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Amen, brother!

Music | Wednesday, April 19th, 2006 | 11 years, 5 months ago

I’d like to expand on my previous article by discussing the history of sampling.

By sampling, I mean the act of copying a snippet of content from an artistic work and juxtaposing it into a new, original artistic work. Though the term usually refers to the practice of injecting audio excerpts into a new song, culture has in fact embraced this practice in more abstract applications for centuries. I’d like to delve deep into the culture of sampling, but y (ever so busy) work day is almost over so I’ll get the ball rolling today with an essay on the most common definition of the phrase.

Sampling in its most literal form began in the late 70’s and early 80’s with the hip hop revolution which reinvented the previously one-dimensional turntable as a dynamic musical instrument. Rap MCs would spout their original lyrical compositions alongside their indispensable partner in crime, the DJ, who would accentuate the rhythm and poetic theme by playing and manipulating musical and spoken-word record albums to the beat. Though ancillary sidekicks, DJs like Jam Master Jay, Doug E. Fresh, and Jazzy Jeff became integral to the headliner’s presentation.

Just 3 MCs and one DJ /
We be gettin’ down with no delay /
So Mixmaster Mike whatchoo got to say?
(sampled) “God damn that DJ made my day!”
3 MCs and One DJ – Beastie Boys

The art of musically manipulating records went on to be known as turntablism, and became a popular genre of music in and of itself. LPs containing nothing but consecutive wacky quotations and sound effects were mass produced, while bidirectional needles were engineered to make turntables more gentle on malleable vinyl. Many DJs from hip hop acts (e.g., Mix Master Mike of the Beastie Boys), as well as new solo DJs (e.g., Vancouver’s Kid Koala) went on record their own albums composed of original songs made up entirely of sampled sounds. Acquiring copyright licenses for such productions can be a legal nightmare, to be sure!

Countless turntablist competitions such as the DMC World DJ Championships are held around the world today, celebrating this player-turned-instrument phenomenon which has begun outselling guitars annually. A written scratch notation is even being developed, similar to the classic treble staff, to assist turntablists in transcribing and replicating complex scratch combinations.

Curiously, contemporary philosophers and poets have compared the act of scratching records to a superhuman or godlike state, contrasting the “human” linear perception of reality with the 4-dimensional transitive manipulation of time.

Branching off from hip hop and disco and meeting somewhere in the middle, techno music was born. Though originally consisting of synthesized instruments (Detroit techno) and somtimes accompanied by original lyrics (acid house), sampling found a very comfortable home in electronic music. As the technology of synthesizers and computers became more robust, electronic samplers and digital audio processors added yet another dimension to hip hop’s creative interpretation of the turntable. Classic house songs such as House Master Boyz’ “House Nation” utilized a single two-word sample to fill out the bulk of the song, forcing a new way of thinking on its listeners – letting go of the literal meaning of the words in lieu of the sample’s purely rhythmic properties.

As techno evolved it split into myriads of subgenres including breakbeat and jungle. These genres in particular often featured a single percussive sample, usually between 1 and 4 bars in length, edited extensively throughout any given song. These songs often varied more in percussion than in melody, leading to jungle’s descriptive synonym “drum and bass”. Incredibly, a very large number of songs were underlayed with a single short drum loop, the so-called “amen break“, sampled from The Winstons’ 70’s funk song “Amen Brother”. Though the elements of this clear and distinctive drum excerpt were a signature of the genre, creative editing made it difficult to find the same cut-up arrangement of beats in any two jungle songs.

More recently, innovators of drum and bass have surfaced, culminating sampling and editing into an incredibly complex and staccato mosaic of percussion. Artists ยต-Ziq, Squarepusher, and Venetian Snares collectively helped re-reinvent breakbeat into the spastic genre of “breakcore” – a genre with such variable percussion that drums are considered to be the lead instrument.

Sampling has risen up from its underground roots into the mainstream, and is commonly featured in top-40 records as well as television and radio adverts. Proliferation of multimedia home computers have put the power of sampling into the hands of the public which has resulted in entire cultures and movements born from the creative interpretations of aural snippets. While organizations such as the RIAA and CRIA fight to tax and quash such innovators, others such as the Creative Commons work with commercial artists to make their songs, instruments, and acabellas available to the public for use as creative building blocks.

Whether percieved as theft, borrowing, or social interpretation, audio sampling is a pillar of modern culture.

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