Sample This is a documentary about one of the most widely borrowed songs in popular music history, a percussive explosion that partially formed the foundation of hip-hop. Sample This is also an often-compelling illustration of the interconnected nature of American culture. What it isn’t, however—though it could have been—is a deeper exploration of how sampling eventually transformed the way we consume music and media in general.
The history behind the version of “Apache” done by Michael Viner’s Incredible Bongo Band—which serves as the film’s focus—is complicated and rich. The song links to a mind-boggling array of significant moments, well-known personalities, and pop touchstones via its producers and performers. Those links include the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the Manson family, Eric Clapton, the Billy Graham Crusade, the racial-horror schlockfest The Man With Two Heads, and the James Bond movie Thunderball, just for starters.
First-time director Dan Forrer carefully, energetically explains exactly how all these things overlap. That’s Sample This’ great core strength: its ability to trace the independently compelling personal narratives that intertwined when Viner, a former aide to Robert Kennedy and a savvy record producer and marketer, assembled a group of talented studio musicians to record the 1973 album Bongo Rock, the second track of which was “Apache.” The song initially barely registered in the U.S. pop-music consciousness, but its bongo-infused drum break later captured the attention of DJ Kool Herc, who modified and extended that break to rally crowds at block parties in the Bronx. Soon, Grandmaster Flash was playing it. Another DJ, Grand Wizzard Theodore, was inventing scratching with it. And not long after, as Sample This narrator Gene Simmons only semi-hyperbolically puts it, that Bongo Band blip began to change the course of music history, becoming the so-called national anthem of hip-hop, which came to dominate American pop music.
Why is Gene Simmons, who flashed his tongue like a 1970s-era demon-snake in the rock band Kiss, narrating a documentary about hip-hop? Sample This eventually explains why, noting that Simmons and Viner were close friends. (Simmons wrote a few books that were released by Viner’s publishing company, Phoenix Books.) If Simmons’ voice had been used in a low-key way, that might have worked, but his face also appears on-camera multiple times, including before his reasons for participation are explained. It’s a distraction that makes him appear to be trespassing on rap property. In a film about the rise of hip-hop voices, it seems wrong not to hear one of those voices—say, that of pioneering rapper Grandmaster Caz, who is interviewed here—telling the story.
Visually, Forrer relies largely on archival photos, generic news footage, and the many talking heads that center each frame. Fortunately for him, those heads belong to some truly intelligent, fascinating characters, from the nation’s pre-eminent source on all things hip-hop, Questlove, to Mike Deasy, a veteran guitarist who contributed to Bongo Band recordings and also had a life-alteringly frightening encounter with Charles Manson, recounted in the film. Jim Gordon, another lauded studio musician who played drums with the Bongo Band, also adds a dark element to the Sample This story; in the 1980s, an undiagnosed acute mental illness led him to kill his mother. He’s still in jail.
“We’re the people you always heard but you never heard of,” Deasy tells the camera at one point, echoing the theme of another recent musical documentary about unsung backing musicians, 20 Feet From Stardom. All these under-the-radar talents have fascinating stories to tell. The great pleasure of Sample This comes from getting to hear them.
What the movie is missing is a deeper exploration into “Apache’s” continuing influence in hip-hop and other forms of media. The film notes that the track has appeared on enough singles to max out the storage capacity on multiple iPods, including releases by Missy Elliott, Amy Winehouse, and The Sugarhill Gang, whose 1981 riff on “Apache” may be the best-known version of the song. But Forrer never addresses the ramifications of all that breakbeat borrowing, from a cultural or legal standpoint. (A 2006 New York Times piece alludes to the complications that arose when Viner, who died in 2009, tried to track down illegal uses of the song, the hip-hop equivalent of chasing needles in haystacks.)
At one time, purists thought sampling was pop-music plagiarism. Now it’s so commonplace that it only elicits a blink on rare occasions, like this summer’s uproar over Robin Thicke’s alleged Marvin Gaye thievery on “Blurred Lines.” The whole notion of manipulating existing art into something simultaneously retooled and fresh has now extended to nearly every aspect of media. Technically, it’s not an entirely new concept. Even “Apache” is a cover of a song originally recorded in 1960 by British rock band The Shadows.
But the way consumers tweak and twist content now is much more pervasive. Every time a blogger aggregates a post from an outside source, or a YouTube genius creates a viral-video mash-up, they’re engaging in a variation of what those hip-hop pioneers were doing on turntables with “Apache.” It’s a shame Sample This doesn’t make these connections. As an enjoyable documentary about the history behind a surprising game-changer of a song, this film works well. But it misses the opportunity to take its material to the next level and say something bigger: That we’re living in a society where we’re all sampling, every day.