Digging Crates: Tracking Down a Track's DNA

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The art of discovery, meaning finding rare information about a subject of personal interests, has experienced a revolution thanks to the internet's ever-increasing flood of information. No one has to visit a library to find simple answers to a negligible question sometimes occurring in our daily lives. Furthermore, acquiring a wanted object, whether rare or not, only requires a few clicks. While this democratization provides desirable comfort for all of us, it partially displaces the pre-internet generation's romantic idea of hunting. The latest Visual Essay by One Block Down explores Hip-Hop cultures' lost art of crate digging.

According to Urban Dictionary, "crate digging" describes the act of hitting record stores to look out for old vinyl for sampling. As Hip-Hop was initially constructed from bits and pieces of already existing compositions, the godfathers in Hip-Hop production dissected the origins of particular sounds to discover a potential reinvention. The art of sampling was about a distinct sense of hearing, enabling musical architects to uncover multiple ways of introducing a melody or a rhythm to a new context. No matter the genre, a producer would seek breakbeats or snippets of songs, recording them onto a sampler to integrate them in conjunction with other tunes in the beat-making process.

Consequently, making the best beats not only required having an accurate ear but also holding the finest raw material. Therefore, producers were climbing through piles of wax for hours, unearthing everything that could possibly be the prototype for the next best-selling record. Every vinyl source was considered: from record stores and conventions to flea markets, thrift shops, garage sales, and book stores with secret cellars. Crate diggers would go hunting early in the morning, especially when visiting record fairs. DJ Premier once recalled: "There would be certain spots where we were like, 'Aw, they raped it already,' meaning there was nothing really good left to look for. As much as we were all friends and we're all connected, we wanted to get [to the record conventions] early. It was a sport." Furthermore, many producers consider traveling a valuable chance to access foreign music, allowing them to experiment with fresh sounds to an audience unfamiliar with the originating culture.

But scouring through dusty basements wasn't just the day-to-day business. Most prolific music producers had an incredible fixation on hunting down and uncovering peculiar sounds - No matter the circumstances. J Dilla, arguably one of Hip-Hop's most boundary-pushing producers, epitomizes this obsession. The Detroit-born and raised producer deceased in 2006 from a rare blood disease. However, his determination made him finalize his Magnus Opum "Donuts" in the hospital. His close friend and colleague, Madlib, once recalled the days he could still leave the bed "We were digging for records and finding everything we wanted to find. He had to go out and sit in the car 'cause he was too sick. When he would come back, he would find these records that we wanted. Then he would go out and sit out for a while. That's how deep he was in the music. Even when he was sick, he still had it".

Due to the development of technology, the art of making beats has drastically changed. Nowadays, producers seek samples from their bedrooms by merely browsing through YouTube. Crate Digging has become obsolete. Still, it remains an artifact of hip-hop culture, remembering the days of countless hours in piles of wax.

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