A Lament for the Crate-Diggin'
PHOTO CREDIT: Unsplash
The Decline of Sampling in Popular Music
I have written about sampling before…
PHOTO CREDIT: Unsplash
and how some of my favourite artists splice myriad sounds and diverse elements together to create something wonderful. I will end this piece will some sample-featuring songs but the first artists that come to my mind are The Avalanches, Beastie Boys; DJ Shadow and Public Enemy. The former, especially, on their Since I Left You album laboured through countless recorded and created an all-samples record. I can only imagine how difficult and time-consuming it is ensuring the samples hang together and are interesting. The fact the Australian band took sixteen years to give us a follow-up album (Wildflower in 2016) shows how much work is required. I love their debut and get giddy when hearing these rare and unusual sounds come together. It is fun and exciting getting to sort through crates and your recording collection but there is immense technicality, experimentation and trial needed lacing all these (disparate) songs together and trying to create something that flows and resonates. It may seem like a dream expedition on paper but, once the vinyl is out; how long does it take before you get from the inception to the final product?!
IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images
Like a lot of artists who use sampling in their work; we are not hearing mega-tunes and very familiar sounds. A lot of the time, they will mine older records or rare cuts to get something unique and fresh. Beastie Boys and Public Enemy used sampling to heighten their gritty and pulsating music. If Beastie Boys fused various samples with their humorous raps; Public Enemy were more political and used other songs to help deliver their potent messages. DJ Shadow, on the other hand, is a more traditional D.J. and takes influence from different areas of music. There is so much to investigate and drool over when it comes to the variations in sampling and how different genres approach things. Look at Hip-Hop sampling and compare that to artists who work in other genres. It is a fascinating blend and culture that seems to be diminishing and becoming far too conservative! From the 1980s through to the current time, we can definitely hear a shift in regards the prolificacy of sampling in music and how that is affecting the larger culture.
Listen to an album like Entroducing….. and that 1996 debut features moody, slow tracks with more upbeat jams – taking from DJ Shadow’s early Hip-Hop influences. That album was produced over two years: other artists have taken longer and it is a real labour of love. The fact the Beastie Boys hit their sampling peak on their sophomore album, Paul’s Boutique (1989) shows that some artists can nail their best work very quickly. The Avalanches and DJ Shadow did it on their debuts and got huge critical acclaim: Beastie Boys didn’t fare as well and a lot of the album’s credit came retrospectively. Everyone from Sugarhill Gang and The Beatles were sampled on Paul’s Boutique; Entroducing….. features inclusions from The Heath Brothers and Jeremy Storch. It is interesting to see the differences between those albums. DJ Shadow has fewer samples on his album and uses his D.J. and production skills to create original threads and integrate samples. Beastie Boys use original vocals and lyrics but employ samples to add humour, light and new energy to their music. Sampling is not a new thing, I know. Ever since the birth of Hip-Hop in the 1980s; artists have taken from vinyl and the streets to unleash these kaleidoscopic and vivid songs full of sounds – from traffic noise and conversation to the streets – and vibrancy. I am a big fan of Beck and De La Soul. They use samples in different ways but, one will agree, their work is stronger for it.
I love sampling because it is a way of bringing older sounds and unheard-of beats to the people. I listen to a song from the Beastie Boys or The Avalanches and I not only get something new and giddy but I can disrobe the packed song and compartmentalise the samples. I then get to trawl vinyl myself and look where those sounds originated from. It is wonderful to be able to connect in such a way with artists and songs you might not have otherwise have experienced. I also love how dizzying a song can be with samples! Most tracks are predictable in their structure and what we can expect. Listen to a song and, before you know it, there is a political speech, classic Soul cut or familiar sound coming in and you are livened and taken aback. For an artist, there is that bittersweet experience of digging through crates and splicing music together.
PHOTO CREDIT: Unsplash
It can be infuriating narrowing things down and it takes a lot of discipline, patience and intuition. The good thing is you have access to a world of music and, as such, can dive right in and get to work. Perhaps the biggest talking point regarding sampling is its legality and expense. It is complex regards sampling because there are strict copyright laws and it can be expensive getting clearance for various songs. Some artists want to protect their music and will not give permission; others will charge a lot of want royalties from it. There are programmes and software where you can get free samples and use them but, in terms of bigger songs, it is more complicated.
I was reading exerts from a Science Friday show where host Ira Flatow was speaking about sampling and copyright with guests. The excerpts I am going to quote involve Max, a caller; Prof. Kembrew McLeod (co-author of Creative License: The Law and Culture of Digital Sampling (2011) and Dean Garfield (President and CEO, Information Technology Council, Washington, D.C.). These parts of the conversation stood out:
“FLATOW: All these free, use them as much as you want little riffs on there, little samples. But why can't I get something, you know, from some of these popular tunes that are going to be sampled any way the kids want to do it? Why can't we find a way to put those up on iTunes or add little bits of it, somehow, in a system there?
Prof. McLEOD: The short answer...
Mr. GARFIELD: In part, it is artistic integrity. It's the reason you now have The Beatles on iTunes where previously you didn't. You know, they made the determination, at some point, that it was appropriate. And before then, they thought it wasn't. And so, as the person who spent the time developing the work, you should, I believe, have some control over how that work is used”.
A caller rang in and added their voice to the mix:
“MAX: But I just want to say that I think a lot of creativity gets stifled. I mean, you can look at, basically, the golden age of sampling during the '90s for hip hop, and you just saw so much unique sounds coming out. And I - that's when I started deejaying. I've been doing it for 15 years. You can check me out at soundcloud.com/dj-eclipse.
“…But it's basically, you know, stifling a lot of the creativity because a lot of the people who get these samples and play them - a lot of people rediscover music from past genres by listening to these samples.
And, you know, I think those corporations that are holding those copyrights hostage are missing out on a huge marketing opportunity, basically, because they're not going to - these people are now getting into these electric genres where people aren't able to listen to snippets and soundbites of old music where they're going to say, hey, where did that come from?
Where did RZA get that sample from? Where did it RJD2(ph) get that sample from? And then rediscover past genres of music and buy those albums, because I know I did, through just sampling and through just being interested in the music and trying to research and find out how these sounds are put together. And I think that's one of the most lost aspects from the golden age of sampling that we have today, what you can call, I don't know, the Timberlanization(ph) of hip hop where...”
It is an interesting interview/show that talks about two different sides to sampling. On the one hand, there are artists and creators who are happy for others to use their work as evolution and getting the music to new audiences. They will get credit and, at the same time, others get to experience music not being played on the radio or readily accessible on streaming sites...
There is the other school of thought that argues, in a time when YouTube and Spotify make it easy to access any track out there; people can steal what they want and there are infringement issues. Rather than open up channels and make it a free-for-all; there are strict laws and rules that mean permission needs to be sought or too much financial compromise happens. I wonder whether past legal cases have made artists and labels scared their work is going to be copied and used without permission. Most modern artists are happy to give credit but I wonder whether labels are asking for too much money or being too unrealisable regarding credit and percentage. Certainty, artists like Beastie Boys would have had a hard time getting clearance and permission but the fact we are hearing fewer albums like Paul’s Boutique these days makes me wonder whether it is impossible to sample at all. Modern artists like SZA and Kendrick Lamar bring samples into their work but it is not as free range and expansive as the classic records of the 1980s and 1990s. There are people like me who would love to make a sample-heavy record that took from various genres and time periods – would that ever be legally and financially viable?!
Before I come to my arguments; I want to bring in this piece that looks at the most-sampled songs ever. As of 2016, The Winstons’ Amen, Brother has been sampled over two-thousand times. It seems some songs are not only being sampled easily but set up challenges for other artists – the same sample being used in different environments and settings:
“There’s one song that’s been sampled far more than any other, according to one measure. The website WhoSampled.com, whose audience obsessively tracks what’s sampled, says that a 1960s track called “Amen, Brother” by The Winstons is the most-sampled track in history, and it’s not particularly close. By its count, more than 2,000 songs have sampled a particular drum beat from “Amen, Brother” that’s now known as the Amen Break. As you play the clip below, you can hearThe Winstons’ drummer, G.C. Coleman, play the kick drums, snare drums and cymbals in a funky four-bar pattern.
PHOTO CREDIT: Unsplash
"MCs looking for an edge had to dig even deeper into the archives of rock, funk and Motown records that supplied their beats. Flores, who MC’d with Bambaataa, said that Bambaataa had found the track “Amen, Brother” on the B-side of a once-popular 1969 soul record by The Winstons, and kept it in his secret stash. (Attempts to reach Bambaataa, who has recently been accused of having committed sexual abuse in the 1980s, through his lawyer were unsuccessful.) The whole song was eminently danceable, but the party really got going during that six-second drum break a minute and a half into the track. Flores said Bambaataa would slow the break down — going from a 45 rpm to 33⅓ rpm — and play it again and again as B-Boys (or “break boys”) tore it up on the dance floor.
By the early 1990s, the Amen Break wasn’t just being used by acts such as Rob Base and Heavy D, it had become one of the foundational beats of an entirely new electronic dance music genre: jungle. Jungle artists often sped up the break, sliced it up into individual drum hits, rearranged it, and played it for minutes at a time while layering techno, reggae and a melting pot of other sounds on top of it”.
Mark Ronson, when interviewed back in 2014, was asked about sampling and today’s market. These quotes are taken from Part 1 of the TED Radio Hour episode, What Is Original?
“Though the tools associated with sampling have changed over time — yesterday's used-vinyl crate diggers have become today's digital foragers, yanking their source material straight from YouTube — its power to shape culture has not. In his TED talk, Ronson offers a case in point by charting the 30-year journey of one of the most sampled songs of all time: Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh's 1984 hit "La Di Da Di," a bare-bones rap and beatbox duet, which has been borrowed by everyone from The Notorious B.I.G. to Miley Cyrus to Spoon.
Do you think we live a post-sampling era?
You know, we used to go to record stores or record fairs to find these rare breaks. I see young producers today, kids who are 19, 20; they stay up all night just sampling straight from YouTube. I think things like YouTube kind of have made a lot of today's younger generation think thatthe "Well, everything kind of just belongs to us, right?" Because it kind of does: Music has been free for a long time now, for better or for worse.
In some ways, the culture of today is really just about taking whatever you feel like and making it your own. Which is dangerous — there are troubled lines there — because at the end of the day, credit needs to go to the people that created the stuff in the first place. But it does make for some incredible, exciting art. And it does mean that some little kid sitting in his basement in Ohio with a laptop can be making some of the most interesting music around”.
There are articles like this...and this that ensure you legally take samples and are not crossing any lines. Reading this article and one gets a view of the history of sampling and how it has evolved. It looks at copyright laws and how, now, there are libraries with samples available. It is great having access to free samples and sounds but what happens if you want to sample a Beatles track or something from Amy Winehouse; throw in an interview from Kurt Cobain or have some Funkadelic in there?! Is it a case of contacting their estate/management and asking politely?! I feel they would say ‘no’ and it would be very tricky to make that happen. They may say it is okay but only if a large percentage of a song’s profits were given to them. The fact streaming services and YouTube mean a lot of artists are giving their music away means people cannot afford to pay labels. I understand that need to protect a song and ensure it is not endlessly shared and illegally accessed. As many artists have been saying; sampling is a great way of carrying the torch and using a song in a different way - pushing music to new generations. If you are confused regarding sampling clearance and costs then articles like this might assist. It is worth doing research and not giving up completely. Many artists feel it will be financially ruinous using all the samples they want but there are compromises and ways to use samples.
IN THIS IMAGE: The album cover for Erik B. & Rakim's 1987 masterpiece, Paid in Full/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Out of all of this, I wonder whether a more affordable and fair compromise/contract can come into place that ensures original tracks are protected and not illegally distributed but allows an artist, for a small fee, the chance to use it in their song. I wonder whether we will hear any big album that uses a lot of samples and whether a lack of progression in some genres – like Pop and Hip-Hop – is because there are such rigid laws regarding sampling. I would love to make an album that uses samples and mixes it together with sounds and library effects. It may not be on the same level as something from The Avalanches but I wonder whether artists are being frustrated because they cannot get clearance or permission.
I worry a lot of older music is being lost and getting duty because pioneers are unable to use them in their work. I said how I discovered older records because I heard them sampled by the likes of the Beastie Boys. That culture has vanished – or shrunk down at the very least – and that is a sad thing to see. Labels are red-hot regarding illegal use and big court cases are scaring musicians off. If something rational and sensible can be discussed between artists and labels then I think we could see an explosion and evolution that vastly benefits modern music – this will lead to future innovation and breakthroughs. Modern music has plenty of treasure and promise but, for my money, you cannot beat a vinyl record…
FULL of great samples!