Besideâs âChange The Beatâ, a little-known rap track from the early â80s, is the most sampled record of all time according to WhoSampled. While itâs 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. FACTâs 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, itâs definitely not immediately clear what makes Besideâs âChange The Beatâ 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 recordâs original production and the way it was subsequently recycled in the years that followed.
âChange The Beatâ 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. Itâs interesting to consider Laswellâs experiments with hip-hop production at this time and how his ideas didnât emerge on their own. Immediately preceding this, Laswell contributed to Brian Eno and David Byrneâs 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 Celluloidâs cut ânâ paste aesthetic and weâre 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 Juiceâs 1983 hit of the same name, âRip It Up and Start Againâ, as a way to describe the ethos of the time.
New York in the early â80s 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. âChange The Beatâ was recorded at Martin Bisiâs 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 Mclarenâs 1982 hit âBuffalo Girlsâ. 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, âChange The Beatâ 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 â a âfemale versionâ and âmale versionâ, which was a typical trick at the time, as popularised by disco records like Loose Jointsâ âIs It All Over My Face?â.
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 Blondieâs anthemic âRaptureâ, when Debbie Harry raps, âFab Five Freddy told me everybodyâs flyâ. Freddy was a fashionable impresario who distilled a vision of hip-hop that encapsulated what he called âthe four elementsâ; graffiti, breaking, rapping and djing. These were assembled â some would even say forced together â in another collision typical of the era, Charlie Ahearnâs cult hip-hop motion picture Wild Style, which was released theatrically in 1982, the same year as âChange The Beatâ.
Wild Style introduced the world to scratching, with footage of Grandmaster Flash rocking two copies of Bob James âTake Me To The Mardi Grasâ in his kitchen. Itâs thanks to this manual technique of scratching a record back and forth against the needle that âChange The Beatâ 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, âThis stuff is really fresssssssshâ, spoken through an EMS vocoder.
These spoken words are used to modulate white noise, which makes the word âfreshâ 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 âtransformer scratchâ, the name clearly referencing the â80s cartoon, Transformers, where the robots voices were spoken through a vocoder, rather like the one used on âChange The Beatâ.
The first record to utilise the âfressshâ sample for scratching â an early showcase of the transformer scratch â was Herbie Hancockâs 1983-released âRockitâ. You can hear the âfressshâ at around 20 seconds in, cut up by GrandMixer D.ST, the first âturntablistâ, who was also featured in Wild Style.
Hancockâs âRockitâ was a watershed moment for hip-hop and electro. The track was co-written by Bill Laswell, giving it a direct link with âChange The Beatâ even without the âfressshâ sample being used for D.STâs scratches. The trackâs iconic Godley & CrĂ¨me video became ubiquitous on mainstream TV channels in the US, thanks to its futuristic sound and dancing robots â 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 âChange The Beatâ sample being cut back and forth increasingly found its way onto many other records of the early hip-hop era, such as Eric B & Rakimâs âPaid In Fullâ and Schooly Dâs âPSKâ. And thanks to scratch battle records like those made by Dirt Style Records â which would be packed full of samples useful to budding turntablists â and scratch competitions like the DMC Championships, itâs become such an infinitely replicated, repressed and resampled sound that many listeners wonât know about its humble origins. In that respect, itâs not unlike the âAmen Brotherâ drum break that formed the backbone of so many jungle records in the â90s. Itâs the perfect length to scratch, and contains a lot of texture in a tiny space of time.
You can hear the fragment of Freddyâs voice and Laswellâs vocoder on literally thousands of songs, from MARRS âPump Up The Volumeâ, to âNeedle To The Grooveâ by Mantronix, Easy-E, and even Nine Inch Nails. If youâre looking for a mainstream example, just listen to Justin Bieberâs 2012 track âRight Hereâ featuring Drake â sharpen up those ears and see if you can spot a familiar sound somewhere in there.