Strange swirls of disparate musical concepts spanning continents and decades; a cacophony of sounds produced by musicians who never met, playing songs that never existed; a quasi-spiritual journey into the heart of creativity, rebirth, and decontextualisation. As an introduction into the art of sampling, DJ Shadow’s seminal 1996 debut album Endtroducing….. is as good as it gets. With a genesis spanning two years and countless hours combing through dusty crates of forgotten records, Endtroducing….. changed everything in the ‘90s, within the worlds of electronic music, hip-hop and far beyond. Today, 20 years on from the release of the finest sample-based album ever made and in a month that saw the 16-year-late return of sampling darlings The Avalanches, we take a look back at the advent of sampling, from its greatest heroes through to its loudest detractors, fans, and milestone achievements.
It is no mistake that the 1988 release of Akai’s MPC60 sequencer arrived in conjunction with one of the biggest sonic revolutions music has ever seen. Largely developed by the legendary musical instrument designer Roger Linn and based off earlier designs released under his own name, the powerful and versatile MPC rapidly became the production method of choice for many beatmakers operating in and around the American hip-hop scene. Essentially, it allowed musicians to hook up a turntable, play segments of a vinyl record, record chosen segments, and then chop up, rearrange, pitch shift, and otherwise alter this recorded information within the MPC unit itself. This way, using only a turntable and the compact MPC system, a drumbeat or even an entirely sample-based song could be programmed, recorded, exported, and sung, rapped, or built upon. This was revolutionary for many of the world's poorer musicians, who without the means of purchasing more elaborate equipment or recording original parts of their own, were left untrained, unheard, and without a way to adequately commit their musical vision to tape.
In this sense, the advent of sampling gave a voice to the voiceless. And as a result, where the vague discoisms of much early hip-hop had once been prevalent, a more original and organic street-level sound developed. Sampling had been around on more expensive and less widely-available equipment before ’88, but within a year of the MPC60’s release, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Follow the Leader, and Straight Outta Compton had set the tone for rap music’s future and defined its golden age. Enterprising musicians like Compton’s finest Dr. Dre began to comb obsessively through stacks of soul, funk, jazz, and gospel records in search of musical passages that they could flip and rhyme over. Drum breaks - sections of a song where the drums are heard on their own, without any contamination from other instruments - in particular became highly sought-after as easily reusable foundations for songs. The best breaks were used so often that a handful of songs have gone on to be sampled thousands and thousands of times each in professionally released tunes, let alone countless amateur releases.
Of these, the infamous Amen break is the most favoured. There have been documentaries made about it, and even The Economist has called it “the short burst of drumming [that] changed the face of music.” Four bars, in fact, that span no more than seven seconds, heard in infinite variations, combinations, and contexts since first appearing on The Winstons’ 1969 b-side Amen, Brother. Through sampling, the genres breakbeat, hip-hop, hardcore, techno, breakcore, drum and bass, and jungle were all either built upon or heavily reliant upon the drums that Gregory Cylvester Coleman played during those four bars. Indeed, everyone from Skrillex to Slipknot to David Bowie has used the sample over the past three decades, linking styles of music that otherwise share little. It is a legacy built upon both respect and contradiction, as neither the now-deceased Coleman nor the copyright owner, Winstons singer Richard L. Spencer, ever received royalties from the Amen break’s unprecedentedly widespread use.
“It felt like plagiarism and I felt ripped off and raped,” Spencer told the BBC last year. “I come from an era where you didn't steal people's ideas.” This is the crux of the sample controversy, which has dogged this method of creation ever since the technology first appeared all those years ago. It is a debate that still continues between certain members of the old guard and most of the new school: has the irrepressibly funky, heavily syncopated Amen break been stolen every time it has appeared on someone else’s song? For their part, British DJs Martyn Webster and Steve Theobald felt Spencer at least deserved repayment for his music, setting up a GoFundMe campaign to compensate the 73-year-old for his song, and raising in excess of US$30,000 to date. For his part, Spencer is torn, saying in the same BBC interview that using the Amen break is “not the worst thing that can happen to you. I'm a black man in America and the fact that someone wants to use something I created - that's flattering.”
If the Amen break is the most sampled moment in music, nothing can change the fact that James Brown gave the world the greatest number of sample-able moments in music throughout the course of his storied career. The Godfather of Soul, as he liked to be called, has been sampled a dizzying amount over the decades - in fact, his WhoSampledWho page reads like a play-by-play of great hip-hop and electronic music over the past thirty years. It is a history of re-appropriation that, in contrast to the split feelings of Spencer, has been embraced and inseparably absorbed into Brown’s legacy. As early as 1991, Brown had endorsed rappers like MC Hammer and collaborated with them, displaying an unusual amount of foresight and appreciation for a generation of musicians who both directly and indirectly bore his influence through their music. The Funky Drummer break alone - listen here at 5 minutes and 34 seconds - has injected the groove into countless classics, from Fight the Power to Fuck tha Police and on to Aphex Twin.
Yet not all sampling is so predictable that it is sourced from mainstream music only, or even from music at all. In fact, in its earliest forms, sampling was defiantly non-linear. Take, for example, one of the earliest examples of sample-based composition, Steve Reich’s 1966 masterpiece Come Out. One of the finest examples of Reich’s early-career experiments in repetition and phase, the piece consists of a spoken-word sample taken from an interview with an abused black youth arrested during the Harlem Riot of ’64. Using channel mixing and slowly-evolving desynchronisation techniques, Reich created a rhythmic texture of the youth’s words, which gradually lose meaning as the constantly repeating sound creates a virtual storm inside the listener’s head. The effect - which may at first seem overwhelming and un-musical - is ultimately sublimely beautiful, a work of art which Reich’s pioneering use of early sampling technology enabled. 50 years on, the piece holds as much potency as it ever did, a cacophony of spirit expressed in a musical form, boldly adventurous, saturated in depth. Come Out goes far beyond what could have been done before a talent like Reich had access to technologically advanced techniques, and it was a watershed moment for those mid-century experimental musicians working within musique concrète and electroacoustic forms.
But in Reich’s case, there is no theft of ideas to be alleged, only a respectful sample of a young man’s painful words. It’s not so easy in other, more popular genres, where samples are usually taken from other artists who may themselves struggle to make a living. Ultimately, the artists whose work is sampled are the ones who must determine how they feel about it being used in such a way. There are valid arguments on both sides of the debate, though it can’t be argued that many artists have been given a prominence through sampling that they may not have otherwise achieved. Many, though, just don’t believe that an artist whose songs are crafted by sampling others deserves the title of musician. I’ve heard it time and again that producers who only use what is already there are nothing but glorified listeners, less recyclers of past gems and more shameful dumpster-divers taking credit from more talented individuals.
To return to DJ Shadow, his unique perspective on the responsibility he carries as a sampler is refreshingly human. In a well-known clip from the DJ documentary Scratch, the filmmakers briefly take us inside Shadow’s world, and the cobweb-strewn basement in which much of his music originated. ”Just being in here is a humbling experience to me,” the man born Joshua Davis says as he surveys the countless forgotten recordings that are piled ceiling-high in the dungeon of a Ma and Pa Californian vinyl mecca, “because you're looking through all these records and it's sort of like a big pile of broken dreams in a way.” It’s a though-provoking insight into Davis’ role as both a musician in his own right and a gatekeeper for a musical treasure trove that most people won’t ever know exists. Though his recent work (such as this year’s brilliant The Mountain Will Fall) is much lighter on sampled content and instead relies on Davis’ own instrumentation, there has probably never been a musician who has been so deeply entrenched and commonly associated with the crate-digging subculture. And the brilliance of Davis’ music is due in no small part to the esteem with which he so clearly regards every moment he has ever sampled, a musical archaeologist dusting off the bones of long lost acts from the forgotten past.
Davis’ perspective is a mature and realistic way to view the role of any musician, sampler in hand or not. Through Shadow’s haunting early work, many artists strewn across practically every popular genre of the 20th century experienced new life, fresh air, and an exponentially larger audience than ever before. Dedicated listeners comb through such albums and locate the original songs, finding new favourites and opening the door to new worlds. Many a hip-hop fan has found and come to love the classic work of James Brown this way, just as I discovered the brilliance of Serge Gainsbourg’s best music while tracking down the incredible bassline Portishead sampled in their remix of Massive Attack’s 1995 hit Karmacoma. I still believe that remix is one of the heights of the trip-hop movement, a watershed collaboration between the two leading lights of a genre which sampling allowed to exist.
This month, The Avalanches’ released their second studio album Wildflower to critical acclaim. 16 years in the offing, it comes as the Australian trio’s hotly-anticipated follow-up to 2000’s now-classic debut Since I Left You. Both albums are based in the plunderphonics aesthetic, built almost entirely around thousands of incredibly diverse and obscure samples, occasionally altered but largely untouched, only layered upon one another to create dense sonic worlds previously undiscovered. A sunny, nostalgic journey through 1960’s psychedelia and early-‘90s alternative hip-hop, Wildflower is a fresh new masterpiece of sample-based production, continuing wisely in the same vein as Since I Left You. It is also absurdly complex; in many ways, the difference between producing an album like Wildflower and a more generic electronic/rap record is the difference between animating using claymation or a computer; 16 years is practically fast when considering the depth of difficulty in assembling (not to mention properly licensing) an hour-long opus such as this.
For a host of reasons, the past decade or two has seen the analogue sound and mid-century influence of these sample-based records slowly shifting and becoming the alternative. No more the Paul’s Boutique aesthetic that held prominence for so long; these days, hip-hop and electronic music are primarily constructed using digital methods and are left devoid of samples, built instead upon original parts, full-band arrangements, and sequenced drum machines. Partly, this is due to the cost-prohibitive process of properly compensating the artists whose songs are being sampled. It’s also because some young producers just can’t be bothered learning to wrangle the notoriously complex MPC machines that the previous generation used - they are more comfortable with their MacBooks. And anyway, there’s a sense that many of the best samples have already been found - moments of true sample brilliance, such as producer Havoc’s masterstroke on Mobb Deep’s Shook Ones Pt. II, have sadly been few and far between in recent years. Ever the innovator, Dr. Dre himself led this transition away from sampling in many ways, beginning in the early ‘90s to record full-band original arrangements of his own, essentially laid back live funk grooves that left room for rappers to rhyme over.
Though some creators have found a way to balance the differing approaches of old school and new school hip-hop - namely Kanye West, who made his name in sampling and pitch-shifting soul records and later transitioned into a roughly half sampled/half synthesised style - the overwhelming trend seen in recent rap music is to go digital, bassy, and minimal. Trap production à la Metro Boomin and Mike Will Made It is the new norm, and heavily sample-based production is largely relegated to alternative, underground status. As with the rise, fall, and rebirth of autotune, sampling has never died but has been in a state of constant flux and fashion, never embraced as wholeheartedly as it once was, but never forgotten. Certainly its influence is inalienable from the legacy of hip-hop and the related neo-soul and R&B movements.
Some modern electronic producers have built their career on sample-based techniques, namely Burial and his slew of post-dubstep imitators, yet the trend in the wider electronic community has followed hip-hop all too closely. These days, digital in-the-box production and CDJs are seen far more often than the practically-ancient ’90s techniques based on analogue synthesisers, drum machines, turntables, and the ever-faithful MPC. There’s nothing inherently tragic about such a shift of course, because it is in both the nature and the beauty of music that it can and will always change and progress. Besides, sampling is still quietly alive and well in many alternative electronic spheres, with one of last year’s best and most unusual crossover hits relying on frankly incredible samples blended seamlessly with tasteful original additions. Yet somewhere in the last twenty years, a mode of creation that was once exciting has aged and become all but stagnant, a sad phenomena all too common in the world of art.
For the time being at least, it seems sampling will live on, wrapped in mystique and debate as it is, equally loved and hated, the awkward stepchild of mainstream music production techniques. For the uninitiated, a look through one of YouTuber Sandurz’s videos on modern production techniques is an invaluable insight into the way some of our favourite music has come into existence. He films a series called Beat Breakdown that walks through the essential building blocks of some of the biggest sample-based hits in recent times; check out the Sing About Me episode here. Sampling may be many things to many people, but it isn’t easy, and it isn’t worthless. Nothing can take away from the countless great records sampling has helped to create. Just as nothing can change the fact that there is a unfathomable depth of music which languishes in dusty basements and empty record stores all around the world, waiting to be heard in one way or another, teetering dangerously upon the edge of extinction. As DJ Shadow once said in that sacred subterranean vinyl cave he inhabited for so long: “almost none of these artists still have a career, really. So you have to kind of respect that, in a way. I mean, if you’re making records, and if you’re DJing and putting out releases, whether it’s mixtapes or whatever, you’re sort of adding to this pile, whether you want to admit it or not. Ten years down the line you’ll be in here, so keep that in mind when you start thinking like ‘Oh yeah, I’m invincible, I’m the world’s best,’ or whatever… Because that’s what all these cats thought.”
As long as the music plays on.
If you enjoyed this article, please support Innocuist by subscribing to our email newsletter. We are a small independent blog, and we would love to have you as a reader. Emails are only sent out occasionally when new articles are published, so you'll never miss the latest posts.
Thank you for reading!