Press Play: Purple Tape Pedigree
In 1944, an Egyptian composer named Halim El-Dabh created his piece, Ta’abir Al-Zaar, or The Expressions of Zaar, using a borrowed radio station wire tape recorder to capture the sounds of a women’s spiritual healing ritual. El-Dabh took the recording to the studio and transformed it into a ghostly and enrapturing piece with the women’s voices pitched down and processed. The sound artist Fari Bradley has described how in doing so, the composer used the “moveable architecture of the Cairo radio studios'' to create “a window into music from the streets.”
Ta’abir Al-Zaar is likely the world’s first purely electronic composition and the first known example of the practice that would come to be known as sampling—capturing a piece of existing audio for use in a new musical composition. Yet far too often, writing around the origins of sampling and electronic music in general have overlooked this contribution, focusing heavily on the work of European academics like Pierre Schaeffer instead. Ta’abir Al-Zaar presents a key challenge to these prevailing narratives.
Establishing a more nuanced history of sampling as a cultural practice is part of what New York-born and based artist, label operator, DJ, and educator GENG teaches in his class Found Sound, which he first hosted last year through The School Of Making Thinking, offering spots to BIPOC learners on a sliding scale. The class also focuses on the theory and technical aspects of sampling. “I begin with the origins of sampling, and try to speak on it wholly,” he explains. “Beyond the standard Eurocentric academic narratives of Call & Response originating in English churches in the 1600's and Pierre Schaefer revolutionizing tape music, especially not when Halim El-Dabh predates him by four years.”
GENG positions sampling as a part of a tradition of vocal articulation that goes back to humanity’s earliest forms of musical expressions. In his course, he opens by going back thousands of years into the dawn of human creativity, and then draws a line up to contemporary musical forms. “That first day is about animals sound-imitating their environment, then indigenous or original peoples taking on that ritual, into oral and musical/rhythmic traditions from Sub-Saharan Africa, and how those ideas developed through the hands of Afro-diasporic people enduring forced migration,” he explains. “And those musical traditions which arose in North America as work songs, spirituals, and then the blues, jazz, and rock and roll. That's how I get to hip hop, beginning with Kool Herc, by the end of that first two hour stretch.”
The history of sampling is long and well-documented, and there are histories within those histories still. In hip hop specifically, sampling emerged as a direct outgrowth of DJ culture. As hip hop grew as a recorded medium, sampling began to be used as a more efficient and precise way of extending musical grooves in the studio, similar to the way that DJs would extend them manually at parties using two turntables and a mixer. Later, sampling would be used as a means of creating elaborate new compositions from snippets of older, previously-existing recorded material. As a direct result of hip hop’s cultural influence, an entire generation of young people have grown up with sampling as a key component of their music-making process.
GENG is a part of that generation. With roots in hip hop and current projects in the realms of hardcore and noise, his sounds conjure otherworldly textures while sacrificing none of hip hop’s weight and driving rhythmic pulse. With PTP, the artist collective and self-described label for “weaponized media and information” that he launched in 2009, GENG explores his musical, design, and curatorial endeavors, with a distinct appreciation for lineages and legacies that the work fits within. PTP is short for Purple Tape Pedigree, a reference to Raekwon’s influential 1995 debut album Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, which was originally pressed as a purple-tinted cassette. A highly celebrated album that dominated the streets in the summer of ’95, in hip hop circles the purple tapes were the pressings that were deemed the most “official”. GENG and PTP’s use of the name for their crew and the records that they release is meant to evoke innovation, quality, and authenticity.
Since its earliest releases nearly a decade ago, PTP has been involved in some of the most thrilling and powerful contemporary underground music from GENG’s own releases as King Vision Ultra, to the acoustic soul of YATTA’s Spirit Said Yes!, to the daring sonic experiments of Saint Abdullah’s Stars Have Eyes. Today, PTP operates as a loose collective and label with members amani, dreamcrusher, dis fig, YATTA, sour spirit, and others. GENG explains that rather than operating as a formal organization, PTP “takes cues from graff and the fluidity of throwing up the flag when you feel it’s right to do so.”
The broad aesthetic of GENG’s varied musical projects—as well as the ways that he works with sampling across styles—reflects his upbringing in Manhattan in the 80s and 90s, inundated by hip hop during his formative years.
"I came up at the sort of bubbling point of a lot of the countercultural movements that were happening at the time,” he recalls. An influential older cousin put him on to dubbing tapes when he was ten, setting him on the path. “We literally took the boombox, had an internal microphone off another system and just recorded out the speaker, just like how a lot of cats used to do this shit back in the day, making pause tapes.” It was a time when the radio was super-charged; during the day, he’d hear Prince, Michael Jackson, Cherrelle, Cameo, plus Phil Collins, Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam, and the type of freestyle then big in New York. “Rhythm was a big thing for me,” he says. “Rhythm hit home for me quickly.”
As rap music began to further permeate popular culture in the 80s, the music was spread in markets nationwide through the invention of late night radio mix shows. In the 80s, legendary shows like Afrika Islam and Donald D’s Zulu Beat, Special K and Teddy Ted on WHBI (a/k/a The Awesome Two) and Mr. Magic’s show on WBLS ruled New York’s airwaves, while The Stretch Armstrong Show with Bobbito Garcia on WKCR 88.9 showcased the most cutting edge underground hip hop of the 90s. These mix shows were formative for GENG—a key reference point for his future approaching sound—with their dynamic mixes bombarding the airwaves with dense, unrelenting rhythms and sonic chaos.
“I would just cruise the dial, trying to find shit,” he says. First he was drawn to the college stations. “Then I found KISS FM and then I found WBLS on a Friday or Saturday night. I had a walkman and I would just sneak the shit… THAT’S where it started. Some cats grew up with the park jams outside their window but for me it was locking into that.”
Like many young people in the 90s, GENG spent his high school years absorbing a cultural diet of Black Moon, Wu-Tang , and graffiti but he was also interested in the grunge sound of the early 90s, punk and underground skate videos. Eventually, he graduated from making pause tapes and, at the urging of friends around him, got his first pair of turntables and began DJing.
“In 8th grade, heads were just like, ‘Yo, you need to get on some DJ shit cause you be coming through with the mixtapes and you know too much about music,’” he remembers. So he started DJing freshman year of high school in ’95, using some belt-driven Gemini turntables. “They were not easy to work with but I got my muscle control on those. I learned how to blend, like R&B blends with acapellas.” A “blend” is a technique where a DJ uses two turntables to mix an acapella from one record with the instrumental from another. “I started making mixtapes. I was selling them at school. Then I wanted to go to [legendary Brooklyn mixtape distributor] Tape Kingz, Harlem Music Hut and soon thereafter it became Fat Beats and Bobbito’s Footwork.”
Throughout the mid to late 90s, GENG made mixtapes and built his skills as a DJ, and by ‘97 was embracing the art of turntablism, a specialized subset of hip hop DJing including the likes of NYC’s X-Men/X-ecutioners, and Californian crews like the Invisibil Skratch Pickles and the Beat Junkies. They would manipulate the sounds on records—open drum hits, test tones, vocals—in order to build new, improvised musical compositions using only turntables. “Roc Raida [of X-Men/X-ecutioners] was a big part of my understanding beyond the mixtape DJs,” GENG says. “It was like, what’s this? He made a beat out of the kick and snare pattern of this one record? What?” Challenging himself to come up with imaginative ways to flip the sound of records, turntablism became the next step in GENG’s still developing approach to sound.
After spending time DJing at spots like the legendary Nuyorican Poets Cafe and running with seminal New York underground rap crew, Atoms Family, GENG made his first beats on the Akai MPC 2000 sampler. Eventually, he sought out more “extreme” work, in the form of sounds that are commonly deemed noisy or unmusical.
"The noise shit—at first I didn’t really see a connection,” he reflects. “At first it’s like, wrapping your head around it. It’s confrontational and it’s made to be challenging.” He likened trying to understand noise to the confusion some experience when trying to understand John Cage’s 1952 composition 4’33, with its score instructing musicians to not play their instruments. “But the first noise that I really fucked with was [the NYC-based, queer noise-musician] dreamcrusher. Before that it was blasts of noise or things that were made with traditional… guitars, drums, screaming, amplifiers, and all that. Powerviolence bands like Despise You. I loved powerviolence because it was such a breaking of traditional format like, ‘Oh, we can make a two second song.’ There are 7-inches that are full albums. As far as harsh noise and all that, with me it starts with dreamcrusher.”
Armed with this unique combination of cultural influences from hip hop, noise and beyond, forming into its own aesthetic—plus the historical grounding evident in his teachings—GENG and PTP as a whole are currently making some of the most enthralling and challenging music around, and they are doing so while being guided by a sense of real community that is unlike the cliches and hierarchies found in some “experimental” music scenes.
“This isn’t a room full of white people in a room breaking glass on each other and wearing all black,” GENG explains. “The noise scene I came to know and be a part of was very queer and very melanated and very much a product of the politics that I align myself with. To me, Sour Spirit is noise but they’re also free-jazz and they’re also punk as fuck. And Camae/Moor Mother, I’ve witnessed do noise shit. And that kinda stuff has been far more compelling to me than somebody humping fifteen guitar pedals”
The open-to-the-public Found Sound class was another vehicle for exploring theories and aesthetics of sampling that have long informed all of this work. It also gave GENG a space to deconstruct the moral and cultural contradictions around sampling and copyright law that are particularly interesting to him as a musician and collectively-minded label organizer himself. By framing hip hop and sampling as a means of cultural archivism, Found Sound allowed GENG and the attendees of his class to discuss and understand these artforms outside of the confines of capitalism and industry.
“I believe that recorded sound law is merely a policing device of the music industry,” GENG says. “And by that, industry has always existed as an extension of capitalism. The joke here is that those laws are passed under the guise of ‘artist rights and protections,’ meanwhile the question often remains to be, ‘who are you stealing from and how?’” To GENG, a better question would be to ask, how many checks has the most sampled drummer in history even seen off those sample clearances? While Clyde Stubblefield’s drumming on the James Brown song “Funky Drummer” has become one of the most-sampled sounds in popular music history, he was not credited, and profit from its samples has mostly gone to either Brown or his label, King Records. “Stubblefield has only seen around $150 in total because he has no songwriting credits and was paid as a session player, but hip hop made the ‘Funky Drummer’ canonical to the culture, especially through the act of sampling. This eventually paved a new path for Stubblefield to play shows and tour with Kool Herc, who also arranged for a fundraising initiative to get Stubblefield more money for his vital work as a drummer.”
“That's paying it back and forward,” GENG continues, “which is culture as a holistic, communal, and lineage technology. Legacy work.”
His next class will open in October and will pick up where Found Sound left off. This time, he’s running the class completely independently. Much like his work with sound as a musician and with PTP, GENG’s approach to teaching is about the exploration of possibilities. “You can have Google in front of you and not know what to search,” he says. “So, if you don’t know how to ask the question, you’re not going to get the answer. My role as a teacher or whatever is to help remind folks that they just have to ask a simple question to get a whole history.”
GENG and PTP Selected Discography:
Amani & King Vision Ultra - An Unknown Infinite
King Vision Ultra - Pain Of Mind
GENG - FACT mix 727
Dreamcrusher - Another Country
Sour Spirit - Live Duss l/Live Duss ll ♦
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