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Tuesday, October 28, 2003
One of the tricks you can pull as a producer is to throw a slowed-down (i.e. pitched lower) hi-hat sample into the beat. This has become a staple of both trip-hop and the kind of vaguely trip-hop production you hear on a lot of midtempo MOR radio songs these days (think the backing for "Everyone Wears Sunscreen" or whatever the fuck that song was called), and it works well because it takes what's normally a tinny beat-keeper that tends to stand out in the mix into something darker, somewhere between a snare and a ride. It goes really well with slower, more atmospheric stuff, but it also makes the whole beat seem a little beefier in the midrange.

But I was kind of surprised to hear it on the Beyonce album, on the song "Yes," and I was especially surprised to hear it actually work well, given the way it's been abused of late. I really love the beat that starts off this song. It's slow and loping and sexy as hell, not really hip-hop but not really anything else either--just kind of industrial at 15 RPM. The vinyl crackle at the beginning can be a trip-hop signifier (that crackle's all over Portishead, of course) or dub signifier, but the first thing I thought of, semi-embarrassingly, is the remix of Tori Amos' "Hey Jupiter," partially because the accompanying video was slowed down too, given the slowed-down hat a particular resonance. But it's there in a lot of laptop stuff too, in granulated pitch-shifted samples (think the end of Donna Summer's "What You Truly Need" or some of Kid606's outros), as well as being in those mainstream trip-hop productions I talked about before.

Then there's the guitar loop. It's a backwards guitar, but it doesn't sound psych in the least; indeed, the weird part is how a lot of the tones it's running over there lead so clearly into the slow-jam. But what's especially odd about it is that it sounds like, well, an intro--an ambient or experimental intro or segue that would then resolve into something. But that's the beat! And that's, basically, the whole song. Beyonce just takes it and fucking runs with it, dropping all these different melodies and bits over it. I hear maybe some bass (?) and maybe an additional guitar added, but really, it's pretty sparse. I guess it's a slow jam, but at the same time it's very much not. Both the trip-hop and the industrial feels remain, while the vocals seem like they could have come from a rave-up, with the backing slowed down to half speed.

So what this song really reminds me of is Radiohead's "We Suck Young Blood," and of course the reason for that is the handclaps. Both have that same loose, slow, loping feel, with the beats falling somewhat imprecisely, like a drunken backing band falling under the weight of their instruments. And there's the handclaps, present in both, if a bit more prominent in the Radiohead, holding the whole thing together. The guitar loop wouldn't be so out of place on HTTT. And the vocals are similarly odd and high. Radiohead goes on to rock out and Beyonce drops in a shitload of backing vocals, but they both come back to that oddly similar beat.

And yes, I really do love that beat. Because every time I restart the song (and I've just done so about 5 times) I can hear a totally different part possibly kicking in instead of the vocals. I can hear a driving bassline. I can hear an organ part. I can hear a horn section. And all of these could be in totally different chord structures or riff models. In fact, I think it would be really interesting to make a riddim album off this beat. Maybe I'll try it sometime. But if not, maybe someone else will. Any takers?