Soul Sides / Sliced: Breaking Beats Down

Breaking Down: Sly and the Family Stone's "Sing a Simple Song" (1968)

Joseph Schloss, music scholar and author of two essential books - Making Beats and Foundation - joins the Soul Sides Sliced team by breaking down one of the all-time funk classics, Sly Stone's "Sing a Simple Song" from 1968.

To best appreciate the break down, listen to this on headphones. If that's not convenient, stereo speakers can work too (just not as well).

Play the sound file on the right.

Joe's commentary (to read after you're done):
Recent news about Sly Stone got me to thinking about what an important influence he was on hip-hop…not just as a source of samples, but also as one of the first people to really carve out an African American aesthetic for studio production. This is something he rarely gets credit for.

Before forming his own group, Sly Stone worked as a producer and arranger in the San Francisco Bay area for much of the sixties, participating not only in its established Soul scene but also in its developing Psychedelic Rock scene, which experimented with the studio almost as much as it experimented with drugs. His own later work shows the fruits of this experience; he was wildly experimental in both his arrangements and his mixing.

In contrast to the traditional approach to recording Soul music that emphasized simulating an idealized live performance as much as possible, “Sing a Simple Song” emphasizes the recording process itself as an artistic form. For example, most Soul producers used the new stereo format to paint a sound-picture of a band on stage, with each instrument seeming to originate from the general area where that musician would have stood in live performance: vocals up front in the middle, drums in the back, bass, guitar, keyboard and horns spread out across the stage. But as a producer Sly Stone makes distinctive choices like panning a singer across the stage mid-vocal and placing the drums all the way in the right-hand speaker. Years later,  hip-hop producers realized that this made it possible to actually remove the guitar and horns from the track, simply by unplugging the left channel from their samplers. The right channel of the break of “Sing a Simple Song” – that is, just the drums -  would become the foundation of literally hundreds of hip-hop songs in the late 80s and early 90s.

Sly Stone also uses panning to spread vocals out across the entire stereo field (rather than blend them together as was traditional in harmonized Soul music), thus emphasizing the distinctive character of each voice. This prefigures hip-hop’s preference for radically contrasting sounds, and is also consistent with the musicologist Olly Wilson’s notion of the “heterogeneous sound ideal” in African American music.

The lyrics of this song also reflect Sly’s view of himself as simultaneously a performer and a producer, as an artist who not only expresses himself musically, but also controls the larger context in which that expression is heard:

Vocal (center): yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah
Vocal (left): I’m talkin’ talkin’ talkin’ talkin’
Vocal (right): I’m walkin’ walkin’ walkin’ walkin’
Vocal (left): I’m livin’ livin’ livin’ lovin’
Vocal (right): I’m livin lovin’ overdubbin’…
Vocal (Center): heh, heh, heh, heh

This is at a time when most people who didn’t actually work in a recording studio would be unfamiliar with the word “overdubbing”. In fact, the published lyrics of this song have the line as “Livin’, lovin’, know about lovin’,’” which suggests that even the people at his own publishing company didn’t get the joke. The line is about itself. Sly Stone is recording a vocal overdub about recording vocal overdubs. He is calling attention to his own production skills, which if you think about it is really a very hip-hop way to claim authenticity.

Moreover, aside from the bridge and the break, the entire song is basically a single repeated riff…an approach that would be later integrated into hip-hop aesthetics in the form of the “loop”. Sly Stone repeats the same musical phrase over and over again until it becomes a groove, and then uses the studio to build a complex interlocking texture around it. James Brown built his groove with live musicians and controlled it through a complex series of hand signals, fines and intimidation. But Sly Stone builds his rhythm in the studio and controls it with the mixing board. When Sly wants to give the drummer some, he doesn’t need to tell his musicians to back off, he just takes them out with the fader. (Actually, I think this was before mixing boards had faders, but you see what I’m saying).

Finally, the song neither comes to a distinct end, nor quietly drifts away. It collapses into a collage of studio chatter mixed with voices and instruments being abruptly pulled into and out of the mix. Sly ends the song by tearing it apart.

Oliver W: As a bonus, I created left and right channel-only mono mixes of the song. Here's the "left channel only" version and the "right channel only" version.

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