Despite its clichéd status, one production trope continues to permeate through the music community, ironically and unironically, but most likely self-aware in both cases.
And if you read the headline, you already know that would be the inclusion of police siren samples.
However, this background additive, though unoriginal, still manages to serve its purpose in creating a lurking sense of danger and civil unrest in songs. Sirens use is found predominantly in hip-hop, where N.W.A. first employed it in their 1988 song “Straight Outta Compton,” but can also be found in punk, indie rock, classic rock and other music styles.
Most of the earlier examples of the samples’ use — I wonder how many royalties that squad car received — revolve around artists’ run-ins with the police or feelings toward the institution of social order.
It seems that the earliest sample of the siren’s use occurred in 1977, when The Clash used it to open up their song “White Riot” on their eponymous debut album. However, in 1973, REO Speedwagon used a variation of a siren played on a keyboard rather than using a sample in their song “Ridin’ the Storm Out,” so you could potentially count that as being the first as well, despite the unrelated subject matter of the song.
Four years later in 1981, the band Red Rider would use an ambulance siren in their hit song “Lunatic Fringe,” which, despite not being a police siren, still inspires fear that something bad has happened, furthering the practice.
Then, from 1988 to infinity, hip-hop artists made the sample their own with songs like “Straight Outta Compton,” KRS-One’s “Sound of da Police” in 1994, DMX’s “We In Here” in 2006, Lil Wayne’s vocal interpolation of the sample in 2008’s “Mrs. Officer” and many others in between.
Yet, through the evolution of the music, the use of the sample shifted from a prominent act of protest to becoming more indirect, and sometimes, ironic. Rappers nowadays use sirens in a more subtle method that evokes a sense of lurking danger whether or not the song is actually focused on the police or police abuse.
In recent years, Kendrick Lamar used a police siren to further the narrative of 2012’s Good Kid, M.a.a.d. City on “The Art of Peer Pressure,” and Tyler, the Creator prominently featured one in the beat of his 2013 track “Pigs,” told from the perspective of a troubled teenager. And along with the aforementioned Lil Wayne song, some artists have cleverly morphed and transformed police siren rhythms into beats, such as Vince Staples in his 2015 track “Norf Norf.” Dare I say that there is now a post-siren movement?
Aside from hip-hop, modern artists from other genres have also incorporated police sirens. Merrill Garbus, creator of the indie rock project Tune-yards, ironically sung along to a siren in the opening of her 2011 tongue-in-cheek track “Gangsta.” Weezer also used the sample in Weezer’s 2008 song “The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived.” Unfortunately, that was released after their pre-Green Album period of making worthwhile music.
And, although police sirens samples have been used mostly in hip-hop, they have a surprisingly rich history and a fairly useful effect when attempting to create an unsettling atmosphere. In the years to come, it will be interesting if they continue to stick around in different forms, or fade away as musicians become more conscious and self-aware. Just make sure you’re not driving or doing anything morally deviant while you listen to them, or you might get a little paranoid.
Luke Furman is a sophomore studying journalism and a reporter for The Post. Do you have a favorite track with a siren sample? Tweet him @LukeFurmanOU or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.