Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” from back in the day (1989!) still has the power to get a rise out of me, and has one of the most complex sample layers of any song in that period. (Or any period, as most contemporary hip-hop is the weakest of weak sauce.) Mix Magazine has a tech geek-out article from 2006 on the creation of this track:
A key to the lo-fi sounds found on “Fight the Power” and other Public Enemy records of the period were the technical limitations of their samplers, which the group enjoyed and embraced as part of their noise-based aesthetic. The S-900 and SP-1200 used 12-bit samples — more advanced than the Mirage, but lower than today’s standard of 16 bits. Hank Shocklee explains that he likes the low-res sound because “you can’t pick out the exact instrument and things that are going on, and it kind of meshes it all together, so the frequencies of where the guitar and the bass come in are not clearly defined.”
This was enhanced by the fact that the group often used longer sample loops than the equipment was intended for. “I think the SP-1200 had eight or 12 seconds tops for all 16 pads,” explains Hank Shocklee. “It wasn’t designed to do what we were doing. It was just designed to put in kicks, snares, hi-hats, rides. To get more time, we would speed up the record, play it at 45 and we got almost double the time.” Once the sped-up sample was loaded in, it had to be pitched down, resulting in a further degradation of the sounds. Add to that the fact that the SP-1200 cut off the ends of its samples sharply. “The cut-off gave it a rough sound, a real edgy sound,” says Keith Shocklee appreciatively.
Illustration by OBEY.