Sample This traces the unlikely saga of “Apache,” an instrumental rock song by the ad hoc studio group the Incredible Bongo Band, which was plucked from obscurity by hip-hop DJs who made it one of the genre’s most popular samples. Mixing new interviews with a wealth of archival footage (and the kind of animated stills that are sure to date this as a product of the early 2010s), the documentary shows — not always elegantly — how these disparate groups of artists were joined by fate. The film often feels like two Behind the Music episodes mashed together: one about the session musicians brought together by puckish impresario Michael Viner in the early 1970s to create Bongo Rock, an album of funked-up movie soundtrack/surf-rock; and another about the new life given their largely ignored music by the pioneers of a new subculture that emerged just a few years later.
Unfortunately, we don’t learn nearly enough about what the Incredible Bongo Band and DJs like Kool Herc and Grand Wizard Theodore thought of each other’s work. Director Dan Forrer keeps detouring down byroads, and while some of these are deftly handled, such as the exposure bongo player King Errisson received through the James Bond film Thunderball, or the roots of the Incredible Bongo Band’s percussion-heavy sound in arranger Perry Botkin, Jr.’s scoring of the generation-gap movie RPM, others — Viner’s prior work as an aide to Robert F. Kennedy, guitarist Mike Deasy’s encounter with the Manson Family, and drummer Jim Gordon’s mental illness, which led him to murder his mother — while interesting in themselves, are treated in excessive detail that detracts attention from the main story. The film also barely scratches the surface of the cultural refraction involved in Gordon, a white rock drummer, playing in a jazz/R&B-influenced style, and then having his work (re-)appropriated by the next generation of black musical innovators. (There are even more layers than this, as “Apache” was a cover of a song popular among surf-rock bands, originally written by English songwriter Jerry Lordan, who was inspired by the 1954 western film Apache, in which Burt Lancaster played an American Indian.)
Late in the film, rock critic Will Hermes (who covered the saga in The New York Times in 2006) voices its dirty secret: Bongo Rock, on its own terms, is not a great record, but “Apache: and other tracks contain moments of inspired playing that would lie waiting in used record store bins until uninvited collaborators came along to take from them what they needed to create a new genre. (the break beat in “Apache” quickly spread far and wide in hip-hop circles, despite Kool Herc’s effort to disguise his discovery by ripping the labels off the record.) Given the gracious participation of the original musicians in his film, Forrer may have considered it unkind to dwell on this idea, but it’s the core of the story.
Despite moments of insight, Sample This neglects what is most fascinating about its subject, sacrificing depth for breadth. So in the spirit of hip-hop’s sharing of intellectual property, I’ll throw an idea out there: Behind the Beats, a series of half-hour episodes for TV or the web, each profiling a record, preferably obscure or unlikely, that became a popular sample: “It’s a New Day” by Skull Snaps, “Impeach the President” by the Honeydrippers, “Ashely’s Roachclip” by the Soul Searchers, even the Turtles’ “I’m Chief Kamanawanalea (We’re the Royal Macadamia Nuts).” Maybe a shorter format would force filmmakers to eliminate the frills and cut it straight down to the beat. Sample that.