Everyday culture is regurgitated in the form of hip-hop and every time you turn on MTV, another song from a forgotten artist becomes a hit record for a platinum-mouthed rapper. And if you don’t love hip-hop, you probably hate sampling.
Since its birth in the Bronx in the ’70s, hip-hop has been making records from records. Borrowing guitar rhythms, drums, basslines, vocals, and whatever’s clever, hip-hop’s producers not only ushered in a new form of music, but also a new age of intellectual property rights law, and a new way to look at recordings.
For those who don’t know, a sampler is a sort of musical instrument like a keyboard or a synthesizer that plays whatever sounds you record into it. Songs like “Nuthin’ but a G Thang” by Dr. Dre, “Throw Some D’s” by Rich Boy, and “S.O.S. (Rescue Me)” by Rihanna all make use of a sampler to take an old song, rearrange it, add drums and bass, and make it hip-hop or R&B.
Using someone else’s music to make music was controversial in the early days of hip-hop and, even though more prevalent today, sampling still draws the ire of many people who don’t understand how it can be considered an art form, or how its employers are worthy of the respect given to other musicians.
Some say that sampling is like plagiarism: Just as you may steal someone else’s words to write a paper, hip-hop producers are stealing someone else’s music to make a song.
This sounds logical, but is wrong.
Sampling is not a form of plagiarism because the musical idea isn’t stolen; it’s reinterpreted to mean something new – more like reading a book and then writing a paper on it in your own words. Pieces of the original work may be used, but the ideas presented remain original.
For instance, what were eight measures of a Nina Simone piano solo in her song “Sinner Man” became the background for Talib Kweli’s “Get By” when Kanye West “stole it.”
What was a fast and haunting song meant to compel people to confess to their sins became a hard-hitting and uplifting song meant to discuss what it takes to “get by” as a black man or woman in the United States.
What occurs in sampling is a translation of the original artist’s idea and message into hip-hop.
This is similar to how an established band like The Dave Matthews Band will cover songs from the ’70s in their live show – in effect translating the music into a more contemporary form.
Not only is the act of sampling similar to playing a cover, but both also share a common reason for existence: respect for the original song and artist.
Hearing DJ Dangermouse’s “The Grey Album” remix of Jay-Z’s “The Black Album” for the first time, my friend Aaron was really offended.
He felt the need to tell me that Dangermouse’s use of The Beatles’ “White Album” to make the instrumentals for his remix was disrespectful.
What Aaron didn’t understand is that respect for the original artist is a given in the world of hip-hop production. If that artist had not made that song, the producer would not have anything to work with. And furthermore, if it’s not dope and you don’t think the artist deserves respect, why would you sample it?
I have to admit however, that some forms of sampling are detestable: the mash-up for example.
You may not know it by name, but if you’ve been downtown to the bars, you know it by sound. It’s that song that comes on the speakers that makes you turn to a friend and say, “why would you have a 50 Cent rap from ‘Candy Shop’ single playing over a Modest Mouse instrumental? That’s just stupid.”
Mash-ups are a fad that began in Europe when DJs began taking the greatest hits of the past and the present and combining them into one song. While creative, what is produced is not an original musical idea with original lyrics, but a sloppy mess of Lynyrd Skynyrd meets Chingy (or some other aberration).
Performed live on turntables, mash-ups are respectable as they are not an easy thing to mix analog, but as a recorded and sampled medium, they are ludicrous. Mash-up DJs are not searching out rare and original pieces of music to resurrect from musical purgatory like hip-hop producers, they are simply coupling hit songs together and breeding abominations.
To understand what sampling is, I recommend you acquaint yourself with the greatest producer ever to do it: the late J Dilla, also known as Jay Dee, also known as James Yancey. To give you an idea how good this cat was, he was Pharrell Williams from the Neptune’s favorite producer.
Rather than throwing hit songs together like a mash-up DJ, Dilla had a deft touch and a keen ear for creating gritty beats with samples and drums that bled soul and breathed hip-hop.
However, just like the music he sampled, J Dilla’s songs will soon fade into obscurity. After battling a rare blood disease and lupus, Dilla left this earth on Feb. 10, 2006. Though gaining critical acclaim, his music will never be as popular as the music from the videos on MTV.
I believe that in an interview originally ran in KING magazine, Dilla gave the reason he was so great, and why sampling can be respected as an art form:
“If I’m working on something, like a drum pattern, it might take me two hours to just sit and listen to that same thing, over and over. And for whatever reason I can’t move until I figure out what I want to do with the shit. People be hearing the beats, ’cause they be so simple, thinking I be done in like five minutes. But it’s really well thought out. If I hear something, I have to make sure it’s that or I’ll just shut the machine off.”
Sampling is still making a conscious decision as to what you want your listener to hear, and how you want them to feel.
Rest in peace Dilla. Sampling is here to stay, get used to it.
Brian McMullen is a journalism junior and Mustang Daily staff writer.