Diar Turkmani | Staff Writer

If you’re an avid listener of rap music — specifically old school American hip-hop — you’ve probably come across one of the most haunting and melancholic tracks to ever bless the East-Coast 90s scene: Shook Ones Part II. Known for its cold, dark aura, the song starts with slightly echoing hi-hats, followed by the sound of a loud siren. Rapper Prodigy, one of the two members of Mobb Deep, and his friend then set the tone of the song with a couple of opening liners and back and forth conversation. What follows next is the most spine-chilling piano melody that crawls out of the song and into your skin.

I remember the day I discovered this track back in 9th grade, bopping my head to its melody; I slowly came to the realization that this track would forever be a timeless classic in any of my rap playlists. Of course, I’m not an anomaly. Almost everyone I know who’s listened to this track has had a similar reaction. It is no surprise that Shook Ones is acknowledged as one of the greatest rap songs of all time. What has made this track such an indisputable hit, however, is the combination of the gory piano melody (sampled by Havoc, the producer of Mobb Deep) with the aggressive delivery of Prodigy, as he describes the hard life he endured in the streets of Queensbridge, New York City. As such, music enthusiasts and producers alike dwelled on the intricacies of the beat produced by Havoc, trying to untangle the different components of the song – only to realize that the track’s potency is in its elusiveness and enigma.

Towards the end of the 1980s, with new technological developments in the music industry that allowed for more creative forms of music production, a larger number of beat-makers (a lot of whom were in the rap domain) began ‘sampling’ old tracks into new songs of their own. Sampling is, in short,  taking a part – or multiple parts – of a track already produced, modifying it, and building a new song out of this manipulation. Rap, as a genre, is notorious for having its producers rely on samples, mostly as a shortcut for producing good tracks. Soon enough, a culture of intentional mysteriousness developed among beat-makers, many of whom made it a point to search for lesser-known and obscure records to produce music that could make them stand out among their peers. In response, a simultaneous community began to organically grow in quest of “discovering” the samples of the different songs being produced in the era of the 80s and 90s. The hunt for original samples of the rap songs fervently devoured became a fun, collective activity for both amateur and unknown producers, who had no qualms about putting in the effort needed.

While most rap hits had their sample discovered by the early to mid-2000s, the sample of Havoc’s piano melody remained enigmatic and hidden, fueling beat-producers to indulge in its mystery more so than before. In specific, there was an online website formed in 2003, called the-breaks.com, which had provided a platform for different music heads and producers to come together and talk about their breakthroughs, discoveries, and thoughts via different discussion forums. Years and years went by, and Havoc’s piano melody just could not be cracked. Soon enough, finding the sample for Shook Ones became the white whale of these forums, with different producers claiming they found the true sample when in reality, they had not.

Discussions for hours, days, and years ensued with different rap fanatics coming together, editing and chopping up different tracks, trying to see if they could land the goldmine – but to no avail. At first, discovering samples was a form of healthy competition between beatmakers, but finding Shook Ones became a cooperative necessity. People from across the world came together to search for what made this song such a powerful track. It was not until 2011, nearly 15 years after the release of the song, that the sample had finally been discovered by Tom Heinke (known as Bronco on these discussion forums). It turns out that Havoc had used the melody from “Jessica”, a 1969 song by Herbie Hancock.

Now, perhaps to the average reader, discovering the sample might not be such a revelatory moment.  And indeed, it isn’t. After all, Shook Ones is just another song, and no betterment towards human society comes from finding the original song that was used to produce this classic.

What Havoc, at the ripe of age of nineteen, managed to do was literally bring together people from different parts of the globe, help them cooperate, discover new tracks, share them, discuss them, and make it a universal quest to find the sample. In essence, Havoc helped consolidate a dedicated community just from one simple melody chop-up. This is truly what a profound sense of music can bring towards us as humans in terms of satisfaction.

Prior to the internet, human bonds were expressed a lot of times through actions related to music such as buying someone a vinyl record or a cassette tape. The main reason why this was the case was because doing so implied you made an active effort to do something for a person. You took time out of your day to go to a vinyl record shop, remember your special person’s favorite album, search for it, pay a hefty amount to get it, write a small letter, and gift it to them. Similarly, on the producer side of things, searching for a sample meant digging hours and hours through records, one by one, until you found the right track. Then, you would share it with your fellow beat-makers, discuss the song, and dwell on how smart the producer was at creating the actual sample. In all cases, what music did back in the day was allow people to come together and find meaning in sharing, listening, and discovering songs.

This is not to say that the sense of community and belonging that music provided for older generations has ceased to exist in today’s age – not at all. It’s just that the way we bond over music has shifted drastically. Contrasted with older times, a huge chunk of our bonding nowadays lacks a sense of effort. Most people find no point in buying someone a vinyl record of their favorite album if they could just listen to it repeatedly on a music streaming platform. Moreover, digging through records to find a sample makes no sense if a random YouTube account will post all the samples of your favorite album in one single video. Still, music remains a strong outlet for people to share care and love for another; it is just expressed in different ways.

Nowadays, a young boy will rummage through a girl’s old Instagram highlights to find out a specific song that he knows in hopes of bonding with her on the ride back from a first date. Being on the “AUX” for a late night cruise with friends is a nerve-racking responsibility that presents you with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to present your exquisite taste in music. Sending songs to someone on WhatsApp is a sign of friendship, respect and interest – an act of sharing. Following each other on Spotify/Anghami is a sign of trust as you will have access to all the playlists you’ve curated, letting each other into the private world of music.

In essence, what we take from the story of Bronco discovering Havoc’s sample of Shook Ones is how important it is to discover, search for, and return to music. To realize that music is a major component in human bonds and a larger sense of community. The mechanisms may change along the way, depending on the time period we are in, but perhaps it is our duty to cherish what music has, and continues to, bring into our lives.