Music Trails: Vampire Weekend

Josh Carvel explores what Vampire Weekend have to do with Hip-hop, Soft Rock, Soul-Jazz and Baroque

To kick off 2014, Vampire Weekend released a remix of their popular song ‘Step’ from their last album ‘Modern Vampires of the City’. The remix features verses from hip-hop artists Danny Brown, Heems and Despot. It’s pretty darn awesome, and among other things it’s fun to hear Danny Brown’s love-it-or-hate it rapping style over such a sweet, ethereal backing track.

But this got me thinking about the influences of the song, and ten minutes of intense internet searching later I was clued up about the origins of the musical ideas and lyrics in the song. It’s an interesting musical trail that spans five genres and roughly 300 years.

First up, VW’s ‘Step’ is based on the hip-hop group Souls of Mischief’s 1993 song ‘Step To My Girl’. It quotes the lyrical hook from this song and follows the same chords and melody.

Aside from the fact that the ‘Step To My Girl’ chorus was in turn quoting another rapper called YZ, the musical ideas go back further. The saxophone line in the song is a sample taken from jazz saxophonist Grover Washington Jr.’s interpretation of the song ‘Aubrey’.

However, that melody was actually penned by 70’s soft rockers ‘Bread’, who released ‘Aubrey’ in 1972. This heartfelt lament is a pretty far cry from the Souls of Mischief song about warning others away to stay away from your girlfriend. On the other hand, the idea of a man idolising a woman, his response to that and the possibility of maturing is common to all of these tracks, and it’s interesting to compare all of the variations on that idea.

Finally, the common musical theme in all these songs is that they use the ubiquitous chord sequence deployed by the ‘original one hit wonder’ (check out the ‘Pachelbel rant’ video online) Johann Pachelbel, in his ‘Canon in D’.

I like these sort of musical connections because they show that creative pursuits are more about developing old themes than making something completely new. Anyone who opposes the use of samples (and bear in mind that Vampire Weekend legally cleared the samples for use in their song) is in denial about the nature of making music, or making anything at all.

Musicians are always using different materials to create what they create, and some of those materials are simple things like a guitar string to pluck a note on, and some of them are more abstract like a melody, and a sample from someone else’s piece of music is just another of these materials (and note that these samples or ‘quotes’ can be found throughout music history).

In all of these cases, the musician is using and adapting something that someone else has made. But the real value comes from combining those materials and organising them into something fresh. That’s what Vampire Weekend have done, and it’s appropriate that they’ve chosen to recognise the hip-hop influence in particular with this new remix.

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