Balkan Beat Box, a trio formed by Gogol Bordello’s Ori Kaplan and Firewater’s Tamir Muskat, has been doing strange things with Mediterranean styles and electronic sounds for over a decade. A band with a professed love for remix culture, their 2005 debut contained the widely sampled “Bulgarian Chicks,” but earlier this year they reached a new level of unacknowledged ubiquity when Jason Derulo’s “Talk Dirty” grabbed the saxophone riff from their 2007 “Hermetico.” Speaking over Skype, Ori (in Vienna) and Tamir (in Tel Aviv) told the story behind the sample and discussed why the sax is not only back but being used in creative new ways.
How did your “Hermetico” sax line end up in “Talk Dirty,” Ori?
Ori Kaplan: Producer Ricky Reed came to us with the first minute of a track, and we approved the sample. He didn’t take the stems; he used a rip from the CD with a full-on beat. He just took the solo melody when it was unaccompanied at some point. It was one of many samples we approved around May 2013. Then we forgot about it completely until somebody told us something was going on with the track in Australia.
Tamir Muskat: People were starting to hear it in cabs all around the world.
Kaplan: It became Number One in the U.K. and then all over continental Europe. I heard it on the radio every morning while I was taking my daughter to kindergarten. She was like, “Papa, that’s you!”
Muskat: I think she was more like “Papa, I can’t believe you can actually make money with a saxophone!”
Kaplan: In November, “Talk Dirty” died on continental Europe and all the experts told us that it would never hit the U.S. because it was already dead. And anyway, Jason Derulo had “Will You Marry Me?” – very wholesome and Oprah Winfrey-esque. But “Talk Dirty” somehow resurfaced in America two months after it was basically dead in the water. So that was a surprise.
I’m a little sorry Reed didn’t sample “Hermetico”‘s excellent horse whinny.
Muskat: We’re working with Eminem on that sample [laughs].
Muskat: Beginning with our second album, we gave up all of our stems to people to work with and come back to us with stuff. That’s how Nu Made was created, by people who reinterpreted our music in fresh new ways.
You can also hear catchy sax samples and simple licks in Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” and Ariana Grande’s “Problem” — why do you think they’re so popular all of a sudden?
Muskat: The saxophone is back, baby.
Kaplan: It’s a very elastic instrument. I think of the saxophone as a zone of distortion, and I try to sound like that. It emulates the human voice and it bends notes. Electronic music is all about bending pitch right now, so it’s imitating the saxophone in a funny way.
Muskat: You’re flattering yourself, aren’t you?
Kaplan: It’s about the instrument! The saxophone hasn’t been heard much in rock since the Eighties and it’s coming back in a different way, all crooked and broken.
Has the success of “Talk Dirty” had any immediate effects?
Muskat: We’ve been doing this for many years, but we’re always looked at as that semi-weird Mediterranean hip-hop group. We’re hard to describe; I don’t even know how to describe us. Our little lemonade stand got to a nice level through touring and a lot of viral action. Now we’re being chased by all these producers, which is really flattering. But the main thing is to keep making the music we’re making right now. We’re not doing anything different. We just keep evolving and brainstorming new ideas all the time.
Kaplan: I think the pop world is melodically flat and starving for content. So the more left-field you go, the more excited people get. “Talk Dirty” is a victory of the melody: The main hook is pretty much the melody, and it’s relatively intricate.
Yosef: It’s the melody’s flavor, tones and scale, which isn’t the type of thing you hear in mainstream music. And we do that with ten other instruments in our own music. It’s nice to see America dancing to these melodies.