Hip hop tends to attract a lot of criticisms. Among them is the claim that hip hop, for its heavy use of sampling, cannot be called a ‘real’ genre of music. Sampling is the art – or the crime, depending on who you ask – of taking a piece of a song, like its drum beat or some lines from the chorus, and repurposing, mixing, or looping it to create a new musical piece. But what critics of sampling call a hollow recreation of past work do not realize is that producing tracks from a mélange of different sounds is how producers create their own aesthetic, express their style, and unintentionally redefine the boundaries of genre.
The rise of the hip hop scene in the 70s carved a space for sampling in popular music. As DJs mixed soul, funk, disco, and even rock vinyls, they created an entirely new musical creature that grew like fire. Quickly DJing became revered as an art and a powerful skill, as techniques like flipping and scratching, timing beats, changing speeds, and remixing developed and were perfected. Turntabling techniques were a DJ’s signature, which made unique aesthetics for the rappers who they joined up with. Like Run-DMC’s convincing blend of hip-hop b-boying with rock music, or Public Enemy’s noisy and layered avant-garde style that combined police sirens, erratic turntable scratches, and even spoken snippets of actual newsreels or political speeches, sampling defined the artists and DJs who took up the practice while also curating hip hop music as a genre.
Sampling as music production didn’t happen by accident. As Public Enemy’s producer Hank Shocklee recalls, “combing through records, finding the right sound or the right part or the right drum break or the right turnaround or the right horn hit or the right tambourine loop or the right spoken word piece, the right bass piece” was how sounds were created, and this need for knowledge of musical heritage hasn’t really changed, even though the machines and technology that used to do this work have. Take the eclecticism of A Tribe Called Quest’s latest album and compare with People’s Instinctive Travels, their debut album from 1990; or the sampling of music from the soundtrack of a Bollywood film in Lil Kim’s song ‘Get in Touch with Us’, as an example of how sampling is a challenge of expanding musical horizons, not shrinking them.
Going from turntables, to drum machines and samplers, to contemporary digital software, it’s no surprise that the sounds of hip hop – the genre whose rhythmic essence is sampling – has changed with technology. The evolution doesn’t always happen intentionally for the producer who adopts new styles with each project, but is a result of having the options to choose between hard, funky beats, smooth layered rhythms, or incorporating entirely new sounds into one’s music.
(Pictured – Roland’s TR-808 drum machine, the drum machine that revolutionized hip hop)
Additionally, successful and widely acclaimed rapper-producers have great potential for steering genre into different directions, since their music is best received when accompanied by an original aesthetic, and vice versa.
Rapper-producer Kanye West did this even before he traded music for a clothing line. Though his sampling technique tended to be too grand and experimental to be consistently recognized (see My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy), he was one of the first artists of his generation to skillfully combine so many unexpected samples with layers that were clearly distinct, yet sounded natural. Keeping his penchant for gospel and sermons, his early work was full of soul, gangsta rap, and disco more or less until 808’s and Heartbreak (appropriately named after one of the most widely used sampling machines in hip hop). Since then, he’s digitized himself for a clean, bolder sound while at the same time meshing in soulful vocals.
Kanye’s unique producing talent also shines through his habit of remaking songs in his own image, as he did with Chaka Kahns’ ‘Through the Fire’, which he turned into a full track about a personal near-death experience rapped through a wired-shut jaw, was part of the artistic eccentricities fans looked for in his music.
No matter the preferred genre (though genre itself is becoming an increasingly problematic way of classifying music), it is near impossible to find a track produced since the invention of sound recording that has not been used as or included samples at some point. While it’s easy to see just how embedded sampling is to hip hop, the truth is that it is used across genres, with no limit or boundaries placed on what gets sampled where, either. There are samples of Beethoven in rap (Mobb Deep and Nas), but also of Frédéric Chopin in Deadmau5’s ‘Moar Ghosts N’ Stuff’.
Other than concerns for creative ‘legitimacy’, there are heavy controversies surrounding the legality of music sampling. Record labels and artists have battled viciously between one another over sound ownership and compensation, and things become particularly messy when deceased artists are represented by notoriously overprotective record labels. In other cases, an artist’s family may have ownership over their work, and seeing another go platinum with an album of sampled beats from their relatives’ legacy may not look like paying homage, no matter what the other claims. Generally, copyright laws in music are varied, but legal cases may still go far in making them change and adapt to the highly digitized climate of the modern music industry.
Despite legal restraints and intimidation tactics by labels, it looks like sampling is here to stay.
When KISS member Gene Simmons told Rolling Stone in an interview that he is “looking forward to the death of rap”, he was being more than just an asshole. That comment is not the first time a big name in music has rejected an entire genre on the grounds that it uses musical sampling. The art of remixing and manipulating parts of songs is done by music producers everywhere, and while it’s certainly true that mixing samples to create a new beat is using the work of somebody else, the producers’ way of innovating music by mixing and harmonizing different sounds off of another is a genuine showcase of talent and innovation. They create and follow their own waves, rather than riding ones that were already headed towards the shore.