Sampling is a staple technique for music producers, and creates stepping-stones for the next artists in line. It also allows for genre-morphing mixes that look baffling on paper but can give a song an iconic appeal or breathe new life into it. And it can open doors for audiences, leading them to new sounds and genres. Funk singer-songwriter Edwin Birdsong had his 1979 tune “Cola Bottle Baby” sampled by Daft Punk in 2001 for “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger,” which was in turn sampled by Kanye West for the 2007 single “Stronger,” establishing a long-lived chain of influence.
What about sampling your own work? The Beastie Boys, Kanye West, and Public Enemy have all done it, whether to make a tongue-in-cheek joke or to elevate an older verse’s impact with new structure and production. This kind of art may not seem to share much with postminimalist classical music, but they both attempt to transcend the conventional with seemingly simple experiments that can have a transformative effect.
New York City composer Michael Vincent Waller specializes in simple, lucid, melodic music that draws inspiration from postminimalism, and his new collaborative album, Classic$, makes the hypothetical connection with sample-based hip-hop explicit. Waller samples his own compositions as groundwork for trap production and rapping in an attempt to illuminate what makes this subgenre of hip-hop click.
Waller wanted to mesh gentle string melodies with lyrically aggressive but sonically druggy bars from the likes of Chicago rapper Valee, whose work exemplifies many of the qualities in trap music that intrigue him. So he pulled some strings and got Valee to actually participate, alongside artists such as Lil Gotit, Duke Deuce, and Shanique Marie. Coproducer Lex Luger provides another key piece of the puzzle: his trademark sound, with its distinctive sirens and hi-hat patterns, acts as a blueprint for much of what we hear in the rap mainstream today.
I interviewed Waller about sampling, his creative workflow, and the intent behind Classic$. Valee weighed in via e-mail.
John Cotter: I haven’t seen a musical collaboration this deliberate in a while. You have to get the right people in order to emulate those sounds that you want. What was that process like, connecting and working with the artists you wanted to within hip-hop, especially being from a contemporary classical and avant-garde background?
Michael Vincent Waller: I reached out to Valee’s manager, Andrew Barber, as I was always a fan of Valee since GOOD Job, You Found Me. I remember being like, “He’s gonna blow up.” This is a really unique and different-sounding flow, with articulation that I haven’t heard before from pretty much any other rapper. Valee has a very adventurous palette when it comes to experimental and minimal beats.
So there were two overlaps there, and then the fact that this was classically inspired and a Lex Luger collaboration were also very enticing things for him. It kind of came together perfectly. I got Lil Gotit and Duke Deuce as a curatorial and executive-producer decision in order to complement the album. I had verses from Valee on two songs and needed something else to balance them out and make them more exciting.
You said that part of what pulled Valee into the project was Lex Luger, and many hip-hop or trap fans might gravitate toward it through similar associations. But by meshing styles and genres together, what do you hope to communicate to trap fans who might have certain expectations for what a trap album should sound like?
MVW: It’s slightly prescribed in the sense that it’s usually going to be, you know, trap music. It’s not going to be anything else. The drums will have a certain styling, there’ll be rolls in the hi-hat patterns or certain patterns that you could expect. There will definitely be 808s. You’re probably going to hear some sort of melodic fragment that’s repetitive, whether it be a synth, a guitar, or something moody or spatial that’s also catchy.
The modern idea of trap really started with Lex Luger and 808 Mafia. That 2009-2011 sound, you really hear a difference, in that drum patterns really did change. I think that’s what they expect—something in that pocket of certain 808 stylings or drum patterns, and using melodies that are very catchy in a lot of ways. Trap is usually very catchy music.
That being said, I think you get all that with Classic$, right? The good pleasures of trap music. You get the opportunity to hear someone who’s made trap and rap and blurred those lines. But I think what’s unique is fans aren’t going to hear a beat style that they’re used to. They’re not going to hear a familiar sampling process, but maybe they’ve heard things like it. Maybe you’ve heard some strings and luscious arrangements with Kanye, or even in Pop Smoke’s drill productions. Let’s just say it’s different. It hits different.
The “it hits different” part is what I find so interesting, because you can’t go to another Duke Deuce or Valee project and expect to hear the sounds that you get on Classic$. But your career and musical identity have shown audiences that you have a keenness for not only postminimalism but also for slower, more concentrated melodies. You didn’t seem to sacrifice any of that for this project. How did you keep your musical identity while mixing genres?
MVW: I’m really pleased by your observation, and the intention was there. My ear was gravitating toward mixing genres, but it was something completely organic. There was some trial and error with other producers, and it wasn’t until the Lex Luger collab that I heard my voice. This was a very organic, understated kind of intuitive dialogue that emerged between us during the heart of the pandemic. I don’t think I knew when I asked Lex that he would give me the result that I heard my music so clearly fit into.
It felt like the cover of the album: looking into a world inside of another world. It wasn’t something that was just a one-off remix with Lex; it was something that needed to be fully fleshed out within a project. That was the realization that I had, once this organic collaboration happened.
Postminimalist art has acted as a catalyst for experimentation, giving you a push or a reason to break boundaries and see what something might sound like. Do you have any specific moments of collaboration that exemplify the album’s experimental nature?
MVW: There were two big moments. One was when I got the first verse from Shanique Marie, and the other was when I got the stems back for the song “Still Do” with Valee and Lex Luger. When I heard those, I thought to myself, “This is right—this belongs together.”
Then there was a little bit of experimentation, and it wasn’t until the new year where I locked in. At that point, I was looking to get more from Valee. I knew there was something there, and it needed to be developed. There’s a certain lightness to both Shanique and Valee’s styles [both artists appear on the Classic$ track “Really Wanna Know”]. Shanique is much more energetic, but there was something that connected them in the sense that they didn’t push their voices around the beat. They didn’t push their presence or try to command control of their voice on top of the beat. For Valee, it’s almost like he’s whispering to you in a really smoky dance. It’s ethereal and otherworldly how he raps, almost a little trippy. I think Shanique has more of that celestial style, where it’s heavenly but also a very light, angelic style.
What pulled you into doing a classically influenced and composed trap album? I’ve noticed that the darker, brooding aspects of classical melodies thematically align with a lot of the production on your songs, like “Uninvited” or “You & Me Both.”
Valee: The music was unlike anything I’d ever heard. No one else is rapping over that kind of stuff, so I wanted to try something different. It was a challenge and definitely had a spooky element to it. I like that. I always wanted to work with Lex Luger as well, so it all just came together perfectly.