Fascinating Art, Unobjectionable Fare, Lazy Garbage and Artistic Terrorism: A Sampling

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Biz Markie, whose song "Alone Again" was the subject of the lawsuit that fundamentally altered the direction of hip hop.

I remember very well the first time I became aware of sampling in music. “Wild Wild West” had just come out, and I had the CD with Will Smith’s tie-in song. I put it on and my dad said it sounded exactly like “I Wish” by Stevie Wonder. He was right. I Googled it (actually, in those days, I probably Alta Vista’d or Excite’d it) and discovered the truth. The reason the two songs sounded so alike was that “Wild Wild West” sampled “I Wish”; meaning the producers of the former paid the copyright holders of the latter to, basically, rip it off.

And so began my long and fraught relationship with this now-pervasive element of popular music composition. My gut reaction to a song that bluntly samples an older song is intense. I hurt. I feel physically ill. I am dumbfounded by its audacity. And I can’t believe we let them get away with it.

When I say that I can’t believe musical artists get away with it, I mean it in an artistic sense, not a legal sense. Working at ASCAP, I’m well aware that there is an established legal framework for sampling that most producers who do it follow. But it wasn’t always this way. One of the reasons sampling arose in the hip hop scene of the late ’70s was precisely because hip hop began in an environment that didn’t worry at all about copyright issues. Until the Sugarhill Gang set hip hop slowly but surely down the path of commercialization and world domination, the genre was nowhere to be found on records, but exclusive to parties in the Bronx, Harlem and Brooklyn. You had to be there to experience it. Recording hip hop tracks was barely a thought then, because, perhaps uniquely among pop music styles, hip hop music evolved out of something that wasn’t really definable as “music” at all; namely, rapping with existing music happening to play in the background.

Raymond "Gilbert" O'Sullivan, whose song "Alone Again (Naturally)" was sampled in Biz's song.

It was only when DJs began to get more creative with the backing tracks they spinned for MCs, scratching, looping, blending songs together, that hip hop began to establish itself as its own musical style. As hip hop records started to be made and gain mainstream popularity throughout the ’80s, copyright issues continued to be ignored (since there was no law on the books covering sampling yet) which allowed DJs to get ever more creative. Late ’80s and early ’90s hip hop, led by producers like Public Enemy’s The Bomb Squad, featured some dizzyingly complex multimedia tornadoes that could sample dozens of songs (or films, comedy routines, news broadcasts, etc.) and, in my opinion, did not give any sense of anything being ripped off, had plenty of artistic merit on their own, and had little in common with the kind of sampling that later became the norm.

What changed?

To make a long story short, copyright law caught up with what was going on, and the legal verdict was not favorable to samplers. In a landmark case concerning a Biz Markie song that sampled a Gilbert O’Sullivan one, a federal court in New York’s ruling set a precedent establishing that any unlicensed sampling could be considered copyright infringement. The case had a seismic effect on hip hop production. Now that producers were facing the prospect of paying royalties to everyone they sampled—not to mention the time-consuming process of securing licenses from all of them—most producers figured songs built on complex layers of many samples were just not worth the time, effort or money.

Some producers didn’t stop sampling, though; they just refocused their efforts onto much fewer samples at a time, making the sampling songs sound much more like the sampled ones. And although this type of song did exist before, this is what led us to the current preponderance of lazy, detestable songs like the ones I highlighted earlier.

So, my gut reaction is to say I hate sampling because of the examples that insult my intelligence as a music consumer, expecting me to either be unfamiliar with, or indifferent toward the repurposing of, classics like “I Wish” or “Tainted Love,” or (for God’s sake!) “Eleanor Rigby.” I shouldn’t emphasize the classic nature of some sampled songs though; I might argue that it’s even worse to heavily sample a more unknown track and hoodwink the listener into thinking it’s original.

But, I can’t condemn all of today’s sampling as bad, because I have to admit I find some of it acceptable to me as a listener and even quite interesting sometimes. Truly fascinating, in the case of “plunderphonics” groups like The Avalanches, who brave the legal briar patch to construct albums made of literally thousands of obscure samples. (Check out this video for a rundown of some of the samples used in that song.) Melora Creager included a chilling vocal sample from a Nazi-era German opera recording in one of the songs I praised in my recent post about Rasputina, “Hunter’s Kiss,” a fact that I finally learned (after wondering for a long time) by asking her about it on FanBridge. And some mainstream rap songs that use only one sample, like, say, this one, I listen to and have no problem with.

I’ve thought long and hard about why some sampling doesn’t bother me and some makes me want to chop my ears off, and I have come up with what I think is a reasonably effective two-pronged test for what, for me, constitutes “acceptable” sampling. Compare “Hate It or Love It” with the sampled song. Listening to the two, you can tell their connection, but it isn’t particularly obvious. Cool & Dre, the production team who created “Hate It or Love It,” clearly didn’t just hear “Rubber Band” and decide they wanted to ape the melody wholesale. They found one section of the song, probably only about 5 seconds long, and carved another hook out of it. But at the same time, it’s obvious it’s a sample; they aren’t trying to pass it off as completely their creation, either.

In my mind, then, this song satisfied the two criteria I think need to be present for sampling to seem acceptable to me. It A, acknowledges that it is a sample, preserving the murky fidelity of the original and using a clear “looped” structure; and B, does something with the sample more than just xeroxing the riff altogether. There are songs that do A but not B, and there are also songs that manage to do B but not A, making it sound as if the rhythm did not come from another song, usually by dint of what’s called an interpolation (which means the original copyright holders are paid for the rights to the song, but the sampling artist doesn’t actually use the master recording; they just play it over however they want it).

After that, though, there are songs that might satisfy both conditions that I still can’t be okay with. I am always disturbed by songs in which the singer/rapper interacts with the vocal element of the sampled song. I highly doubt that when Michael Karoli of Can—who has, by the way, been dead for years—sung the phrase “drunky hot bowls” he felt fine with the idea that years later Kanye West would condition you to hear him say “drunk and hot girls” instead. That makes me feel very weird, and reminds me of something else I am deeply troubled by: commercials featuring dead celebrities through the digital manipulation of old footage.

Along those lines, there is one condition that will make any sampling automatically horrendous in my mind: Any song that insults the sampled song or artist. There are famous examples; that one is insulting, as far as I’m concerned, just because I consider it an act of artistic terrorism to push peoples’ associations with something like “Annie” to be even a little bit closer to the line “If you with me mama rub on ya’ tits.” And there are other examples that literally make fun of the original artist. “Whatever she said, then I’m that.” To me that sounds like, “Whatever she said, hahaha! Can you believe this dumb woman who I am making money off of sings in a language I don’t know?” Also, if you make it to the end of the video, you can see that Erick babblingly imitates/mocks the Hindi vocals. Predictably, the joke is on Erick: The line, which was taken from here, translates as, “If someone wants to commit suicide, what can you do?”

What I can do is try to avoid this stuff. Hopefully someday, that will be easier to do than it is now.


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