Let's Discuss Your Project

New call-to-action

Sam Chennault

Music for Forests: A Curator Q&A

At Third Bridge, we rarely do the same thing twice. Still, a recent project presented a curveball. Redwoods and Records is a community of nature and music enthusiasts who share the goal of providing soundtracks for redwood trails in Northern California. Ultimately, they hope that this experience will create awareness, foster appreciation, and drive donations to organizations devoted to preserving these fragile ecosystems. They turned to us to help curate these playlists. In order to scale this over a hundred-plus trails, we first created a taxonomy of trail types—old growth, steep inclines, etc.—along with situational variables: morning, sunny-day hikes, and so on. Next, we unleashed our music experts. Below, we chat with project curators Stephanie Garr, Justin Farrar, and Adrian Spinelli about how they approached this most unusual project.

How was this assignment different from a typical curation assignment? Was it more difficult?

SG: I actually thought this would be a breeze. I mean, I love music and I hike a lot. Makes sense. I had a few tracks I knew I had to include, but once I sat down to put it all together, I got stuck. Most curation assignments revolve around a pretty defined theme and audience. This one allowed me too much freedom, so I started obsessing over who exactly I was making these for. Anyone can be a hiker, after all, so what vibe do I want to create? Do I pick obvious tracks? Do people want to hear what they know or do they want to be surprised? Ultimately, I want others to enjoy these playlists as much as I do.

How did you tie your consideration of the setting, and the listener, into the tracks you suggested?

AS: I first imagined the trail I was selecting music for—the way it smells, how it's shaped, how it feels, and how the sun pierces the redwood canopies and hits the trail. I feel like every time I go hiking, I'm looking not only to get some exercise, but also, especially, to be inspired by what nature has to offer in that setting. It felt safe to assume the listener would share that outlook. So the music has to fit into that framework: Something that's going to inspire you to keep going 'til the end, but also to keep opening your mind in different ways from start to finish.

What was your decision-making process around the structure of the playlists?

SG: The ordering of a playlist is as important as the tracks themselves. I want the songs to almost bleed into each other, even if their sound is completely different. There’s no science to it, it’s just about feel. Of course, the first track is everything—that’s your thesis. I picked Caribou’s “Sun” to kick off Songs for Conquering a Difficult Hike, for example. I love the movement of that track. It’s bright and playful and makes you feel like you can conquer the world.

JF: I stuck to a basic wave pattern: a couple songs to increase energy followed by a couple that plateau out, then a couple that let that energy draw down a bit. It’s subtle—modulations. I tend to do the same thing with genre and artist popularity. If I place somewhat obscure experimental folk songs back-to-back, I follow them up with something a little more identifiable. Of course, if you find two songs that feel meant to be played one after another, you have to go for it. I’d zoom out, too: on Shadowy Songs for Tall Tree Canopies, for example, I placed Fairport Convention’s “Come All Ye,” an invocation track, at the beginning, and at the end I added Magical Power Mako’s “Sound, Mother Earth,” which was meant to draw the invocation to a close. I was thinking of the hike as a kind of ritual, and that this would be the ceremonial music for it.

Beats, Rhymes and Phife: A Data-Driven Look at a Tribe Called Quest

This post was originally published on April 1, 2016, on The Dowsers, a “magazine about playlists” produced by Third Bridge Creative. You can read more about that project here.

The following post and accompanying graphics are based on data provided by our good friends at WhoSampled, which manages the largest repository of user-generated sample data on the web. Download a hi-res version here and here. Graphic design by Studio Wyse. Illustrations by LeeAndra Cianci.

Consensus has it that the musical touchstone of my generation—the single point in our cultural history that every obsessive remembers—came when Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” blew up on mainstream radio. It’s a JFK moment; many of us can recall where we were the exact second we heard those big, clanky chords. From there, our eyes were opened and the world expanded.

But, in the end, that was more of a black hole. Kurt shot himself, and rock began to eat itself, iterating through various stages of post-grunge, retro rockabilly, rock-rap and other sounds until it became a parody of itself, a fount of boardroom nihilism and artistic inertia. These days, instead of Nirvana, I prefer to remember the first time I heard A Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It?” I was in a friend’s bedroom in Charlotte, NC. It was around midnight and a bit before my 14th birthday. We were reading Batman comics and dreaming of Gotham, or, really, anywhere other than the staid homesteads of suburban North Carolina.

As music nerds, we’d already digested the Velvet Underground and De La Soul, so we instantly got Tribe’s vibes and references, but blending these two opposing worlds—despondent, glamorous sleaze rock and idiosyncratic, jazz afrocentrism—was a revelation. And their debut, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, was all about connecting the cultural dots. They created universes by cobbling together post-bop saxophones, rolling bass lines, and hard boom bap beats, topping them off with Q-Tip’s fluid freeform rhymes that played an alto sax to the gruff, declarative blurts of Phife’s deceptively straightforward lyrics. 

Main Graphic with Animated Characters

That basic formula was there from the beginning, but it changed over time, and this evolution opened up hip-hop, changing its sound and its listeners forever. On their 1990 debut, jazz comprised nearly 20% of all samples. Compare this to 3% for hip-hop overall for that same year. As where other producers were sampling soul (50%) or other hip-hop songs (28%), Tribe was drawing from Cannonball Adderley (“Footprints” and “Bonita Applebum”), Lou Donaldson (“If the Papes Come”) and Weather Report (“Mr. Muhamad”).

Many people will put them in the context of fellow Native Tongue groups such as De La Soul, but that’s not entirely fair; on the quintessential album De La Soul is Dead, that group only used jazz 4% of the time—the majority of their samples came from soul (39%), hip-hop (31%), and rock (15%).

On “Rhythm (The Art of Moving Butts)” from Tribe’s sophomore album, The Low End Theory, Q-Tip raps, “Not selling out, that’s a negative, love hip-hop, love heritage.” It’s one of those value statements that resounds with the young—absolutist, purist, and strong. But it’s also fundamentally conservative, and, between 1991 and 1993 (the year they released Midnight Marauders), Tribe were anything but. Pivoting off the ideas that they laid down on their debut, they created an aesthetic that blended this heritage (which, for Tribe, was jazz) with the more wizened and grimy hip-hop sounds of the time for something that sounded amazingly current and completely singular.

For Low End Theory, jazz comprised 29% of all samples; for Midnight Marauders, that number was 31%. The types of jazz they sampled also changed. While they still leaned on greats such as Eric Dolphy (“Sky Pager” ) and Art Blakely (“Excursions”), they were also pulling from Latin jazz of Cal Tjader (“Midnight Marauders Express”) and the soul-jazz of Brother Jack McDuff (“Scenario”).

But, more so than just the music, there was another big change: the emergence of Phife. As we show in the graphic above, he only accounted for 10% of all verses on their debut (with Q-Tip delivering most of the rest). That number grew to 26% for Low End Theory and 39% for Midnight Marauders. The story goes that Phife was diagnosed with diabetes during the recording of Low End Theory, and, getting a glimpse of his own mortality, was determined to build out a legacy. He pushed Tip to both let him be a larger part of the group and for both of them to refocus their efforts. Tip wisely agreed.

Much has been made of Phife’s conversational flow and everyman persona, and the balance they brought to Tip’s more “abstract” style cannot be understated, but he also brought in both a playfulness and a set of references that allowed the group to create a more fully formed worldview. One way to look at this is the various allusions that they made to other musicians, obscure cartoons, Blaxploitation icons, various product pitchmen, DJs, and basketball players. For a kid in North Carolina in the ‘90s, this served as a hip-hop Tumblr, collecting an entire universe that was both familiar and alien.

On their debut, they referenced a total of five athletes, musicians, and movie/TV personalities. On Low End Theory, that number had grown to 70, and, by Midnight Marauders, it hit a peak at 86. Phife pushed them in this direction, but Tip certainly played along. On “Check The Rhime,” Phife drops a reference to the Energizer Bunny while Tip conjures Mr. Clean. They were different dudes, and their references reflect that (Tip drops an allusion to revolutionary black choreographer Alvin Ailey, while Phife brings up the Power Rangers), but it all worked together.

Over the years, this would change. On their lukewarm 1998 album Love Movement, Phife only had 22% of all verses, jazz had receded to 25% of all samples, and the river of cultural references had dried up to a trickle. But, for a few years, there was no group that did it better, and that sound became the template for everything from ‘90s headwrap rap and neo-soul to the smoothed out melodies of The Neptunes’ middle period. Eventually, this sound was so ingrained into our musical landscape that it became a cliché. But, in 1990, hearing it for the first time, it sounded like something wholly new and revolutionary. In the subsequent years, many of us have gone searching for that sensation elsewhere, with varying degrees of success. But in 1990, sitting on my friend’s bed and leafing through DC comics, it was unmistakable. We may have lost Phife, but those moments will be with us forever.

Bar chart_Tribe (1)
Stay Woke: Erykah Badu’s Best

This post was originally published on August 31, 2017, on The Dowsers, a “magazine about playlists” produced by Third Bridge Creative. You can read more about that project here.

Not to take anything away from Ms. Lauryn Hill—Miseducation is fearless, timeless, etc.—but seeing her in Berkeley reminded me that she essentially only has three albums of material (and that’s being generous). As much as we all love “Doo Wop (That Thing),” “Nothing Even Matters,” and “Everything Is Everything,” she’s a bit fossilized, and her performances, no matter how vibrant, are exercises in nostalgia.

Watching her, my mind began to cycle through artists from that era who haven’t succumbed to self-parody, grown creatively stagnant, disappeared for long stretches, or turned their attention to weird sex cults. It’s a short list, and Erykah Badu is near the top. Badu may have peaked commercially in the late ‘90s, but her releases since 2008 (New Amerykah Part One and Part Two and But You Caint Use My Phone) have been more restless, expansive, and experimental than anything she did in the first half of her career.

New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) is arguably the most important album of the 2000s. A woozy, psychedelic, politically prickly, endlessly esoteric album, it ultimately reaffirms the self in face of crippling oppression. Badu’s masterwork remains a singular artifact of the Dubya years, and serves as a precursor to everything from To Pimp a Butterfly to A Seat At The Table. Think you’re woke? Badu (along with underrated soul singer Georgia Anne Muldrow) popularized the term on “Master Teacher.”

But You Caint Use My Phone is similarly mercurial. Putting aside the fact that it’s a mixtape framed as a radio show that feels like a playlist—yeah, all of our definitions for collections of songs are blurred now—it skitters between pointed political commentary, melancholy slow jams, ham-fisted stand-up comedy, and rambling sound sketches—often within the same song.

Check out “Cel U Lar Device,” her remake of Drake’s “Hotline Bling” that skirts the line between homage and satire, and throws the original’s Caribbean rhythms against her own stilted Kraftwerkian vocals for a cheeky takedown of cell-phone culture. Later in the album, she’ll trot out a Drake impersonator to kick a few bars. It’s all unbelievably awesome, and probably better than anything the 6 God has ever made.

Of course, her first three albums—1997’s Baduziam, 2000’s Mama’s Gun, and 2003’s Worldwide Underground—are classics of their period. If you know anyone between the ages of 15 and 20, there’s about a 32 percent chance that Badu played some part in their conception.

But more than just baby-making machines, tracks such as “On & On,” “Didn’t Cha Know,” and “Next Lifetime” redefined R&B, updating Philly and Memphis soul for a new generation, and songs such as “A.D. 2000” (off Mama’s Gun) foreshadow the Alpha Centauri agitprop of her later work. She brought the vibes back to the genre, but, unlike some of her soul contemporaries, Erykah also had songs to cut through the nag champa fragrance. As always, she was in her own lane.

Wu-Tang Forever, Fixed

This post was originally published on June 9, 2017 on The Dowsers, a “magazine about playlists” produced by Third Bridge Creative. You can read more about that project here.

Freed from historical context, Wu-Tang Clan’s 1997 sophomore album, Wu-Tang Forever, is one of the best albums of that or any year. It contains some of the strongest verses from legendary emcees Ghostface Killah, GZA, and Method Man. The production gushes a cagey, synth-fueled dread, with (frustratingly brief) excursions into the Wu’s signature minor chord hip-hop minimalism for a sonic palette that absorbs all the claustrophobia and chaos of urban life in the mid-90s. There’s also an epic grandeur to it: This didnt sound like eight guys sitting in their basement, playing chess, smoking dust, and plotting a global takeover. Wu-Tang Forever sounds like the victory parade, exuding the scope and swagger of gods roaming the earth, surveying the spoils of a bloody but decisive victory. And though there was some grumbling from critics and old heads, audiences responded.

Wu-Tang Forever went to No. 1 in both the U.K. and U.S., drew widespread critical acclaim and further launched Wu-Tang to the upper echelons of pop-cultural ubiquity. This was the culmination of leader RZA’s famed five-year plan, which outlined how a group of rough-and-tumble NYC CMS with little traditional pop appeal would essentially take over the music world.Still, despite all of this, Wu-Tang Forever has always had its detractors. In fact, most Wu fans consider it to be the group’s first major misstep. Some of the blame for this can be laid at the RZA’s feet, while other reasons were beyond his control.

By 1997, hip-hop had changed dramatically. The golden era (whichever period you call that) had long since ended, and the jazzy, rugged beats that defined NYC hip-hop in the early to mid-90s were no longer fashionable. This coincided with RZA’s Staten Island basement studio flooding, which also forced the Abbott to move to a more digital and less sample-based sound. Wu-Tang Forever also lacked the chemistry and intertextuality of the original Wu releases. The group’s MCs were becoming more confident in their skills, and they stopped seeing themselves as pawns (or even knights) in a larger chess game being orchestrated by the RZA. They were also, it should be noted, battling various court cases, legal proceedings, intrasquad beefs, and personal issues.

All this meant that Wu-Tang Forever sounded drastically different than its predecessors. It was more commercial and polished, and largely lacked the griminess and insularity of Wu’s output during their “classic” period. But, still, this is a extremely talented group of rappers and producers, and there are flashes of brilliance. Over the past 20 years, the group’s rabid fan base have engaged in a parlor game of sorts to tease out those streaks of genius, while trimming the unwanted bloat. This is our entry, and we’ve cut the album down to 11 lean, mean classic cuts.


The first on the chopping block is the lead-off “track,” “Wu-Revolution.” This six-minute, meandering, morally confused, self-congratulatory piece encapsulates the album’s rambling sprawl. It didn’t help that this was also the first track on the album, and it set a horrible precedent. It was an easy call to drop. Tracks like “For Heavens Sake” were harder choices. This song is fine; the warped vocal sample is classic RZA and the detuned keys at the end of the chorus gives the track a velocity. On most albums, this would be a stand-out, but here it gets a little lost. The same with “Cash Still Rules/ Scary Hours (Still Don’t Nothing Move But the Money).” Aside from the fact that it has three titles jammed into one, this would be an awesome single from a middle-period Raekwon album. But as the sequel to one of the Wu’s most beloved songs, it disappoints. The loop at the center of the track doesn’t go anywhere, an Method sounds a little bit lazy.


“Hellz Wind Staff” is classic Wu: grimey, kung-fu whiplash beats, with the world’s best MCs trading lines. It’s a vibe that is carried through to “The M.G.M.,” which sounds like a banger from Wu’s golden era. The beat is dusty, the vibe violent, and the verses from Ghost and Rae are pure fire. “The City” survives based on the intro alone. Violent menace meets ghetto vérité, which nicely kicks off classic verses from Inspectah Deck. The song has problems—the chorus stumbles, and it could’ve used a verse from GZA—but it’s still classic Wu. Ominous, angry, and esoteric, with a haunting soul sample at its core, “Impossible” is flawless, and arguably the strongest track on the album—though “Triumph” has always been the default choice for that distinction. Both tracks are tough-as-nails.When stitched together, these tracks probably still don’t quite rise to the level of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). But this playlist still constitutes the best hip-hop album of 1997—and most years thereafter.

Stay in touch