A Great Compilation of “The Lick” Found in Music Everywhere: From Coltrane & Stravinsky, to Christina Aguilera

A cou­ple years ago, we brought you a post on the his­to­ry of the “Amen Break,” six sec­onds of sam­pled drums from a gospel instru­men­tal that—since sam­pling began in the 80s—has became a ubiq­ui­tous rhyth­mic ele­ment in vir­tu­al­ly every pop­u­lar genre of rhythm-based music, from hip-hop, to drum and bass, to EDM. While the tech­nol­o­gy that enabled the “Amen Break” may be unique to the dig­i­tal era, the sam­ple’s end­less iter­a­tions show us some­thing time­less about how music evolves.

Pick­ing up on Richard Dawkins’ 1976 coin­ing of the term “meme,” Susan Black­more argued in The Meme Machine that “what makes us dif­fer­ent” from oth­er ani­mals “is our abil­i­ty to imi­tate…. When you imi­tate ssome­one else, some­thing is passed on. This ‘some­thing’ can then be passed on again, and again, and so take on a life of its own.” In this the­o­ret­i­cal schema, the meme is a fun­da­men­tal unit of cul­ture, and the “Amen Break” is indeed a per­fect exam­ple of how such units guide cul­tur­al evo­lu­tion. So is anoth­er very wide­ly imi­tat­ed melod­ic ele­ment in jazz and rock and roll. Var­i­ous­ly tran­scribed as “Doo Ba Doo Pee Dwee Doo Ahh” or “Doo ba dih bee dWee doo daah” or oth­er non­sense syl­lab­ic sequences, it is just as often referred to sim­ply as “The Lick.”

Licks are, in gen­er­al, part of the stan­dard vocab­u­lary of every musi­cian. They come in all forms, writes sax­o­phon­ist, com­pos­er, and music the­o­rist Joe San­ta Maria—“Cool, Skanky, Soft, Crunchy, Salty, Dirty, Screamin’, Sul­try, Tasty”—and they get repeat­ed again and again. But there is one lick in par­tic­u­lar, as you can see and hear in the super­cut above, that—like the “Amen Break”—has man­aged to seed itself every­where. “The Lick,” it seems, “per­vades music his­to­ry.” It shows up in Stravinsky’s “Fire­bird,” Player’s “Baby Come Back,” Christi­na Aguilera’s “Get Mine, Get Yours.” Writes San­ta Maria, “Every­one from Coltrane to Ken­ny G has put this hot lick to the test.” It even has its own Face­book page, where users sub­mit exam­ple after exam­ple of appear­ances of “The Lick.”

Unlike the “Amen Break,” which can be defin­i­tive­ly traced to a sin­gle source (the B‑side of a 1969 sin­gle called “Col­or Him Father”), no one seems to know where exact­ly “The Lick” came from. At some point, its ori­gin ceased to mat­ter. While cer­tain licks are played very self-con­scious­ly, San­ta Maria admits, “to wow and mys­ti­fy,” or “entrance groupies like the pied piper,” the arche­typ­al, defin­i­tive­ly named “The Lick” seems to have worked itself so deeply into our musi­cal uncon­scious that many play­ers and com­posers like­ly have no idea they’re repro­duc­ing a musi­cal quo­ta­tion. For what­ev­er rea­son, and your guess is as good as mine, “The Lick” has become a gen­uine musi­cal meme, a “unit of imi­ta­tion” that prop­a­gates musi­cal cul­ture wher­ev­er it lands.

via Twist­ed Sifter

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The “Amen Break”: The Most Famous 6‑Second Drum Loop & How It Spawned a Sam­pling Rev­o­lu­tion

A His­to­ry of Rock ‘n’ Roll in 100 Riffs

Cab Calloway’s “Hep­ster Dic­tio­nary,” A 1939 Glos­sary of the Lin­go (the “Jive”) of the Harlem Renais­sance

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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