The bass guitar has rarely been a favored instrument in hip-hop in its live, plugged-in incarnation. Sure, Grandmaster Flash and the other Sugar Hill crews utilized the mesmeric playing of Doug Wimbish in the late 70s, and occasional acts such as Arrested Development included a bass player in the 90s, but in the mid to late 80s – a golden age for fans of a certain vintage – the bass was present merely in sampled form. In this manner, albums such as NWA’s incendiary debut featured, in effect, a host of funky bassists (whether the four-stringers concerned knew it or not).
Straight Outta Compton was and remains a controversial release thanks to its language and misogyny, but whatever you thought of the lyrics rapped by Ice Cube, Dre, the late Eazy-E and the others, you couldn’t deny the power of the music. Dre’s production focused on beats and bass, leaving plenty of space for sampled brass and vocal content from a range of sources including the Beastie Boys, James Brown, Roy Ayers, the Pointer Sisters, Marvin Gaye, Eric B & Rakim, the Ohio Players, the Isley Brothers and elsewhere. Now, that’s a bass-rich list of acts if ever we saw one: Dre’s upbringing – surrounded by classic funk, soul and R&B in the 1970s – enabled him to dig deep into these vintage sources to create a layered, textured brew of sounds that formed a civilized counterpoint to the brusque lyrics.
Perhaps the best source of bass came from Dre’s wholesale borrowing of a two-bar section from Charles Wright & The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band’s 1971 song ‘Express Yourself’. This sample formed the heart of the NWA song of the same name and has at its core an insistent, lo-fi bass riff that is among the funkiest ever laid down. The bassist, Melvin Dunlap, accented the one in each bar, dropping an octave across those beats to create an effect that was almost fatally groovy. Dre recognised this and used the line to anchor this song, one of the best on Straight Outta Compton.
Nowadays hip-hop uses bass from all sources, whether sampled or played, and sample grabs of this nature are rarer because they’re expensive. The bass guitar is still there, though, so if you thought rapping and slapping didn’t go together, think again.