Contributed by Jon Gore of Re-Education Camp. Their album Psyop’s Boombox is available on iTunes.
I remember it very well when the Notorious B.I.G. (aka. Biggie Smalls) was shot and killed while riding in a car after an awards show. In hip hop, that day (March 9) is remembered well and honored by many. Whether people liked him or not, it was definitely a defining moment in the music’s history and perhaps showed how far off track it had become.
Another noteworthy follow-up to that incident was a tribute song by P. Diddy (known then as Puff Daddy), who was Biggie’s producer and manager. The song, ghost-written by label artist Mase, was a tribute to the legendary MC using a significant portion sampled and interpolated (see the chorus) from the Police’s “Every Breath You Take.” Now, I might say that I love the Police more than Biggie (yep, I said it). I grew up with older siblings who watched MTV during its early days, and I vividly remember Sting and crew’s unique song style. So, when I heard this sample, I thought that it was a blatant disregard for the original. Many agreed with me while others took it a step further and said it was no different than any other song that sampled another. Well, who was right?
Who Was Right?
Like many musical traditions, both sides have a point. Hip hop has sampled or referenced several songs in the past, sometimes artistically and sometimes not. For many reading this article, it would seem as though sampling is a method reserved for those who aren’t talented enough to learn an instrument, but I want to challenge that assumption and make you rethink what it means to make music. The best way I can think of to illustrate this is with an analogy. Bear with me on this…
Let’s say that you went to an art gallery and saw two pieces labeled “Beauty.” The first one has the Mona Lisa in a pink, plastic frame. Not very creative, not very interesting. In fact, it actually makes the original worse. Kind of silly, but mostly dumb and uninspired. The second one is a portrait of a woman who is clearly not well-polished. She looks like a middle-aged woman who just pulled a double-shift and has stayed up all night with a sick child. To call her beautiful is ironic, but this portrait is more realistic of how women live. Now, let’s say that upon further inspection that you realized that her face has several seemingly disjointed pieces cobbled together to make her tired, wearied face. That’s when you realize that those pieces (her eyes, her lips, her hair, her chin) all come from famous portraits of beautiful women from art history: the Mona Lisa, Warhol’s Monroe, Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, etc. “Huh!” you say when you realize it. “That’s kind of cool how they did that.” It’s almost more artistic than if the artist had simply painted the woman outright.
Right and Wrong/Done Right or Wrong
These two examples are the difference between sampling done wrong and sampling done right. The second portrait is what true school hip hop does. It uses prior components of often beautiful subject matter, and creates a gritty, often scathing commentary of reality. In contrast, the pink-framed Mona Lisa version is what you’ll get if you only listen to the radio or watch award shows. No wonder the general public thinks that sampling is just stealing. What they’re exposed to pretty much is.
Sampling in hip hop strives to “chop up” pieces of songs (sometimes famous, sometimes not) and rearrange them into a new mosaic of sounds. Most producers and beatmakers who do this call themselves “cratediggers” to describe their method of finding obscure sounds from obscure records to create a new hit record. It harkens back to the “found object” method of gathering instruments from junk yards, but cratediggers go to record stores instead, thus spawning a “found sound” movement that really started getting roots in the early 90s. Famous cratediggers include Pete Rock, Premier, J Dilla, the Bomb Squad and the Beatminerz. When skilled producers do something obvious, it is almost always a tribute to the original song, a way to honor the original soul, funk or jazz artist and making an updated cover song of sorts (see Method Man and Mary J Blige’s “You’re All I Need” from the mid-90s).
Sampling is also a tribute to the original method of creating “break beats,” where DJs in the early days would loop the part of the record (usually live at a party or at a show in a city park) that was an instrumental break in the song. Although producers now have unlimited access to live instruments and may even play those instruments very well, they often will choose sampling for the reasons I mention above. It’s a move based on artistic direction rather than lack of talent. Yes, there are several moments when this is done in an uncreative way by untalented hacks. I can probably name 10 times more songs where this happened than your average musician. But, I can also name 100 times more songs where it was done correctly, and most of these never made it to mainstream radio. So, I challenge you to recognize and even expose yourself to this version of music making to see if it’s a medium you might want to get into. I know that it’s been a mix of artistic growth and music history lessons for me when I created sample-heavy music from the early 90s to about 2013. Although I don’t use sampling as much as I used to, I make it a point to have some in each of our songs. These are sounds that are impossible to replicate in our studio and are necessary components to the soundscape.
If you want to see more about this, I highly recommend the documentary, “The Art of Sampling,” which you can watch on YouTube. Good stuff.
You have been officially re-educated! Until next time.
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