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From Isaac Hayes to Alessia Cara: how we got 'Here'

Del Cowie

Alessia Cara's "Here" is one of 2015's breakout singles. Rooted in a universally personal experience, the Bramptonite vividly recounts her attendance of arguably the worst party ever, and the single stood out as an anomaly against more scientifically sculpted pop hits, identifying her as a promising emerging artist.

Released in the spring, the appeal of "Here" has yet to slow down. The track recently entered the Billboard Hot 100 top 10, alongside other Canadian acts like the Weeknd and Justin Bieber, and Spotify announced earlier this week that the track was the most viral hit of 2015.

While Cara's performance on the track is impressive, the sample on which the song is built is integral to the song's appeal: the alluring, string-laden track in the background is "Ike's Rap II" by Isaac Hayes. The story of how the Hayes track got on "Here" seems innocent and serendipitous enough.

"It was actually the last thing we added," says Cara, speaking with BBC News earlier this year. "Two years after I wrote the song, it was still just a demo and then I went into the studio with these producers named Pop and Oak in L.A. I played them the track and they said, 'We want to to work on it.' Pop had the idea to pull up that [Hayes] song. He took four seconds of it and started putting it on a loop — then I started singing over that loop. And I realised, 'Wow, this really fits.' I don't know how he thought of putting that song in it, but I guess that's why he's a producer and I'm not!"

"Here" is not the first time the grandiose Hayes arrangement has been sampled for a hit single. Many people are aware that the song was also sampled by Portishead for its single "Glory Box" and for Tricky’s "Hell Is ‘Round the Corner." While all the songs share an immediate sonic similarity, if you take a look at them individually it’s clear each song has its own story and it’s not a case of a simple cut and paste.

Below, we look at the original Isaac Hayes song and how it has managed to perpetually surface in popular culture over 40 years after its initial release.

'Ike’s Rap II' by Isaac Hayes (1971)

"Ike's Rap II" appeared on Hayes's 1971 album, Black Moses. It was his fifth solo album for legendary soul label Stax Records and was the followup to his Grammy Award-winning soundtrack for Shaft. At face value, the title would seem to be the logical extension of artistic ego in the face of success, but the reality was actually quite different. The name Black Moses was bestowed upon the soul musician by a label security guard who saw the deep effect Hayes's music had on people.

"I had nothing to do with it. I was kicking and screaming all the way," says Hayes in authoritative Stax historian Rob Bowman's Soulsville USA book. "But when I saw the relevance and effect that it had on people, it wasn't a negative thing. It was a healing thing, it was an inspiring thing."

According to Bowman, Black Moses was actually a concept album, a "wondrously crafted, intense evocation of the vagaries of love gone bad," and Hayes admitted as much that it was about the breakdown of his marriage. "Ike's Rap II" fits firmly into this context, featuring Hayes's baritone open-heart confession. "I know you can hear me … I guess right now you’ve got the last laugh … I abused you … I took advantage of you … I apologize now," as the orchestral swell underscores Hayes's isolation with cinematic clarity.

Black Moses is considered to be Hayes's most personal work and represented him at his peak, featuring his extended beat breaks and radical reconfigurations of existing songs. These characteristics ensured Hayes's music was in vogue again with a new generation thanks to the emergence of hip-hop in the '80s: Public Enemy's "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos," from their seminal 1988 album It Takes a Nation of Millions..., samples Hayes's Hot Buttered Soul track "Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic."

'Glory Box' by Portishead (1994)

In the U.K., hip-hop-infatuated Bristol crew the Wild Bunch shared Hayes's penchant for reconfiguring hit compositions in the late '80s, albeit with a hip-hop twist, influencing the group's early producers, Smith and Mighty, to do the same. As Hayes often covered Bacharach & David, Smith and Mighty's own 1988 Bacharach & David reconfigurations of Dionne Warwick singles "Anyone.." and "Walk on..." were regional hits. When the Wild Bunch reconfigured itself later as Massive Attack, the Hayes influence is even more overt: songs "One Love" and "Lately," from the seminal 1991 Blue Lines album, sampled tracks from Hayes's catalogue.

Why is any of this relevant? Well, working as a tape operator and tea-getter during those Blue Lines sessions was Geoff Barrow, who was working on his own group project, Portishead, with singer Beth Gibbons. It's hard to think those sessions were not a direct influence on Barrow, who sampled Hayes's "Ike's Rap II" on Portishead's hit single "Glory Box" from the group's subsequent album.Dummy.

RJ Wheaton's 33 1/3 book on the album notes the song has been manipulated. Wheaton posits the loop is "an amalgam of more than one moment from the first minute or so of the track, seamlessly stitched together to avoid Hayes' vocal" and that the original's "jangly piano riffs" are filtered to the back of the mix. Wheaton also notes the low-end bass is boosted and Adrian Utley's jagged guitar riffs are foregrounded. Matched with Gibbons's ''heartfelt plea for sexual equality," the dramatic arrangement on "Ike's Rap II" supplied the requisite gravity.

'Hell is 'Round the Corner' by Tricky (1995)

According to Wheaton, Barrow played a demo of the song to Massive Attack affiliate and Blue Lines contributor Tricky, who was working on his debut album at a Christmas party for the management team that represented them both. The same "Ike's Rap II" sample appears on "Hell Is 'Round the Corner," found on Tricky's subsequent album Maxinquaye, released within a year of Dummy.

But Tricky’s version of events in an interview with Select magazine around the time of Maxinquaye’s release paints a different story. The interview indicates Portishead may have rush-released "Glory Box" as a single after hearing a tape of Maxinquaye. "I'm paranoid, but ... when they heard my track in the studio they brought out Portishead's so fast: boom, boom, boom," said Tricky at the time. "It's crazy, why should it matter?"

While Portishead was diplomatic in interviews about the similarity between the tracks, Wheaton writes there was apparently "an incident" at the 1995 Mercury Prize where Dummy and Maxinquaye were both shortlisted for the prize (Portishead ended up winning the prize). Whatever happened, to categorize Tricky's version as the same would not be entirely accurate. While Barrow may have a case against Tricky for the similarity of the instrumental spine, the space Barrow allowed for the sheen of Hayes's orchestral elements is entirely removed from Tricky's song. Instead, "Hell is 'Round the Corner" is unapologetically static-ridden and the paranoid, distorted lyrics sound like they are being delivered down a long-distance phone line. In the background it sounds like someone decided to purposely rub sandpaper all over the vinyl.

'Here' by Alessia Cara (2015)

With Cara's "Here," the sample has been reinterpreted again for another generation. Andrew "Pop" Wansel of Pop and Oak — who, in Cara's description of recording "Here," decided to loop the song — has a steeped musical background: he's the son of Dexter Wansel, a Philadelphia musician who worked extensively with famed songwriters Gamble and Huff.

"Philly guys like Smokey Robinson, Gamble and Huff, Thom Bell and Dexter Wansel, they was soul brothers," says Wansel speaking of the musical foundation of his hometown to The Fader.

It might be mere coincidence that the song directly preceding "Ike's Rap II" on Black Moses is "Never Gonna Give You Up," a Gamble and Huff composition reconfigured by Hayes. Either way, it's Pop’s reverence for the past that makes Cara's take on the sample different. In "Here," Hayes's vocal absence, so painstakingly removed by Barrow on "Glory Box" (and potentially from "Hell is 'Round the Corner") and reified by Tricky's roughed-up version is restored to the sample — not only as an accomplice but as an active agent.

At the very beginning of the song, before Cara even begins to sing, Hayes's resigned utterance — "I guess right now you’ve got the last laugh" — is retrieved from the original. However, given the context of the song, Hayes's voice takes on the role of an unidentified commentator weighing in on Cara's revenge on the lame partygoers in the song. His voice isn't isolated to the very beginning of the song; it pops up intermittently throughout, saying "I apologize now," as if feeling sorry for Cara.

Cara's producers, while obviously aware of the Portishead and Tricky uses of the sample given the fact they used it in exactly the same way, were also cognizant of — and eager to — incorporate Hayes's importance into the song, especially because of Pop’s family connection to classic soul music.

"A lot of people think I sampled Portishead, but technically it's Isaac Hayes," says Cara talking in a radio interview with BBC DJ Benji B.