The Great Sample Robbery
WHILST perusing the alluring and wallet-emptying shelves…
of HMV on London’s Oxford Street; I was struck by an ‘epiphany’: what has happened to sampling in music?! It seems inconsequential but is less random than you might imagine: playing in the store, after a snatch of Lorde, was Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique-defining mini-masterpiece, Shake Your Rump. The samples on that song – indicative of and defining the album as a whole – are legendary. Not only do you have a snippet of Unity (Pt. 2 – Because It’s Coming) by Afrika Bambaataa and James Brown; a little pinch of 6 O’Clock DJ (Let’s Rock), Born to Love You and Yo Yo by Rose Royce: one can detect the distinct tones of Alphonse Mouzon’s Funky Snakefoot adding an appropriate hint of butt-wiggling sass and slinky, snaking tease. That song contains lashings of Beasties authority and a kaleidoscope of sounds. Not only does the song have its own skin and personality but splices genres, decades and various ideas into an impossible lush, full and exhilarating whole.
Look at the 1989 album and its fifteen-track body is crammed with muscular samples. From the twenty-three-second 5-Piece Chicken Dinner (a little blast of Shuckin’ the Corn by Eric Weissberg and Marshall Brickman) to the multi-part epic, B-Boy Bouillabaisse – it is a veritable Smörgåsbord of plunderphonics and audio archiving.
The cut-and-paste Brooklyn masters divided critics when the album was released – it was a commercial failure and an album that almost ruined their careers. Retrospectively – thankfully, people had got smarter and less pretentious by a certain point – Paul’s Boutique is seen as a genius creation. I look down the list of my favourite albums of all-time and a fair few of them rely on sampling. From Paul’s Boutique to DJ Shadow’s masterful, Entroducing..…; De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising; The Avalanches’ majestic heart-stopper, Since I Left You: some of the most affecting, nuanced and captivating records in music history.
IN THIS PHOTO: Beastie Boys (circa Paul’s Boutique)
Having heard that essential Beastie Boys cut, it got my mind thinking about current music. I browsed – well, drooled, actually – through the racks and avenues of vinyl on display – from the Soul and Rap sections, where I found Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain, to new releases from Laura Marling and Sleaford Mods – it occurred how rare sampling is in modern music.
There are free-for-all effects and songs D.J.s, composers and artists can use (for free) but what happens if you want to push the envelope and be ambitious?
I am not the most confident when it comes to singing and recording my own music but could handle the task of putting together a great sample-heavy track. It would be something like DJ Shadow-meets-The Avalanches and would not involve any vocals or nerve-shredding input from myself. What it would entail is obsessively scouring through vinyl and collating a banquet of songs and sounds from decades-worth of music. Whilst a nightmare for someone who has O.C.D.: it is an absolute dream for me. I would love the challenge of being able to construct a six/seven-minute suite that was cohesive and fascinating: one that relied on a range of genres and samples but never sounds cluttered and unfocused. For someone like me – quite shy but desperate to put some sounds down – it would be a way into music and, crucially, a chance for me to achieve a life-long dream: put out my very own album! To be fair, it has never been easy, cheap and stress-free creating an album with samples in. Beastie Boys, The Avalanches and people like Beck could not throw an album like Odelay (Beck) together free-of-charge and unsupervised. I know Beastie Boys faced legal problems in their career; they used fewer samples after Paul’s Boutique – getting clearance and permission – whilst a host of other similarly-minded artists faced battles and obstacles from various labels and artists. I understand artists might not want their music used by others but, were a fee/percentage figure to be agreed-upon – they get a certain cut of the finished album’s proceeds – that would be okay, no?!
If you thought it was difficult getting permission to use samples back in the late-1980s and early-‘90s: it is almost unheard-of in 2017. I know a lot of Dub-Step/Electronic/Drum ‘n’ Bass acts who have found an affordable way of putting samples into their music. A lot of times (these samples) are audio-only. There are few vocals and they rarely take from established, popular songs. What you get are instrument sounds and various public-access electronic samples and songs. There are apps. and software that allows aspiring musicians the chance to use samples/sounds for their music. Again, these would involve a range of sound library options and public domain songs. That does allow a certain creative wing-spread but what about the new crop of Beastie Boys, DJ Shadows and their ilk? If you want to create your very own Maxinquaye (Tricky) or Discovery (Daft Punk) then what do you do?! If I had to select my top-twenty albums ever, I would put both Paul’s Boutique and Since I Left You on them. There are many who, like me, fondly remember those kinds of albums and the listening experience one got. It is not like a standard studio album where you hear the song and hear something straightforward and easy. Yes, there is nuance and quality but rarely is every part of the brain and body engaged and curious.
Take an album as rich and detailed as Since I Left You and that all changes. You are treated to a whole new type of music and interaction. Not only are you given a heady and packed sensation but get to unearth and discover musicians/songs you might not have otherwise heard.
Artists like Beastie Boys wanted to stand out and create their own identity but, through their magnificent, sample-glorious L.P.s, aimed to bring their idols and favourite songs to the fans. I listen to albums such as Paul’s Boutique and fall for it hard. I love the songs but, when the needle is lifted, want to study the artists the Beastie Boys sample on the songs. There are not many albums that do that: we need modern records that have that sort of daring and sense of heritage; the desire to inform and educate whilst inspiring and amazing.
IN THIS PHOTO: The album cover for DJ Shadow’s Entroducing…..
Today, we have reached an era where one can get a world of music at their fingertips. It is easy now – than it ever has been – to unearth songs from all of musical history – well, most of it anyway. Sites like Spotify allow one, for a small, monthly fee, unbridled and unfettered access to all of music’s colours and promise. It is a wonderful thing but, in terms of actually using these songs for creative purposes – how easy is that for one to do?! I know there are people like me who want to create those epic, collage songs people like Beastie Boys stunned us with back in the 1980s. To me, the last truly great ‘sample album’ was the aforementioned Since I Left You. The Avalanches brought us that in 2000 and, in the ensuing seventeen years, there have been few to match (that record) in terms of imagination and cross-pollination. Sure, every year, one gets a few albums that use samples and other songs: it is becoming rarer as time progresses. I understand artists want to protect their music – and not see them used recklessly and arrogantly by any artists – but it is easy enough to cover a song, no?! In fact, any artist can cover (pretty) much any song without permission. It is polite to ask an artist for permission but it is not a legal requirement.
Whilst you can do your own interpretation of any existing song; it is incredibly difficult obtained permission to use the original version.
I feel modern music could be given so many incredible albums were the laws around sampling and copyright to be relaxed. I am not suggesting a moratorium or laissez-faire attitude to other artists’ music. In the same way I would ask for permission to have sex with someone’s girlfriend: I would have the same courtesy when using somebody else’s music. It is only polite but is being bogged-down by legalities and stubbornness.
IN THIS PHOTO: The great, late J Dilla whose 2006 album, Donuts, heavily relied on samples
Throwing a spanner into the works are sites like Spotify; originality in modern music as it is. We have all heard of court cases where established artist sue/accuse others of stealing chord sequences and their songs – sometimes, you get musicians stealing another’s song note-for-note. It is inevitable this will happen when you consider the thousands of musicians worldwide and the limitations in music – I guess people are not doing it consciously or maliciously. With so many genres covered and few chances for a genuine breakthrough: how easy is it to be a true original in 2017? Spotify is a wonderful service but has been accused of, in past years, not providing artists adequate financial reward and remuneration. Now, I’m no legal expert – cue manacled gentlemen gasping in mock-horror and children crying at the shock of it! – but I feel it should be less sticky and complicated brokering a compromise. Say, you wanted to craft a modern-day equivalent like Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique; how would one do that? If I want to use a few songs from The Beatles – Come Together, Hey Bulldog and She Loves You, for example – and a couple of Steely Dan classics for a single song – maybe Deacon Blues and Night by Night, perhaps? – would it be as easy as going to Mr. McCartney and Starr; a quick call to sirs Walter Becker and Donald Fagen?! They might say ‘yes’ but I am sure there would be stipulations and strict terms. There are modern records like Yesterday’s Gone (Loyle Carner) and We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service – both incredibly inventive and gorgeous records. Each has samples on them but, one feels, not as many as the creators would want. The latter album is from A Tribe Called Quest – a group who have used samples throughout their career. Their last and swansong album, I think, has around five different samples – this is over the course of sixteen tracks. The U.S. legends knew how pricey and time-consuming it would be getting samples so not only employed a raft of guest vocalist but sort of created their own samples – albeit, their original material made to sound like samples. De La Soul did it for their latest album, and the Anonymous Nobody.
Not to take anything away from the artists I have just mentioned but I often find their albums’ highlights come from those samples used.
It is a credit to them for discovering them – and effectively deploying them – but that fact remains: those rediscovered gems of sound are those that remain in mind.
IN THIS PHOTO: The album cover for Kendrick’s Lamar’s 2015 masterpiece, To Pimp a Butterfly
I feel, with the way things are going, creative is being split in two. On the one hand, modern technology and devices like an iPad give an aspiring artist so many options and sounds in a single click. It is great a musician can subvert and supersede the high studio prices and create albums on a tablet or laptop. That might sound like the organic nature of music is being sucked into a machine – and being transformed into something detached and mechanical – but that is not the case. An artist can get all the studio benefits whilst putting their own voice and personality into the music. You can record instrument parts (live and raw) and upload them into an iPad. You can mix that with sound samples and lay down a track without the need to step into a studio and spend a night bending over a wheelie bin in a Hackney alleyway – in order to get the money needed to spend a poultry hour in a high-tech facility. That is not only good for creativity and music’s growth – not to mention sparring one’s bottom a hard night of unwanted penetration – but it means more artists are taking a D.I.Y. approach. There are plenty going into the studio and doing things ‘properly’: combining with the wave of homemade albums; it provides the current scene with a nice mix and dynamic. On the other end of the scale are the limitations imposed by other artists. I hear songs like Groove Is in the Heart (Deee-Lite’s 1990 masterpiece) and yearn to hear something as crazy, delightful and timeless. Could a modern-day artist really create a song like this in 2017? Maybe a band/artist with deep pocket (could) but what of the new breed? I feel one would need to navigate a minefield of litigation, dropped phone calls and closed doors were they even to have the thought of such a song. The chances of conception becoming realised reality seem like an impossible dream. So, what has changed since the 1990s? As I mentioned, it has never been easy or inexpensive getting rights to sample others artists’ work.
In the last couple of decades, I feel these legal battles and the changing face of music-sharing has made artists wary and reluctant.
If it is frustrating having your music listed on Spotify – and having to get royalties organised on a stream-by-stream basis – then they will not want another headache getting royalties when their music is used by other musicians.
IN THIS PHOTO: Beck: a master of the cut-and-paste forum
Perhaps I am in the minority but feel the technological explosion and digital nature of music have robbed music of some of its innovative and potential. I believe there are artists in our midst who have the talent and vision to create one of those legendary, timeless sample-laden albums – we could get a modern-day Odelay or 3 Feet High and Rising. To me, the finest listening experience one could have is putting a record like Since I Left You on a turntable. In a way, it is like taking music full-circle. The Australian band would have scoured through thousands of records when looking for their samples so would, naturally, want the final product to be played on a record player – it seems almost sacrilegious listening to Since I Left You through Spotify. With vinyl coming back into fashion; what better time than loosening copyright laws and allowing new artists easier access to a treasure-trove of songs and samples? I am not suggesting we remove immigration barriers and give carte blanche for artists to pinch whatever they want without considering permission, compensation and credit.
Things are, at the moment, so ridiculous it means it is becoming so phenomenally tricky getting permission needed – to use a mere sprinkle of samples in an album.
There are, as I stated, a few modern artists who have released albums that use sampling: it is not nearly as expansive and detailed as those legendary albums like Paul’s Boutique. What is the answer to this conundrum, then? Whereas Spotify needs to restructure itself – to ensnare artists on the site are provided fees when people stream their music – a case-by-case basis needs to be figured when artists come asking for sampling permission? Those cocky enough to approach a cavalcade of legendary musicians in order to use their music might need deep pockets or a very thick skin. It would be unfair to expect a new artist to be given free-run of The Beatles’ back catalogue, for example. If you listen to an album like Since I Left You and you’ll notice one thing: the sample used on that are not exactly world-famous and from huge acts. Yeah, Beastie Boys used more ‘commercial’ artists but not so with The Avalanches. One feels they had a right old time getting clearance for (the dozens) of samples they used, but what about today? Even if you went a bit obscure and underground, I feel it would still be migraine-inducing when it came to permission. In my view, if we are to inspire the new generations and rebel against the conformity and chart-obsessed nature of modern music then we need to strip away egos and redraft existing constitutions. Away from the Spotify-lusting hordes and dictated-to mainstream acts, there is a Rebel Alliance of cut-and-paste freewheelers who want to run to the decks and crack out their favourite vinyl. Were they able to splice and unite an ocean of music into a concentrated – if rainbow-burst of sounds – album then that would start a chain reaction – so many artists attempting the same and pushing the limits of music as we know it. Not only would that inspire legions of artists to approach original music in a different way but urge them to connect with older music and discover songs/artists new to them. I feel, were this to become a reality, it would provide music…
A new lease of life.