Half Empty, Since 1998

Has music come to a point where sampling is an up-and-coming art form? Read on for an exploration of this newer method of music-making.

Sampling As Musical Magic

Chad J. Sutton. June 22nd, 1998

I’ll admit it right now: I am a music whore. I live, breathe, eat, sleep, and shag music. All types of music. Punk, funk, rock, metal, alternative, R&B, soul, rap, hip-hop, trip-hop, electronica, techno, dance, club, disco, classical, you get the idea. On any given day I’ll be in one of a thousand musical moods. I make the most eclectic mix tapes you’ll ever hear. I own over a thousand CDs. I have a closet full of tapes and vinyl. I even own 8-tracks.

What never ceases to amaze me is how music keeps evolving and expanding, yet how it can keep its feet firmly planted in the past. Just about every band has been influenced by another band along the way. Some bands base their sound on the music of others through the magic of sampling.

Sampling has had its share of media attention over the last decade, especially in regards to the legal implications of “borrowing” from copyrighted work. There have been lawsuits galore stemming from unauthorized samples; sampling has also brought originality and talent under fire from artists and journalists alike.

My take on sampling is this: if it fits musically and/or lyrically, and enhances the vibe of the song, it’s all good. I do take exception with sampling for its own sake; that is, when an artist is just rehashing an old song and cashing in on it. Most of Puff Daddy’s songs are prime examples of sampling for its own sake. Just about every Beastie Boys song that uses samples is mind-blowing.

Now that you have a point of reference, let’s explore a few of my favorite samples of all time.

It seems to me that the most sampled drum lick in history is the intro to “When the Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin. Probably my favorite occurrence is in “Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover” by Sophie B. Hawkins. It’s sped up to about double time, and man does it swing. Another sampled appearance of Mr. Bonham: the Beastie Boys’ “Rhymin’ and Stealin’.”

Speaking of the Beasties yet again, Paul’s Boutique is one of my top ten desert island albums as well as a samplefest in itself. It was a breakthrough album, though it flopped commercially at first because people didn’t know what to make of it. Part of its grooviness comes from its constant cultural references layered on top of some funky samples. There are way too many examples to list here, but someone has painstakingly documented every sample/reference on the album. It helps to have the CD playing while you read so you can follow along.

Another one of my fave fab bands that dips into the sample pool quite frequently is Saint Etienne. The band itself is relatively obscure, so it goes to follow that the samples they appropriate on their albums are even more obscure. Most of the clips heard on Fox Base Alpha and So Tough are from French radio, old British films, and TV shows. “Conchita Martinez” on So Tough probably has the only immediately recognizable sample: the guitar lick from Rush’s “Spirit of Radio.”

Rap is a genre that gets slammed for relying on samples and remixing of old material, but there is some really innovative stuff that has been done over the years. The whole hip-hop beat at its inception relied on cutting up records to lay down a groove, over which the MC would craft his rhymes. Grandmaster Flash was an early pioneer of this crude granddaddy of sampling, raising it almost to an art form. If you’ve never heard “Wheels of Steel,” you need to go find a copy. Over the course of five minutes, everything from Blondie to Chic to Queen to the Furious Five gets mixed up in one big funky stew.

Perhaps a more current example of creative rap sampling is Public Enemy’s “He Got Game.” This cut uses the guitar from Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” as its main hook. If anyone had asked Stephen Stills ten years ago if he’d ever make a guest appearance on a rap record, he’d have probably laughed.

Another newer musical style that is quite sample-heavy is electronica/techno/trip-hop. Most of the bands in this category use a more musical form of sampling; that is, instead of using clips or hooks from other songs, they sample a particular sound and make it fit their vibe. For instance, in one song you might be hearing a kick drum sound from a Cream song, a bass guitar sound from Parliament, and a guitar sound from Guns ‘n Roses, all sampled, reshaped, and sequenced.

So, what are some of your favorite samples? And your view on the whole sampling phenomenon? I’d love to hear about it. Oh, and check back next time for another installment of the 80’s video series. I’m in the process of logging a few more videotapes.