records 'it's going to be all music, no samples' or 'it's going to be all samples'. Everyone knows what I do - I do a bit of sampling and I like a lot of different types of music. So I tried to do a bit of everything. I also tried to think about DJs who are going to be playing it. I wanted to make it easy for DJs to play and programme in, otherwise it's not going to stand a chance."
That's the vinyl version of the album, but the collection of CDs that attracted my attention when I arrived has a greater significance.
"I've gone real CD crazy", Harris announces. "I never buy albums any more. Most DJs dismiss CDs, but I was thinking from a CD buyer's point of view. You can get 75 minutes of music on a CD and I felt cheated when I bought the Inner City album on CD only to discover 7' versions of the songs using about a quarter of the time. So I've filled my CD up with 74 minutes of music - dub versions, a cappellas, instrumentals and stuff. I even stuck 'Bad On The Mic' on there, which is my rap version of Michael Jackson's 'Bad' with the lyrics changed subtly. That's one of my favourites, actually."
Probably the most important single aspect of Bass is its samples. Listening through Bass it's easy to catch shreds of James Brown, Public Enemy, The Tom Tom Club, Lyn Collins, James T Kirk... I even thought I'd spotted a section of Walton's Belshazzar's Feast under the introduction but it seems someone had ripped Walton off before Harris got his hands on the sample. Its actual source? Well I'm now sworn to secrecy, so you'll have to spot it for yourselves, but regular cinema-goers may have an advantage. Exactly what has Harris set out to achieve with his sampling?
"I've tried to make the album simple so the DJs can play it, but at the same time I want people to think 'where did he get that sample from?'.
"In a way it's going back to the rule of the street and the rule of the rap scene, because there's a battle that goes on between people with samplers: 'you're using my sample don't use that, he used it...'. You've got to come up with the most original sample.
"You have to keep ahead with samples. If you don't, something that sounds good now sounds naff when it's released in a month's time."
"There are a lot of people listening to me who know about sampling. I'm not trying to keep one step ahead of them, but I'm trying not to use a lot of known samples. I'm trying to use more unusual things for the people who look to me to be original. If I use 'Funky Drummer' I'm not using it from the point of view of 'it sounds great, let's use it', I'm using it from the point of view of everyone else is using it and I want to make my mark with a 'Funky Drummer' track."
But just how does Harris decide what makes a usable sample?
"I never think of things as samples. I always think of a track as different sounds: drum sounds, synth sounds, sampled sounds, whatever. I never think 'let's build this up with samples'. It's good to work things out beforehand, but what normally happens is that you start putting it together and then decide that it doesn't sound that good, so you have to change it until it's right.
"For a drum sample I'll just look for something that's clean - something without hi-hats over it. If you're absolutely desperate, you can edit a hi-hat out, like I did with the 'Funky Drummer' snare. Ages ago I put it onto tape at 15ips and edited it out - and that's the 'Funky Drummer' snare I use to this day. For kick drums I just look for something which sounds dirty.
"With musical samples I think it's just a case of finding the right thing for the right time. You have to keep ahead with samples. If you don't, something that sounds good now sounds naff when it's released in a month's time. De La Soul just sampled Daryl Hall and John Oates - they got permission for that. Everybody is sampling everybody else.
"What I've been doing lately is getting a lot of my samples and putting them together on the Beats, Breaks and Scratches albums that I've been doing. In a way it makes them naff, but it also makes them handy for everyone to use. The albums have been selling really well. After I use a sample I'll put it on one of those albums. That way the younger DJs can get samples without hang to spend a fortune on 300 different albums. Loads of kids were ringing up the office asking where to get the samples and I was thinking 'do I tell them about Tee Vee Toons... which has only got a few samples on and costs £15 on import? The kids are going to go out and buy this thing and be disappointed, so I thought I'd stick them on an album with a couple of looped drum patterns - I've just started looping them in stereo on the S1000 actually."
Of course the presence of samples on an album like Breaks, Beats and Scratches means that nobody else can use them with credibility...
"Exactly. What I'm saying is 'I used it first, now you use it!'".
The copyright on recorded material has hindered the cause of sampling from the outset. Harris has already had his share of trouble with music he's sampled, and it doesn't look as if he's safe yet.
"Last week I was at the New Music Seminar in New York and a guy came up to me and said 'Simon Harris? This is for you.' And subpoenaed me. He gave me a US court subpoena for sampling at a panel on sampling! It was a sampling panel with Daddy 0 from Stetsasonic, my partner Chris France, Hank Shocklee and a bunch of lawyers. There were people there saying the most crazy things...
"The subpoena was for Tough City Records who have The 45 King's 'The 900 Number', and they are suing me for using a section of that. As anybody who's a regular sampler knows, that sample originally comes from a Marva Whitney record entitled 'Unwind Yourself'.. Basically all DJ Mark did was take that sample, slow it down and loop it and put his own sampled drums over the top. It raises the question 'When does a sample become your own property?'. I think it's utter rubbish what's going on, and I'm going to fight it. Everybody's behind me - Profile and Tommy Boy are right behind me, but it raises some interesting questions."
It seems sad that, with all the opposition facing musicians sampling other musicians' work, there should be fighting between the samplers.
"DJ Mark's a good guy, it's not him" Harris elaborates. "The guy whose fault it is is Aaron Fuchs. He owns Tough City Records and he's one of those guys who sees a quick buck and wants to dig his feet in. What's unfortunate for everybody else is that if people like him don't calm themselves down, then nobody's going to be able to do any sampling because everybody will be suing everybody.
"If you listen to the remix of Sonia's 'You'll Never Stop Me Loving You' you can hear Lil Louis sampled all the way through it - or plagiarised, as Pete Waterman would have it. Sampling, plagiarising, what's the difference? You're still ripping someone off. I rip off but, hopefully, I don't create damage. If I rip someone off, I'm also hoping someone will want to buy the original of the record. It's not my fault if the record companies haven't got the record issued any more. Why don't they pull their fingers out and get the originals issued? Why didn't they reissue 'The Jump' by the JBs when everybody was going crazy about Public Enemy's 'Rebel Without A Pause'? They could have had a hit with that but they didn't, whose fault is that?"
No doubt the record companies have excuses to offer, but the fact remains that most of them are failing to understand the sampling phenomenon, let alone becoming properly involved in it. Between these attitudes and those of the media who are still conducting the "acid witch-hunt", it's reassuring to know there are people like Simon Harris around.