“I gotta say, when it comes down to discovering weird samples, that dude’s kind of all over it,” says Now Again Records founder Eothen “Egon” Alapatt of Kanye West, the superstar producer who’s dropped five sample-soaked releases in the past five weeks. “He has a lot of help, of course, but he also has really good ears and picks out really cool stuff that not a lot of people would.”
Since 2002, Alapatt’s globetrotting Now Again Records – originally an offshoot of dusty-fingered indie hip-hop titan Stones Throw – has crate-dug American funk obscurities and anthologized funk and rock scenes in Nigeria, Indonesia and Zambia to re-release for a new audience. For his wild Wyoming summer, West has sampled extensively from the label’s rarities and contemporary revisions, including Seventies Indianapolis funk crew Amnesty, Iranian rock pioneer Kourosh Yaghmaei, modern groove revisionist Mr. Chop and space-is-the-place weirdos the Heliocentrics. Case in point: Pusha-T‘s “Games We Play” makes use of Texas soul musician Booker T. Averheart’s 45 “Heart ‘N Soul” which Alapatt originally reissued on the 2005 comp Texas Funk: Black Gold From The Lone Star State 1968-1975.
“He’s doing some really fucking amazing stuff,” Alapatt says of West. “He’s not the first person to sample that. I mean, since I reissued that, people that I know have been sampling it, and they have not come anywhere near doing anything like he did. What he did was completely transformative. Collectors I know were like, ‘Until you mentioned it I had no idea that’s what that song was, and I’ve known that song for 20 years.'”
“We have made this music available in a way that puts it in front of people who are doing the creative process.”
In April, West tweeted that he was “hand producing” and “chopping samples from the sunken place.” His recent tracks showcase a funky, home-brewed sound that – like it or hate it – sets these releases apart from the radio’s sea of martial trap beats, revisiting the unique groove that helped make hits like “Gold Digger.” Around the same time as West’s initial rise, Now Again and the reel-to-reel archeologists at the Numero Group, another label that specializes in surfacing forgotten gems, spent the better part of the 2000s on the cutting edge of reissuing unappreciated funk and soul. Now their extensive catalogs are being mined by West, in the same way that the 25-record Ultimate Breaks & Beats series once gave producers in the Eighties and early Nineties the James Brown and Incredible Bongo Band licks they needed to build the sound of modern hip-hop.
“We’re not feeding anything to Kanye’s people,” says Rob Sevier of the Numero Group, the Grammy-nominated reissue label renowned for their thorough liner notes. Though recently they’ve begun exploring exotica, Nineties indie rock and private-press New Age, their “flagship” Eccentric Soul series shines a spotlight on obscure soul labels like Florida’s Deep City, San Antonio’s Dynamic and Kansas City’s Forte. They’ve released music from Ypsilanti hard-rockers Air, underheralded Stax group 24-Karat Black, late Sixties gospel singer Shirley Ann Lee and San Antonio vocal group the Royal Jesters – all sampled in West releases this summer.
Though Sevier and Numero Group have done the hard work of digging, releasing and licensing – typically factors that make sampling old records harder and more time-consuming – he doesn’t believe West’s deep dive into the label means that sample clearing houses have his number.
“I don’t think anyone is making decisions at the creative flashpoints of this process, where they say, ‘Hey, let’s sample this ’cause it’ll be easy [to clear],” says Sevier. “Because if it was happening, people would be hanging outside our office waiting to see what records we’re bringing in. It would be a lot more about us. This really is not about us at all. The only thing that really changes is the availability. We have made this music available in a way that puts it in front of people who are doing the creative process.”
Now Again has a more proactive approach. Like Numero, Alapatt often acquires the rights to more songs than he can release on a compilation: TV, film and commercial licensing can be a lot more lucrative than releasing LPs. However, unlike Numero, he is actively making sure these sounds are getting into the right hands.
“I came from a hip-hop background,” says Alapatt, who was general manager of Stones Throw for more than 10 years, “so my whole thing has always been trying to get music sampled, because that’s the kind of hip-hop I fell in love with… I’ve put together a very comprehensive hard drive full of really well organized folders that I’ve been sharing with producers and engineers and music supervisors and stuff for years. This stuff makes its way around.”
“I don’t think it’s just Kanye going out there and saying to his intern or whatever, ‘Buy me a bunch of comps.’ I think it’s a bunch of people putting together the ideas and sample sources and just sending folders over.”
Recent Kanye-produced songs like Christina Aguilera’s “Accelerate” and A$AP Rocky’s “Jukebox Joints” came from songs that Now Again represents the rights to, but didn’t release on comps. Indonesian band Rasela appears on Now Again’s Those Shocking Shaking Days: Indonesian Hard, Psychedelic, Progressive Rock and Funk 1970-1978 – but the A$AP track samples a different song entirely. Were they found in one of Egon’s folders?
“You know, it’s a good chance,” he says. “That’s what I think happened with the Techniques IV” – the Texas soul group whose 1971 tune “I Feel So Good Inside” was sampled on “Accelerate.” “Because I have issued a lot of music from [songwriter] Ron Brown’s catalogue, but I only ever pitched that. It’s never been reissued.”
“I was talking with Ken [Shipley of Numero Group] about this, and he was talking about a wildly different way of approaching the same type of thing, which is basically going after as many interrelated catalogues as possible, purchasing the rights to them, and then feeding it out through digital playlists and compilations and stuff like that,” Alapatt says. “And I thought, well, hey, look at the odds. By you doing that and me doing this, we both have a bunch of songs on this new set of Kanye records.”
He points to an example from another artist: Jay-Z’s 2013 song “F.U.T.W.,” produced by Timbaland and J-Roc. “I cleared it after the fact,” Alapatt continues. “[The sample was] by Amnesty, by the way, the same band that Kanye used for ‘Lift Yourself.’ When we ended up getting in touch with Timbaland and J-Roc … it became obvious that the reason they hadn’t cleared the sample is they didn’t know what the sample was. They were delivered a series of chopped samples and they just used it. No one figured out what it was and it got issued. So I try to be proactive because I want to be able to clear this stuff ahead of time.”
Kanye West and his team, dealing with an intense release schedule this summer, have worked in unpredictable ways. Both Alapatt and Sevier say some of their tracks on the Pusha-T album DAYTONA were cleared as little as one month in advance. “That ‘Lift Yourself’ track,” says Alapatt, “I found out about that five hours before it went live.” Sevier says he heard about Ye’s “Ghost Town” from the sample clearing house the day before it was released. “They were in such a rush they misspelled Kanye West’s name,” he says. Recently, Sevier told Pitchfork that a sample of a song Numero released on a set of three 45s of music from Cleveland’s Boddie Recording Company ended up on Teyana Taylor’s West-produced K.T.S.E., which dropped last Saturday — and the label hasn’t contact them about clearing it.
“Getting requests the day before is not the way things should be,” says Sevier. “That’s not ideal. But at the same time, I think that this style of working seems to be really suited to Kanye. This feeling of being able to release things constantly … matches the way that people experience news and culture in general. Everything is very immediate. But that doesn’t really work for sample clearances. This is the one dimension of this creative process that can’t be done ad hoc. It takes work and it takes some patience. And I’m sure it’s very frustrating for his legal team.”
“They were in such a rush they misspelled Kanye West’s name.”
Alapatt strikes a similar note of concern: “I found out about [the Amnesty sample on ‘Lift Yourself’] and had to pre-clear a song I didn’t hear, and expect to work out the details later in a way that was equitable to everybody. And when I was listening to the song that evening, I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.'”
The song, notoriously, featured a bunch of gibberish lyrics like “poopy dee scoop.” “I was like, ‘I just said yes to an internet troll, and no one’s gonna get paid, and it’s gonna be a complete nightmare,” Alapatt recalls. “The opposite’s happened. Everybody’s been super cool… And everybody, including the band’s heirs and the other members of the band, have been cool. So I’m like, damn, man, this is a great end to that story.”
Alapatt found the Amnesty record on a demo tape in Indianapolis in 2001 and released it on Now Again in 2007 as Free Your Mind: The 700 West Sessions. In the early part of the ’10s the set had what he calls “its little moment,” with samples showing up on songs by Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa and Dom Kennedy, “but it was just dormant for years… After Kanye used it, I realized, ‘Damn, what a great sample that was.’ You know? It took him and whoever he was working with to really dig that one out.”
Both Sevier and Alapatt say they’ve seen bumps on their Spotify plays from sample use, but nothing too significant in album sales – though West’s use of “Dirt and Grime” by D.C. funk group Father’s Children in 2016’s “Facts” helped bring a Numero record that Sevier said was “petering out” back into print.
“The luxury of time is a big part of this too,” says Sevier. “Streaming really leads to being included on a playlist which leads to being included on another playlist, which catches the attention of a music supervisor.”
Indeed, Numero and Now Again’s unearthed funk has been used in films like Moonlight and a pivotal scene in Blue Valentine and in ads for Mercedes and Oreos. Their role in paving the zeitgeist through lost, forgotten and unsung grooves makes them America’s record nerds.
“I’m trying to do what Lenny Roberts and all those guys did with Ultimate Breaks and Beats. If I can influence the hip-hop discussion in any way, oh my god, man, it’s the reason I got into this shit,” says Alapatt. “When this shit’s happening with Kanye, I’m like, dude, this is incredible – you’re chopping the dopest shit.”
“Kanye’s going in there and sampling Black Savage. Who’s doing that?” he says about West’s “Yikes,” which samples the mid-Seventies Kenyan funk band. “Not many people are digging deep to find the dope moments on the Black Savage record. Which, by the way, when I first heard it 12 years ago, I tried to track down and broker because I thought it would be an incredible sample source. Not to say that taste is a barometer of everything, but it has to be a barometer of something, because Kanye’s using this stuff, right?”