"Synthetic Substitution"
~ Melvin Bliss

[From Reward (7-Inch Single)]
 
Label: Sunburst Records
 
Release Year: 1973
 
Produced By: Herb Rooney      
       

In the mid to late 1980's, when rap music began to take definitive shape, sampling became as elemental to the artform as turntables and microphones. Through the usage of drum machines and samplers, Hip Hop producers found they could isolate drum sounds and melodic bits from the songs of yesteryear; and utilize these sonic morsels in their modern day productions. This discovery not only revolutionized the way rap records were made, it introduced rap fans to choice selections from an array of musical genres. As rap started to flourish, some of these sample sources would be used so often, they'd become essential building blocks in Hip Hop production. Among the most popular was "Synthetic Substitution", a grim gemstone from the early 1970's, whose drum line would be sampled with staggering frequency in the years to come.

At its core, "Synthetic Substitution" is a phantom creation; a mysterious number, recorded by an equally mysterious artist: Melvin Bliss. Born in Chicago in 1935, Melvin Bliss - born Melvin McClelland - was an industrious crooner; performing in naval bands as a member of the Armed Forces, winning talent competitions at Harlem's Apollo Theater in the mid-1950's, and traversing New York City from the late 1950's through the 1960's, in search of a stage to grace. In 1972, an attempt to boost his career prospects led Melvin to a Queens concert hall; a venue he'd hoped to rent for a self-promotional date. While waiting to speak with the venue's owner, Melvin met the mother of Herb Rooney, a songwriter-musician seeking a singer to record one of his compositions. After an informal audition with Rooney, Bliss hit the studio to put "Reward" to tape; a strutting soul burner that had the makings of a smash hit. In addition to "Reward", Herb Rooney presented Melvin Bliss with another song, to be used as the B-side of "Reward". That song - "Synthetic Substitution" - would eclipse its companion piece "Reward", and over time, it would take on monumental importance in the world of Hip Hop; powering thousands of bangers from the mid-1980's onward.

"Synthetic Substitution" - Melvin Bliss

As a composition, "Synthetic Substitution" is both morose and eerily prophetic. The song is underpinned by the percussive brilliance of the legendary Bernard "Pretty" Purdie, whose cobblestone drums provide the shots heard around the Hip Hop world over the last four decades. Pretty Purdie opens up with a crisp blending of snare, hi-hat, and kick drums over the song's first 10 seconds, and then an anonymous crop of musicians lay a moody mélange of guitars, keys and bass over Purdie's drum line. For his part, Melvin Bliss mirrors the emotive subtlety of the instrumental; using his precise tenor to wax philosophic on an artificial world, and delivering a bizarre narrative on a world gone mad through the overuse of technology. One can clearly sense the lament in Melvin's voice, as he warns of the technological takeover of mankind, while steadfastly holding onto the few authentic remnants of his daily life. As the song closes, Melvin wails "No! No! No!" while the instrumental slips into darkness; seeming determined to fight off the mechanical intrusions on his existence. And when the song officially concludes, listeners are left beholding what they've just heard: something strange, sublime, and far more plausible than some might care to admit.

In its time, "Synthetic Substitution" came and went without ceremony; perhaps too abstract for some tastes, and also due to the collapse of Opal Productions, the parent company of its issuing imprint Sunburst Records, which dissolved not long after its release. But, a little over a decade after its release, the song found a place in the record crates of young Hip Hop producers, who took to its dour melody and clip-clop drum line, and would make it one of the most sampled songs in Hip Hop history. With rap being a rhythm-driven medium, Bernard Purdie's 10-second drum solo on this song's intro understandably became a favored sample source among rap producers. In the mid 1980's, rap listeners became familiar with Pretty Purdie's drum kit through Ultramagnetic MC's, the Bronx quartet who'd unveil it on their 1986 single "Ego Trippin":

"Ego Trippin" (MC's Ultra Remix) - Ultramagnetic MC's

; and Philadelphia godfather Schoolly D, who applied a conga-like treatment to it, and got loc-ed after dark on his '86 single "Saturday Night":

"Saturday Night" - Schoolly D

Following the lead of Ultramagnetic and Schoolly D, several rap artists would draw from Pretty Purdie's well. In 1988, Biz Markie called on Purdie's drums to salute his DJ Cutmaster Cool V, on "Cool V's Tribute To Scratching":

"Cool V's Tribute To Scratching" - Biz Markie

In 1989, the "Synthetic Substitution" drums would support four disparate bangers: "Jazzy's Groove", a turntablist odyssey from DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince:

"Jazzy's Groove" - DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince

; "On Fire", a gangsta-leaner by Tone Loc:

"On Fire" (Remix) - Tone Loc

; "Funky Dividends", a love jones joint by 3X Dope:

"Funky Dividends" - 3X Dope

; and "Black To The Future", a Pan-African anthem by Def Jef:

"Black To The Future" - Def Jef

In 1990, Eazy-E (artist) and Dr. Dre (producer) applied some Compton menace to Pretty Purdie's drum line, for their off-the-wall thumper "Eazy Street":

"Eazy Street" - Eazy-E

The following year, a small crop of all-time greats borrowed Pretty Purdie's drums, including Digital Underground, for their buyer's remorse wedding theme "Tie The Knot":

"Tie The Knot" - Digital Underground

; Scarface, for his vengeful fable "Murder By Reason Of Insanity":

"Murder By Reason Of Insanity" - Scarface

; Slick Rick, for the booming boy-meets-girl jam "Venus":

"Venus" - Slick Rick

; Naughty by Nature, for their cipher rattler "Yoke The Joker":

"Yoke The Joker" - Naughty by Nature

; and for their timeless ode to casual sex: "O.P.P.":

"O.P.P." - Naughty by Nature

; Ice-T, for the sage street opus "O.G. Original Gangster":

"O.G. Original Gangster" - Ice-T

; and NWA, for the anarchic "Real Niggaz Don't Die":

"Real Niggaz Don't Die" - N.W.A.

In 1992, a trio of underground champions visited "Synthetic Substitution": Ultramagnetic MC's for the second time, for "Pluckin' Cards":

"Pluckin' Cards" - Ultramagnetic MC's

; and Gang Starr and Nice & Smooth, who rocked side-by-side to Pretty's drums on "DWYCK":

"DWYCK" - Gang Starr featuring Nice & Smooth

1993 was another banner year for "Synthetic Substitution" as a sample source, with several rap icons channeling Pretty Purdie's drum pattern, including Big Daddy Kane, for "Looks Like A Job For":

"Looks Like A Job For" - Big Daddy Kane

; 2Pac, for "The Streetz R Deathrow":

"The Streetz R Deathrow" - 2Pac

; the Masta Ace-led septet Masta Ace Incorporated, for "Saturday Nite Live":

"Saturday Nite Live" - Masta Ace Incorporated

; Los Angeles quartet The Pharcyde, for the comically insulting "Ya Mama":

"Ya Mama" - The Pharcyde

Gang Starr's Guru, for his New York subway jawn "Transit Ride":

"Transit Ride" - Guru featuring Branford Marsalis

; New York foursome Onyx, for a pair of mad face classics: "Nigga Bridges":

"Nigga Bridges" - Onyx

, and "Throw Ya Gunz":

"Throw Ya Gunz" - Onyx

; and the Wu-Tang Clan, who caught wreck over Pretty Purdie's drums on "Bring Da Ruckus":

"Bring Da Ruckus" - Wu Tang Clan

In the mid-1990's, "Synthetic Substitution" maintained its luster among the Hip Hop faithful. 1994 would find Gang Starr rekindling the song's drum rumbles, for their hood soliloquy "Code Of The Streets":

"Code Of The Streets" - Gang Starr

And the Wu-Tang Clan continued to be enamored by "Synthetic Substitution"; as evidenced by Wu producer The RZA using its drums in three mid-90's classics, 1994's "Nowhere To Run, Nowhere To Hide", by RZA's horrorcore supergroup Gravediggaz:

"Nowhere To Run, Nowhere To Hide" - Gravediggaz

; "All I Need", the '94 ghetto love jam by Method Man:

"All I Need" - Method Man

; and 1995's "Cuttin' Headz", RZA's nimble free-flow collab with Ol' Dirty Bastard:

"Cuttin' Headz" - Ol' Dirty Bastard featuring The RZA

Lastly, Pretty Purdie's drum line wasn't the only portion of "Synthetic Substitution" to be usurped. Its dour melody also found its way into Hip Hop, by way of The DOC, who rocked to it on his 1989 heater "Mind Blowin":

"Mind Blowin" - The D.O.C.

; and Redman, who weaved in into his rugged-but-smooth 1992 number "Jam 4 U":

"Jam 4 U" - Redman

With the passage of time, "Synthetic Substitution" has been permanently encoded in Hip Hop's DNA: joining "Funky Drummer" (James Brown) and "Impeach The President" (The Honey Drippers) as a sample source with one of the most recognizable drum lines in existence. Unfortunately, this song's creator would not earn his just due from this masterwork. Although "Synthetic Substitution" would be sampled for songs and albums that would sell millions of copies, Melvin Bliss received no compensation from these samples; a travesty he sought to remedy in 2010 by issuing the song as a digital download. But, sadly, Melvin's "Reward" came far too late; as he'd suffer a heart attack that summer, and pass away on July 26, 2010 at age 75. Though he's no longer here in the physical, Melvin Bliss lives on in the prophecies and vibes embedded within "Synthetic Substitution". With chemicals in the food supply, poisons in the atmosphere, and artificiality replacing various facets of everyday life, this song seemingly forewarns of the world we'd eventually inhabit. And, from an artistic standpoint, this song's tuneful precision stirs the senses, and makes its bitter truths easier to digest. If you're interested in Hip Hop samples, food for thought, or just good music, "Synthetic Substitution" has everything you could ask for. Despite its title, there's absolutely nothing synthetic about this record. It's pure, unadulterated soul.

Review by Syd Caesar

Reviewer's Note = If you're interested in "Reward", the A-side to "Synthetic Substitution", listen to the mp3 song below:

"Reward" - Melvin Bliss

Check out mp3 downloads of the featured songs below:

Song Title Artist Download
"Synthetic Substitution" Melvin Bliss
"Ego Trippin (MC's Ultra Mix)" Ultramagnetic MC's
"Ego Trippin (12-Inch Version)" Ultramagnetic MC's
"Cool V's Tribute To Scratching" Biz Markie
"Jazzy's Groove" DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince
"On Fire (Remix)" Tone Loc
"Black To The Future" Def Jef
"Eazy Street" Eazy-E
"Murder By Reason Of Insanity" Scarface
"Yoke the Joker" Naughty by Nature
"O.P.P." Naughty by Nature
"O.G. Original Gangster" Ice-T
"Real Niggaz Don't Die" NWA
"DWYCK" Gang Starr featuring Nice & Smooth
"Looks Like A Job For" Big Daddy Kane
"The Streetz R Deathrow" 2Pac
"Saturday Nite Live" Masta Ace Incorporated
"Ya Mama" The Pharcyde
"Transit Ride" Guru featuring Branford Marsalis
"Nigga Bridges" Onyx
"Throw Ya Gunz" Onyx
"Bring Da Ruckus" Wu-Tang Clan
"Code Of The Streets" Gang Starr
"Nowhere To Run, Nowhere To Hide" Gravediggaz
"All I Need" Method Man
"Cuttin' Headz" Ol' Dirty Bastard featuring The RZA
"Mind Blowin" The D.O.C.
"Jam 4 U" Redman


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