Perfect Sound Forever

Mainstream Sampling - Innovation & Scorn

Pierre Schaeffer
courtesy of EMF
DJ Shadow

by Pàdraic Grant
(October 2007)

There are many opinions on sampling. Some view it as a fresh, post-modern take on music; music had taken us only so far and sampling helped to shake things up, re-evaluate the past, and use it to create exciting new music. Others view it as simple thievery, a refuge for the untalented to hide behind. What inspires both these views? Is either correct?

In the world of mainstream music, sampling has mostly gone in two directions: innovation and regression. This has been apparent in hip hop, acting as both a blessing and a curse. Commercial success has been plentiful but artistic endeavour has sometimes approached nill. How did sampling reach this point?

Experimental Roots

Musique concrète is perhaps the most useful as a starting point in the history of sampling. It was rooted in attempts at new forms of classical composition as composers like Pierre Schaeffer, John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Steve Reich turned away from traditional musical structures and instrumentation. This was to have a tremendous impact on classical music in the 20th century as the ideas and techniques espoused by these composers dominating for the rest of the century. Most importantly, these classical experimentalists introduced a new concept into music: the utilisation and reinterpretation of existing material to create original works of art.

While this remained the preserve of the avant garde for several decades afterward, some of its basic ideas could be seen in music as popular as Pink Floyd (especially evident in the coda of "Bike" - a particularly sinister use) and The Beatles. In my opinion this doesn't mean that musique concrète had been accepted into the mainstream in the late '60's - on the contrary, both bands were simply immersed in the possibilities of the studio. The Beatles in particular (through "Revolution #9" and projects like "Carnival of Light") were interested in all aspects of the avant garde, from Fluxus to tape loops. They may have been inspired by composers like Stockhausen, but their objectives were entirely different - the fact that they continued to make conventional music long after their first experiments shows that they weren't exclusively interested in creating new forms of composition (though they had created exceptional music in the pop realm).

Other bands engaged in sampling for other reasons: The Grateful Dead, for example, mixed tapes of their own live shows into studio recordings on Anthem of the Sun. This was entirely in keeping with the decidedly experimental nature of the group and particularly that album. Ultimately, psychedelic-era dabbling in tape experiments would have no real impact on the world of popular music except as a footnote; a curiosity pointing toward the excess of that era. While the Beatles' solo careers (excepting Lennon's early albums with Ono) and the later Dead albums would shun this music, Pink Floyd continued to use tape fragments throughout their career.

It wouldn't be the last time sampling would be used in popular music though; around a decade later, it would re-appear in the hands of the masses with positive consequences. Circumstance, however, would fuse together two completely different approaches to its use and in the process create a musical revolution.

Post-Punk and Hip Hop

The advent of punk signaled the introduction of new ideas into pop music. I won't retread the clichéd path of punk rock fawning, but simply point to it as the beginning of a new era of originality in the mainstream. That's not to say bands hadn't been experimenting prior to punk - composers and groups mentioned before put paid to that idea, as do bands like Neu! and Faust. Both these bands, and the Krautrock style would have an immense impact on punk: Sex Pistols and The Clash both used sound effects on their first albums (the sound of marching on "Holidays in the Sun" and sirens on "White Riot" respectively invoking urban decay and working class discontent).

Tape loops were also used by bands in the aftermath of punk, with Throbbing Gristle and Tuxedomoon amongst others using the medium. However, the impact of punk would mean that new ways of creating music would be thrown open to the masses. The more experimental bands were again slightly esoteric. One of punk's true legacy would be in the many different styles it spawned, all neatly linked under the 'post-punk' banner. Punk rock luminaries such as John Lydon, Howard Devoto and Mark Perry would move beyond the "back-to-basics" approach that had come to define punk, and restrict their more leftfield ideas. Therefore, bands like Public Image Ltd, Magazine and Alternative TV were all spawned from and against punk, with artists who were willing to move beyond the stale sounds of rock music, whether created by bloated prog rock super groups or disenchanted working class youth.

Energized by punk and keen to explore ideas of decontextualization and sound collage, the avant-garde musician and multimedia artist Christian Marclay had taken to using turntables in the late '70's in an unconscious example of cultural synchronicity. While he might not be recognized as part of the post punk vanguard by many, his processes of sound exploration had a place in that era's aura of experimentation. His use of techniques that were popular with hip hop's pioneers perhaps make him the unwitting missing link between post punk and hip hop - an important figure isolated from both styles but sharing many of their ideas.

And indeed, the hip hop movement was growing and solidifying, with its own concept of sampling based around drum loops (breakbeats) from records over which the MC rapped. Evolving from simple shout-outs to friends, invitations to parties etc, rapping soon became a form of expression of its own (many explanations have been given regarding the origins of rapping, from reggae toasting to the spoken word music of The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron; I believe that many things facilitated the growth of rapping and that every rational explanation perhaps has validity).

More importantly though, the concept of sampling developed organically too. A million miles away from the experiments of musique concrète, DJs became crate diggers, crossing cultural divides in the pursuit of the best beats (Grandmaster Flash: "I would play anything... music didn't have any color. Didn't matter, if it was funky I played it"1). Early producers such as Double Dee and Steinski helped to redefine the nature of sampling, taking it beyond mere extended breaks and into the realm of sound collage. Their Lesson series was extremely influential and is even to this day considered a Hip Hop milestone, with homages from Cut Chemist, De La Soul and DJ Shadow appearing over the years. Undoubtedly, hip hop went beyond simple theft. It was about finding snippets of songs with good grooves, looped rhythms that were easy to dance to - not trying to gain credit for others' work.

Soon, the function of sampling in hip hop would go beyond creating danceable music. Somewhere along this journey, without going into historical detail, (that would require a book, never mind an article, of its own) the disparate genres of post-punk and Hip Hop collided. In the spirit of experimentation, post-punk luminaries began taking in Hip Hop as an influence, leading to the unlikely release of a Malcolm McLaren Hip Hop album, and a collaboration between John Lydon and Afrika Bambaataa ("World Destruction"). Even Mick Jones, formerly of The Clash, would experiment with sampling and hip hop with his next band, Big Audio Dynamite. The Fairlight sampler was to be a massive catalyst for the popularization of sampling. In the hands of the Art of Noise (a group emerging from post-punk), it became a tool for media manipulation and a comment on the idolized nature of "the band" in rock music. However, by the late '80's, sampling would become much more than the basis for party music, or a form of experimentation. It would become the basis of a new era in music: "the golden age of Hip Hop."

"The Golden Age"

Sampling came into itself by the late '80's, a basis for some of the most interesting and revered music of its time. The Beastie Boys from New York, were and remain the best examples of post-punk's fusion with hip hop; its members' backgrounds were in the hardcore punk scene. Therefore, it could be said that the Beastie Boys embraced hip hop while also seeing it as a genre within a vast world of musical possibilities opened up by punk rock. This viewpoint would eventually result in the Beasties' genre-bending albums of the 1990s, but not before they would collaborate with production duo the Dust Brothers to create one of the most astonishing albums of all time, made equally groundbreaking by its music and its implications for sampling: the sprawling Paul's Boutique.

At the same time, outfits like De La Soul from a more pure hip hop background were sampling from many sources, helped by producer Prince Paul who selected cuts as diverse as Johnny Cash and a French language instruction tape, while ultimately pioneering a laidback jazzy style of music that would dominate the alternative hip hop scene in the early '90's.

Public Enemy was another rap crew that would become one of the biggest bands of the '80's and '90's. Public Enemy's production team, The Bomb Squad, used extensive sampling to create musical backdrops that accompanied and complimented the angry political rapping of Chuck D and Flavor Flav. Using cacophonic and harsh samples amidst more melodic elements, the music was the antithesis to De La Soul's laidback style, a result of their differing viewpoints at that time (it would be harder to imagine anything more different from De La Soul's DAISY imagery than Public Enemy's black militant theme). With albums like It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, and Fear of a Black Planet, the band gained unbridled critical acclaim and commercial success, a testament to the quality of both the rapping and the music that accompanied it.

Public Enemy's success was mirrored in the rise of NWA, a rap collective that pioneered aggressive lyrics that would become the norm in the mainstream by the early '90's, and extensive sampling from a plethora of jazz and soul sources. NWA would court controversy with their police-baiting lyrics, and with that the heavy attention to detail in the production would be forgotten. Dr Dre and DJ Yella, the two producers behind Straight Outta Compton, crafted a blend of recognisable samples with some less known snippets and original music that was as listenable and entertaining as the rapping that accompanied it. But by 1991's Niggaz4Life, the old school vibes of Straight Outta Compton, had disappeared. Beneath harrowing and blackly humorous lyrics, the production was halfway between Straight Outta Compton and The Chronic - laying the foundation for the G-Funk sound that would dominate the early '90's. The sampling wasn't as extensive, but was more integrated than before. Overall, it could be said that this was the golden age of not just hip hop, but of sampling as an original form of art.

In the late '80's, John Oswald created the term "Plunderphonics" to refer not just to his own work, but any created using only or primarily samples. Creating songs and collages wasn't Oswald's only reason for using samples. He was engaged in protest over copyright restrictions, and samples were his tools of choice. That's not to say his music isn't interesting to listen to- it's good listening at times, especially with a whole concept to back it up.

And Oswald wasn't the only one using sampling in this way. Perhaps the most famous exponents of sampling as a political statement are Negativland (with Neu! influencing more than just the name). Releasing the U2 single was a direct comment on copyright laws, intellectual property rights and fair use law. A direct parody of U2 themselves, with a humorous cover and dismantling of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" and an extended rant by radio DJ Casey Kasem, insulting the band (inaccurately claiming "these guys are from England and who gives a shit?"). This resulted in the band being sued by U2's record label Island Records, and then an exceedingly awkward interview conducted by Mark Hosler and Don Joyce of Negativland, with The Edge being asked many questions about sampling and fair use laws. The interview was arranged by RU Sirius, editor of Mondo 2000 magazine, and was particularly interesting in the light of U2's "Zoo TV" tour, which included extensive live sampling and found sound, used to represent that tour's theme of mass media overload and manipulation. When Hosler and Joyce revealed their identities to The Edge midway through the interview, he sheepishly denied U2's supposed opposition to the U2 single, claiming that Island Records had been "very heavy" in their approach and that their main objection had been to the cover, (with "U2" displayed prominently and "Negativland" in smaller letters) despite their denial of clearance for the samples used. Overall, Negativland helped make an important point about sampling - it wasn't theft but could be used for subversive and creative means, making important points about liberty and freedom of expression that needed to be addressed.

The late '80's would prove crucial to the history of sampling, solidifying and defining it as a mode of expression beyond the experimentation that had occurred before. This would lead to artists such as People Like Us and The Tape-beatles refining their own music and ideas, leaving the late '80's/early '90's as a golden age for sampling, not just in hip hop, but in music in general.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in the rise of The KLF. The duo of Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond were commenting on many of the same issues as John Oswald and Negativland, but with a much more commercial focus. By re-establishing the connection of the situationist aspect to punk, Cauty and Drummond used several means to make war on the record industry. They first used sampling extensively, before going on to create deliberately commercial dance music, cynically created to be lowest common denominator, as well as more cerebral music created from the proceeds of their more commercial works. Under their previous name, the Justified Ancients of Mu-mu, they had been forced to dispose of copies of debut album 1987 (What The Fuck Is Going On?) due to copyright infringement, and photographed the subsequent bonfire for the back cover of second album Who Killed The Jams? Both albums were immersed in hip hop, with samples colliding with drum machine rhythms and Drummond's unique Scottish rapping on political issues. Although Cauty and Drummond were reluctant to be seen as crusaders for sampling, their use of previous musical works was an important comment on the nature of copyright, particularly when they were forced to destroy their own work.

After changing their name from The JAMs to The KLF, Cauty and Drummond would go on to create further mayhem, culminating in a performance at the 1992 Brit Awards with grindcore band Extreme Noise Terror. After firing machine gun blanks at the audience of music industry representatives, they dumped a dead sheep at the after party with the words "I died for ewe - bon appetit" tied to its waist. And with this, they announced their retirement from the music industry, deleting all their previous work, before burning a million pounds of profit in 1994 - an act that has overshadowed their immense contribution to the world of sampling and music in general. But then again, an act so audacious is bound to attract a lot of attention. Cauty and Drummond's music helped to create a humorous and intelligent commentary on the cynical, business-oriented nature of the music industry, while at the same time pioneering sampling in a decidedly commercial manner.

It would be impossible for even the most malevolent and biased critic to accuse performers like De La Soul, Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, NWA, Negativland, etc of being thieves with no original ideas of their own. Listening to Three Feet High & Rising, Paul's Boutique, Straight Outta Compton, It Takes a Nation of Millions...and U2, one gains a feeling of unbridled creativity rather than desperate plundering. With music like this, created in unorthodox ways, it was almost inevitable that it would come to an end. With lawsuit after lawsuit robbing musicians of the right to sample (specifically the Turtles vs. De La Soul, Gilbert O'Sullivan vs. Biz Markie), its use would be heavily restricted in the years to come, rendering its influence on pop music less creative and widespread than it should have ultimately been.

Sampled or Stolen?

Looking at the golden age of sampling is tempting, as it affords me the freedom to listen to truly great music. On the other hand, I'm not a person who takes the easy route. So instead I'm going to listen to music I completely hate, to fully explore the deterioration of both sampling and mainstream hip hop as a whole.

When I wrote this section of the article, I was sitting on a shopping centre bench, unfortunately having to wait around having arrived slightly early for a gathering, and in the process listening to a song that seems to confirm the suspicions of those opposed to the use of sampling for its "thievery." One song that is able to give new perspective on sampling, dragging my rosy viewpoint regarding its use and freedom of expression to a more ignoble path. That song is Madonna's "Hung Up" which heavily samples ABBA's "Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight)." It blasted out and invaded my hearing, leaving me trapped with what is simply cultural plundering on a vast scale, a song hungry for publicity and trading not on creativity but blatant nostalgia and recognition of a past classic. I will admit I haven't heard the rest of the album the song appears on, Confessions On A Dance Floor, so perhaps I shouldn't judge it while its standing alone. All I know is, recycling a song in an uncreative way to create a faux-dance floor vibe doesn't really appeal to me in the way the best sampling in hip hop does. With the best hip hop, music becomes a huge canvas on which anything can be used to produce a new work, a collage expressing the performer's musical ideas - this seems to have become lost in the lazy borrowing many artists resort to today, and which is so criticized by many music fans as well as critics.

Complaining about pop-rap's over reliance on well known pop hooks is about as redundant as complaining about Bob Dylan's "selling out" at Newport in ‘65. But it is worth noting the difference between the works of people like MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice and later works by such geniuses as DJ Shadow2, the Beat Junkies, DJ Food and Cut Chemist. The contrast is striking: the former an example of sampling used not for a new purpose, but simply transporting a hook from one song to another, and the latter a glorious use of previous works twisted and turned into post-modern masterpieces. Hip hop's roots may lie partially in toasting, but this doesn't justify the direction pop-rap took.3 Overall, I do believe its wrong to compare two completely disparate styles of music (which happen to share, uncomfortably, the same parent genre) but unfortunately, mainstream hip hop took the path of pop-rap as it progressed into the mid '90's...


There is no contrast in mainstream hip hop at the time of writing. As time has progressed and production methods changed, innovative sampling has virtually disappeared from the radar. Almost destroyed by the lawsuits of the late '80's/early '90's, its state has been improved somewhat by the advent of licensing like Creative Commons and "copyleft." While ideas of freeing music for the use of the public domain have a certain utopian appeal, they will almost certainly never gain hold within mainstream music; major labels would argue that there is much to lose financially while artists would argue that their work is a product of their efforts, not something for others to use. Sampling is therefore in a slightly stronger position than in the '90's, but its position is still highly tenacious.

Despite these weaknesses, creative sampling can still be found in the always reliable styles of alternative rap and turntablism, providing almost a haven from the "loop it and leave it" style of highly priced sampling which garnered massive commercial sales but minimal critical acclaim in the mid '90's. The man who made this acceptable in the mainstream was P Diddy - very soon many East Coast artists had adapted it, leading to hip hop becoming an artistic wasteland caught between lazy sampling, tired production and R&B crossover. The state of hip hop remains much the same today - the underground remaining as exciting as ever - but the mainstream hindered by predictability and boring rehashes.

One exception to the rule is the field of mash-ups or "bastard pop," where elements from a few songs are combined to create new works, usually with a central theme, or similarity. Girl Talk is one such artist, the creation of Gregg Gillis whose highly entertaining music goes beyond mere novelty - some of the songs are enjoyable in their own right. It was to be Danger Mouse who created the most famous mash-up, The Grey Album, which combined samples from The Beatles' White Album with acapella Jay-Z rapping from The Black Album. This resulted in EMI ordering those few outlets carrying the album to cease their distribution, due to the unauthorized use of musical snippets from The White Album.

Justifiably, many were angered by what they saw as a major label stifling creativity, and so "Grey Tuesday," a day of internet-based civil disobedience occurred on February 24th 2004. Participating websites uploaded the album for free download for 24 hours, making a mockery of EMI's attempts to halt distribution, and proving that sampling remains a serious issue, a topic that has both proponents and opponents, equally vocal. That mash-ups have begun to appear in the mainstream (i.e. Jay Z and Linkin Park) is no accident - the use of sampling is a symptom of a postmodern desire to re-use and re-contextualize the past. With the internet rolling onward as a tool for communication and distribution, and easier means to create sample-based music opening up as a result of computer production programs, people can now get the same outcome from cheap software that in the past would require less practical means involving cutting and putting together tape and so forth. Samplers made things more practical, but computers have blown the doors of sampling way open. This is a good thing for underground music, but in my opinion mainstream hip hop and sample-based music is devoid of ideas, and needs a large shot in the arm to be as enjoyable as it once was.

One thing I must point out is that I am not attacking every mainstream performer - mainstream hip hop has kept some of its freshness through the impeccable flow certain rappers possess. On the other hand, criticism leveled at rappers would suggest their becoming as stale as the music behind them; I take the middle ground, admiring rappers and disliking the musical backdrop, or disliking both equally. It is my general belief that mainstream hip hop needs revitalized as a whole, and that alternative hip hop provides a template for doing so. Alternative artists need to reach the mainstream without abandoning the elements that made them interesting. (such as the Black Eyed Peas, who became tepid and boring as they entered the Top 40). Most of all, good sampling must be returned to the fore of hip hop music, where it stood proudly during the golden age. I look forward to the day when I can buy a new take on Paul's Boutique or a 21st century Three Feet High & Rising.

"Let's take it back to the concrete streets, original beats with real live MCs."
- "Concrete Schoolyard," Jurassic 5


I The Hip Hop Years - Alex Ogg & David Upshal

II DJ Shadow even went so far as to offer a reward to anyone who could identify all the samples on his albums. This could be looked at in a few different ways. Either it shows the inventive ways Shadow finds to create cohesive and listenable music using only samples, or he is showing an elitist attitude that goes against the egalitarian nature of sampling. But then again, he could simply be playing around without meaning to make a serious point.

III The circumstances of Jamaican toasting were different, created for dancehalls and sound systems while Hammer and Vanilla Ice created works for purely commercial gain. The effects were also different – I can’t see exactly what Hammer or Vanilla Ice provided the world of music as a whole. On the other hand toasting spawned dub, an inventive and experimental genre with far reaching influence (including post-punk incidentally).

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