It’s one of the most pillaged hip hop samples of all time – a heavily-vocoded voice intoning “Ahhh… this stuff is really fresh…!”. But the origin of this iconic expression, arguably the vocal equivalent of the fabled ‘Amen Break‘, might surprise you.
The sample in question is taken from the flipside of 1982’s Change The Beat by hip hop luminary Fab Five Freddy alongside vocalist Beside (aka B-Side, or Ann Boyle) – a peculiar mashup of English and French vocals over a standard breakbeat.
You can listen to the track below. Fast forward to 3:40 if you don’t feel like waiting around… 🙂
Why French? Well, that had to do with Bernard Zekri, a French journalist who moved to the US to immerse himself in the emerging music of Queens and the Bronx, and found himself working alongside some of the key figures of the scene, including the aforementioned Freddy.
As Mark Katz recalls in the excellent Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-Hop DJ, Change The Beat was an odd tale of a womanising, Adidas-wearing private investigator, which was originally titled Une Sale Histoire, or A Dirty Story.
Released on the France-based Celluloid Records, the intention was to launch the track on both sides of the Atlantic, hence the need for a ‘rap’ that would cut it with hip hop fans in Paris and its environs.
“B-Side just took the mic to show how to sing the title line in French, ‘Change The Beat, Change The Beat’,” Jean Karakos, one of the founders of Celluloid, told The Quietus in 2013.
“Everybody was so surprised and said, ‘let’s keep that’ – so we ended up keeping one version in English and one in French. B-Side was American but her boyfriend was Bernard, a Frenchman, so she knew how to speak French and we could understand what she was saying.”
The backing track was provided by bassist Bill Laswell and keyboardist Michael Beinhorn, members of the band Material… who in turn were managed by Roger Trilling.
It is here that the story takes a memorable turn.
On the day that Freddy, B-Side and the crew were mastering the track, Trilling showed up late, having spent the day with Bruce Lundvall, an executive at Elektra Records.
“Bruce was about as country club as it gets,” as Trilling told author Dave Tompkins, in How to Wreck a Nice Beach, a potted history of the vocoder and its use in popular music. “A very Minnesota kind of character. He would put his feet up on his desk and his hands behind his head, and if he liked the song, he’d say, ‘This stuff is really fresh.'”
Hence, when Trilling arrived at the studio later, he relish the opportunity to send up the WASP-ish Lundvall, taking to the mic to repeat the latter’s familiar catchphrase – through a vocoder – for a laugh.
“Ahhh… this stuff is really fresh!”
And with that, hip hip history was changed forever.
As Katz explains in his book, within a year, the ‘Ahh‘ part of the sample was used in UTFO’s Roxanne Roxanne, while the ‘Fresh’ had been co-opted by Kurtis Mantronix on Needle To The Groove.
More and more artists would follow, with DJ Cheese, Dr Dre, DJ Apollo, DJ Shadow and many others plundering the seemingly throwaway vocal snippet, and enshrining it in musical history. B-Side, too, included Change The Beat on her 1985 album Cairo Nights, complete with the infamous sample.
And as for Trilling? He would go on to work alongside Nona Hendryx and Ryuichi Sakamoto, as well as producing avant grade artists The Golden Palominos, again for Celluloid Records.
But he would become perhaps better known as a studio manager, working on albums such as Mick Jagger’s She’s The Boss, Motörhead’s Orgasmatron, Ginger Baker’s Horses & Trees, Herbie Hancock’s Hardrock and releases by reggae artists Yellowman and Sky & Robbie.
And yes, like with Change The Beat, these were also “really freshhhh…”
PS: Shout out, too, to Greg Wilson, who put together a blinding re-edit of the track for his Credit To The Edit Vol. 3, released in 2018 – giving the vocal sample the prominence it deserves: front and centre.