(Editor’s Intro: I first met Loren when he was an undergrad at UC Berkeley and he was already showed all the signs of being an extraordinary music scholar. In the time since, we’ve become good friends – not to mention co-enablers in culinary excess – and now he’s Dr. Loren Kajikawa, musicology professor at the U. of Oregon. He’s currently working on a scholarly book analyzing hip-hop – I’ve been enjoying his Dr. Dre chapter – and took some time out to pen this summer song musing about “A Day In the Life,” mash-up style. –O.W.)
- On 09/09/09—the same day The Beatles™: Rock Band™ and The Beatles Stereo Box Set went on sale—the upstate New York-based duo of Scott Down and DJ Cutler made their Ultimate Breaks and Beatles available for free download—not a bad deal considering the two official Beatles products threatened to set you back about $500. Down and Cultler’s unauthorized mix combined both original and cover versions of Beatles tunes with well-worn hip hop samples to yield just over an hour of continuous music. Since first listening to the album, something about it has resonated with me. Like millions of other kids, I grew up in an environment that included my baby boomer parents’ old vinyl and “golden era” hip hop. Today their old Beatles records, particularly Abbey Road, The White Album, and Sgt. Peppers’ evoke long summer days spent exploring music on my own through two main outlets: L.A.’s OG rap music station AM 1580 KDAY and my parents’ dusty LPs. Ultimate Breaks and Beatles seems bent on creatively re-imagining this soundscape. The result is a meditation on the Beatles’ legacy, and, with its emphasis on vintage breakbeats and rapping, the idea of “classic material” itself.
The track I’m sharing for this post remixes the much-celebrated “A Day in the Life,” which one critic famously compared to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (itself an early example of literary “sampling”). Down and Cutler begin by splicing Lennon’s ethereal vocals into Les DeMerle’s haunting jazz cover of the same song. Hip hop heads will immediately recognize DeMerle’s cover as the backing track to O.C.’s “Time’s Up,” itself a song worthy of the highest compliments and comparisons. Indeed, the DJs also include numerous fragments from “Times Up,” calling our attention to the way one great song can beget another great song that begets yet another great song. During McCartney’s B-Section, Down and Cutler switch to the original Beatles track, but they add a significant twist: phat bass booms, syncopated drum fills, and scratching that enhance Ringo’s subdued playing gives us the familiar Beatles sound filtered through a hip hop lens. I can no longer listen to the original version of “A Day in the Life” without hearing these additions in my head. Perhaps I now prefer Down and Cutler’s hyperreal version of the Beatles.
Last summer I left L.A. with my family to begin a new job in Eugene, Oregon, and Ultimate Breaks and Beatles’ was the perfect album to get me through the transition. Perhaps given my mental state, I was ready to indulge the nostalgia permeating so many of these samples. Yet returning to the album this summer has convinced me to hear the album as an important counter-narrative of the Beatles’ far-reaching influence. In place of the tightly controlled, scripted, and commodified legacy of the Fab Four, we’re treated to proof that the Beatles can still inspire grassroots creativity. Classic material wants to be free, even if The Beatles™ catalogue isn’t.