Samples and community

The defining musical experience of my lifetime is hearing familiar samples in unfamiliar contexts. For me, the experience is usually a thrill. For a lot of people, the experience makes them angry. Using recognizable samples necessarily means having an emotional conversation with everyone who already has an attachment to the original recording. Music is about connecting with other people. Sampling, like its predecessors quoting and referencing, is a powerful connection method.

Run-DMC sample map

Sampling and influence

Whenever you look posts on the Musicians Wanted section of Craigslist by people who are starting bands, they all include a list of influences. They read like wish lists of samples. Whether you end up recreating a sound live or using a sample directly makes little difference in terms of the mental creative process. Every band I’ve ever been in yearned unconsciously for sampling. We’d try for the feeling of Stevie Wonder in Talking Book, or fifties Miles, or Led Zeppelin IV.

Cold Sweat sample map

Shared musical memes are shared DNA

The tribal associations of music operate at a more granular level than entire genres or performers. Any shared musical memes build a network of musical association that can create pathways for emotional connection. Chord progressions, melodic figures, scales, rhythmic figures, lyrical phrases — all the DNA of music draws on a finite pool shared across the world’s musicians, the way that the genomes of humans and mice and fruit flies and daisies all draw on the same basic set of genes.

When John Lennon uses the sad descending chromatic bassline in “Dear Prudence,” he’s signaling an affinity for every piece of music that uses that bassline, and everyone who’s felt the mood that the bassline evokes.

I’m not a big Sarah McLachlan fan, but I do like her song “Ice Cream.” It has a nice 6/8 groove with a lot of syncopation, a groove I associate more with sixties Coltrane than with unthreatening singer-songwriters.

I finally looked “Ice Cream” up on the web and learned that the drummer on the session, Guy Nadon, is a jazz musician who studied with Elvin Jones.

By sneaking a little Coltrane DNA into the unlikely host of a Sarah McLachlan song, Guy Nadon was able to reach across my general hipsterish resistance and move me.

Shared DNA creates family

Michael Jackson had been on my mind quite a bit before he died, and hasn’t been far from my thoughts much since then. I’m especially interested in the “mama se mama sa mama coo sa” chant at the end of “Wanna Be Startin Something.” By quoting Manu Dibango, MJ was throwing a sly wink to all the disco and afro-funk lovers who were hip to “Soul Makossa.” Whenever someone references or samples the chant, it’s a signal of inclusion to those of us who care about MJ.

Michael Jackson sample map

Referencing doesn’t have to be explicit or conscious for it to work. I loved “Got Your Money” by Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Kelis on the first hearing without knowing exactly why. Later I wasn’t too surprised to find out that the beat is a slowed-down sample of “Billie Jean.”

All music evolves from previous music. Sampling makes the chain of memetic inheritance more explicit than other musical memes.

Sampling is more emotionally evocative than quotation

Sampling is an more powerful tool for emotional connection than quotation, because in addition to the melodic or rhythmic figure that’s being activated in your memory, it’s all the subtle nuances of a recording that you may have heard hundreds or thousands of times. Samples can short-circuit the analytic parts of your memory and tap directly into the deep unconscious.

Jackson 5 sample map

Permission and ownership

The simultaneous beauty and menace of sampling is that you don’t need anyone’s permission: not the performers, not the producers, not the composers or arrangers or copyright holders. Selling your sampled works might be another ball of wax, but if you just want to make mashups, all you need is the audio and a few pieces of inexpensive software.

Eric B & Rakim - "Paid In Full" sample map

Be brave, let people sample you

The recording artists I admire are the ones who invite new interpretations of their work. Jay-Z puts out remix-friendly versions of his albums with the isolated vocals on one side and the instrumentals on the other, with the express purpose of making it easy for anyone to repurpose them. The electronic music world has responded enthusiastically, so now you can hear Jay’s rhymes paired with the Beatles, Radiohead, Brian Eno and other unlikely-seeming musical combinations. When I was more of a hip-hop dilettante, Jay’s music was a little too intense for me. Hearing him combined with the safely familiar White Album was the gateway for me to be able to appreciate his work in its original setting. Being able to connect to Jay opens the possibility of connecting to his many fans, which has broadened my social circle noticeably.

Fugees - "The Score" sample map

Not everybody likes the connections formed by sampling

A lot of people are angry about the practice of sampling, and I’m not just talking about copyright holders. Plenty of people I know find sampling enraging, from professional musicians to the most casual listeners and everyone in between. Maybe these people are attached to their emotional associations to particular recordings and don’t want them invaded. I can see that. When I hear a song based on a sample before the original, I can’t help but think of the sampling track when I eventually do hear the original.

I heard “Crazy In Love” by Beyoncé dozens of times before I ever heard “Are You My Woman (Tell Me So)” by the Chi-Lites, the source of the brass and cymbal samples. As a result, the Chi-Lites inevitably evoke Beyoncé for me. I think this is basically a good thing. You can’t keep a fence around your emotions, no matter how much you might want to. More complex associations force the possibility of more connection with other people, and you can never have too much connection.

Nas Is Like sample map

The discussion continues

A couple of my musician friends shared some thoughts about this post on Facebook. Jeremy is a rock bassist, and Jesse is a jazz trumpet player.

Jeremy:

Nicely done! One of the best defenses / explanations of sampling in music that I’ve read. One thing worth exploring / defusing when it comes to the people who hate sampling is “the craftmanship argument.” To wit: people who say that sampling is not valid because the sampler did not play or write the sampled element. I don’t think that this is a valid argument against the practice of sampling, but haven’t exactly put together why…

Me:

Thanks dude! Your opinion matters to me. I think the craftsmanship issue is a critical one, and yeah, it’s tricky. There’s the puritanical equation of effort with quality, for one thing. For another, there’s the idea that learning an instrument is more effortful than copping a sample. On the first front, well, that’s such a deep-seated cultural assumption that people tend to not be open to debating it. I’ve spent years struggling against it. Sampling seems “easier” because the work is kind of invisible compared to woodshedding on an instrument. But the work is still real. You need to listen to a lot of music and do a lot of analyzing of it before you can identify good samples. There’s not much effort in the act of pulling and looping them, but there’s a lot of intellectual groundwork to be laid, and in the end I think it ends up being as much effort as running scales on guitar or whatever.

Jesse:

Going to weigh in here with my three cents 1) The structural information of the song: lyrics, melody, harmony, even certain iconic rhythms can be quoted and referred to by a band or a composer either indirectly as in a quotation or iteration or directly by doing a cover tune, let’s say. 2) This is a paraphrase from “This is your brain on music” – A study was done where a 2 second clip of pop tunes was played. Just from the “sound” (the sonic environment – the production elements: reverb, orchestration, warmth) participants could reliably pick the tune out of a multiple choice list. I experimented with this by the way. It’s fun. Drop your iTunes needle around. Anyway, I can spot any track of “innervisions” in under a second. 3) That feel of that sound is what sampling is doing as well. And, sorry, wether its artfully done or not, is quite different than the content of the song: its the context of the sound of the song that produces the resonance.

Me:

I guess it depends on the length of the sample we’re talking about. A one-beat stab buried in the mix is going to work differently on the listener than a complete phrase. It’s the difference between the kick drum from the Funky Drummer vs the entire four-bar loop. My post was more about the use of full-length phrases, since that’s what tends to be the most emotionally (and legally) controversial.

Jesse:

I guess my point was that actually copping the sound of a recording live or on another recording is just about impossible without sampling. There’s something that can be artful about it but ultimately there is an appropriation of some producers hard, hard work to create an iconic sound. To equate the effort of sifting through a library with taste and creativity with the effort of actually producing those iconic sounds from scratch is absolutely offensive. It’s just a straight up different art form and without accurate sourcing is enslaving in that it makes something work outside its consent and original purpose.

Oh and . . . the bomb squad was great at it :) Irony. So much fun.

Me:

I agree with you that the whole point of sampling is to use a recognizable recording vibe along with the recognizable melody, rhythm etc. I don’t find it offensive. You could just as easily think of it as a tribute, homage, humbling yourself before your source inspiration. That’s how I think of it. I do believe in accurate sourcing. The present brokenness of the copyright system drives samplers underground and encourages secrecy about sources. I think there’s another unspoken philosophical tension here about who owns a piece of art, the artist or the world. I side with the world. I feel like, I bought the record, I own it now.

Jesse:

I’m on both sides of it. It’s a good debate. Warhol comes to mind obviously.

Jeremy:

There’s also obvious parallels in sampling to collage art in the visual world, and found art. When you take a sample out of the original context, juxtapose it with new samples or original music, you create a new, hybrid context.

You can have bad sampling, just as you can have bad original composition. When someone hijacks an entire song and just redubs their vocals, well, that sets off a lot of alarms… I think there needs to be a new critical language to address what constitutes “artful” sampling vs. “artless” sampling.

Jesse:

This is an interview that shares Pat Matheny’s views on Kenny G. Vis artless sampling. Priceless. Good for the soul. Devastatingly brutal.

A snippet: “Not long ago, Kenny G put out a recording where he overdubbed himself on top of a 30+ year old Louis Armstrong record, the track “What a Wonderful World”. With this single move, Kenny G became one of the few people on earth I can say that I really can’t use at all – as a man, for his incredible arrogance to even consider such a thing, and as a musician, for presuming to share the stage with the single most important figure in our music.”

Jeremy:

I had read this before – a friend, knowing my love for incendiary music writing, forwarded it to me. It’s great. “But when Kenny G decided that it was appropriate for him to defile the music of the man who is probably the greatest jazz musician that has ever lived by spewing his lame-ass, jive, pseudo bluesy, out-of-tune, noodling, wimped out, f*cked up playing all over one of the great Louis’s tracks (even one of his lesser ones), he did something that I would not have imagined possible…”

So I think we have a good working definition of what qualifies “bad” sampling.

Me:

Yeah. I’m not completely opposed to the idea of overdubbing your own sax solo on another recording, but ideally you’d be someone less lame.

Here’s my story of good sampling. We did a Revival Revival show and while Barbara took a break, I spun some of my instrumentals. On the Bittersweet Melody remix, I have a sample of the opening few bars of A Love Supreme. Two tenor sax players were at the gig, so after the sample had run a few times they both jumped in on it. They played it in more or less in unison a few times and then took off on this whole interlocking thing with the phrase transposed and displaced against the original. It was pretty magical, I wish we’d recorded it.

Guys, do you mind if I include some excerpts of this conversation in the blog post itself? I think non-FB users would find it interesting. If you’d prefer I didn’t that’s cool too.

Jeremy:

I’ve got no problem with that… it seems especially appropriate to throw some samples into the writing, if you don’t mind getting all “meta” with it. Personally, I have no problems with meta-whateva.

Oh, and I wish you had recorded that Revival Revival gig too! In my head it sounds awesome! Did you know the tenor players were going to do that?

Me:

No idea! One of them had been playing bass and a little sax with us regularly and the other was just there hanging out, I had never met him before. It was both of their first time hearing the track.

Jeremy:

Good frickin’ lord… real musicians just blow me away.

Me:

You’re telling me.

Jeremy:

Yeah, well, that’s what I’ve got effect pedals for… when you can’t wow ‘em with chops, confuse ‘em with expression-controlled delay trails.

7 thoughts on “Samples and community

    • People, this post is super thoughtful and you should go read it. I’m going to write a response to his response right now.

  1. Nick’s mom also has a good blog post on this very subject, combining TS Eliot and John Cougar Mellencamp. I agree with her completely: “Perhaps one of our tasks as artists is to eat the world. When we eat, the food is transformed into nourishment, into energy, into action. The world is a grocery store and we are charged to raid the available provisions. Our job is to remain open to the inspiration of our surroundings and encounters and to be sensitive enough to notice and be altered by what we see, hear and experience.”

  2. Pingback: Intellectual Property Law is Broken, continued « Prospects

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