Name That Tune: The Embattled Art of Sampling

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In 1989, the legal and artistic implications of digital sampling in hip-hop were reaching a boiling point. Old-school rockers called it “stealing,” forgetting that their own heroes of rock guitar had lifted liberally from Chuck Berry and other early black music pioneers. In one of my earliest pieces as a music writer, I wrote about the art of sampling for  Option magazine. I later followed up on some landmark legal cases. But this was my first foray into reporting on what was going on in hip-hop’s golden age of the late 1980s.

Sampling: Name That Tune

By Mark Kemp, Option, May 1989

“You see you misunderstood, a sample’s just a tactic.
It’s a portion of my method; a tool, in fact.
It’s only of importance when I make it a priority,
And what we sample is loved by the majority…”

THOSE LINES come from Stetsasonic’s bubbly anthem “Talkin’ All That Jazz,” a song that points fingers in several directions, perhaps rhetorically in part. Yet mostly, the lyrics prove to be an eloquent and appropriately situated defense of the embattled art of sampling.

Electronic sampling has now managed to absolutely fill the airwaves. From the obvious lifts of a James Brown scream on the latest from Public Enemy or Salt-n-Pepa, to the more subtle pilferage by metal bands of a Led Zeppelin drum part here or a T-Rex guitar riff there, sampling is state-of-the-art music making. Tragically, it’s the B-boys and B-girls who get the brunt of the criticism for this new musical plagiarism; the less obvious headbangers and art rockers sneak out the studio doors scot-free. Admittedly, the rappers and house musicians are doing the brunt of the sampling; that makes them easy targets for celebrity attorneys.

Stetsasonic, 'In Full Gear'

Stetsasonic, ‘In Full Gear’

The question is: is sampling right or wrong? More significantly, perhaps, might be these questions: Was Woody Guthrie right or wrong when he put his own contemporary lyrics to traditional melodies? Was Keith Richards right or wrong when he consciously adopted the guitar mannerisms sculpted by his rock’n'roll idol, Chuck Berry? Was George Harrison right or wrong when he took the melody of the Chiffons’ hot 1960s single “He’s So Fine” and sang his own “My Sweet Lord” over it? Or, in the latest case of musical masquerades, was John Fogerty right or wrong when he took his very own early Creedence Clearwater Revival riffs – which he no longer legally owns – and formed a new song from them? In the Harrison case, the defendant lost. In the Fogerty case, the defendant won. But electronic sampling creates a whole new technology of infringement, so the courts have thus far been utterly baffled. Most suits have wound up in monetary out-of-court settlements.

Even most hip-hoppers agree that some of their cohorts take the art too far. But no one can put their finger on just where the ethical boundary lies. Eric B., the master DJ of Eric B. and Rakim, does believe that there are ethical boundaries. But when the duo’s “Eric B. Is President” was released last year, lots of people said  they had gone too far by taking the primary beat and title from James Brown’s “Funky President.”

“The art of sampling is new,” Eric tells me, “and just like any new art, there are going to be some people who will go too far; people  are going to sample too much. Some of these guys go into the studio thinking they’re sampling kings and not artists. They think they have it all mastered just because they have the technology. Then they go and mess everything up.

“The idea of sampling is simply to take a record that was mixed a long, long time ago and turn it into something updated, something new for the young people of today to understand and relate to,” Eric continues. “It’s really simple, but everybody’s bugging out, turning it into a bigger deal than it really is.”

HIP-HOP EVOLVED out of club dance music. DJs would spin the tunes and MCs would talk during and in between the grooves. At some point, DJs started getting frustrated because the “breaks” – those funky places in songs that turn a dance floor into a tempest – weren’t lasting long enough for the dancers to truly get off. So the DJs began scratching – manipulating their turntables, buzzing the records back and forth manually, repeating the breaks for long periods of time. On a second turntable, the DJs would add a few bars of another tune for fun. As the breaks expanded, MCs had space not only to rap casually, but to blab their whole philosophies of life. Though some believe the practice started in the Bronx, it was actually a mutant North Americanized form of the Jamaican custom of “toasting,” which means talking during instrumental parts of pop songs.

As technology expanded, so did this primitive form of manipulating and sampling from records. Electronic samplers allowed DJs, record producers and programmers to take bits and pieces of the breaks from records they liked, and then mix and mingle these breaks into beautiful musical collages of sounds and sources – not unlike the visual collages of pop artist Robert Rauschenberg, who, in his masterpieces, “sampled” everything from very well-known sixties comic strips to New York Times photographs to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.

But a sampling machine takes the bits and pieces of music digitally and then stores it on a microchip for the human beat programmers to manipulate. The machine does not make the artist; the artist makes the art using technology. Rauschenberg may have injected bits and pieces of visual imagery from other sources, but he manipulated them with his own skillful hands. And you can do that with a digital sampler; it’s just easier to fake the artistic prowess.

“Sampling is like any new artform,” says Eric B. “It’s like designing new styles of cars from old forms. Some are going to come off the line and they’re not going to look quite right. You’ve got to know what you’re doing before you start doing it; how far you should go with certain techniques – and how far you shouldn’t go.”

Eric B (left) and Rakim.

Eric B (left) and Rakim.

Still, some argue that sampling is nothing short of outright stealing – and these musicians want to see residuals come from the success of records on which their works are used. Jimi Tunnel, a New York musician who sang on the early-’80s gold dance record “Let the Music Play,” by Shannon, has heard his voice float through many hip-hop and house tunes. “I’ve been sampled to death,” Tunnel says. “But at this point, we can’t delineate what’s OK to sample and what’s not OK. The furor is over the fact that sometimes complete musical phrases are being sampled. I don’t think anyone opposes to just a drum line here or a keyboard piece there. But when a human voice or musical phrase is taken, that’s too far. Hopefully, these pending lawsuits will clear things up. A limit needs to be established.”

Tunnel is speaking of complete phrases taken in such songs as EPMD’s popular rap “Strictly Business,” in which the entire first line of Eric Clapton’s version of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff” is sampled at the beginning and periodically throughout the song; the guitar and keyboard riffs from the same source are looped and played constantly throughout. EPMD also takes the entire first line from the refrain of Steve Miller’s “Fly Like An Eagle” on their own “You’re a Customer.” And, as in the former, the bass from the Steve Miller song is looped and remains throughout the rap. The members of EPMD are young and enthusiastic about what they do. One of the members of the group, Parrish, doesn’t feel they’ve taken sampling too far.

It’s nearly Christmas, and in a back room at a large Dallas arena Parrish is ready to go onstage. EPMD has risen fast in the unpredictable world of hip-hop, and Parrish is delighted that his group will be opening tonight for New York’s Public Enemy, West Coast rapper Ice-T, and others scheduled to appear on this wintertime package show. “Sampling is like a groove,” Parrish says, undaunted. “It’s just a beat where you take good music from the past and bring it back. A lot of people say, ‘Man, you guys sample a lot.’ But, come on, we only sample about two seconds of the Steve Miller song – just the ‘time keeps on slipping, slipping, slipping’ – and then, BOOM, we go straight into the rap. And we don’t do much more with ‘I Shot the Sheriff.’ I think it’s def, not wrong.”

EPMD happens to be good; the raps are tight and interesting. But the samples are anything but discreet. “Hey, some people sample entire records,” Parrish argues. “We just want to try to bring back these old songs and see what happens. Of course, we tell our company (Fresh Records) what our ideas are, and they take it from there. They have lawyers who work out the deals with the other companies’ lawyers, and after all that is taken care of, we take it from there.

“We create our own songs first and then come up with some def stuff to add to them.” -– Parrish of EPMD

“We did a lot of the sampling on the first album just to get our music out there,” Parrish admits. “We wanted to get us a name. We tried to come right out of the samples real quick and then put the bass and kick and snare into it. I mean, we create our own songs first and then come up with some def stuff to add to them. We probably won’t do as much sampling on the next record.”

I’m the Robin Hood of rap.
You’ll get your money’s worth.
I steal from the rich, give it to the dancefloor…

– Derek B., ‘Power Move’

ON BROADWAY at 42nd Street in New York the lights flash from nearby porn theaters; people bustle by on the street and large phallic slabs of concrete surge upward into the sky. Just to the right of the Big Apple Theater – and to the left of a fancy shoe store – sits the Music Factory, a hangout for the hip-hop lot. Everyone visits the store, from Afrika Bambaataa and Run-DMC to newcomers like Salt-n-Pepa and 45 King, whose DJ Mark is well-known for his liberal use of samples.

Seated where he’s been seated since about 1979, in front of an array of beat compilation records, is Stanley Platzer, a 57-year-old rotund white man who boasts that he is hip-hop’s “main man.” Four years before he moved into the Music Factory, Platzer sold records in subways. He’d find obscure tunes for the young Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash. “They knew certain rock things – certain artists they wanted to use the breaks from – and I’d find it for ‘em. Man, I see no problem with sampling. Just as long as they keep selling hit records, it’s OK with me. Sampling is what makes the music.”

'Yo MTV Raps!' talks to vinyl man Stanley Platzer

‘Yo MTV Raps!’ talks to vinyl man Stanley Platzer

Platzer could be every kid’s hero. He’s post-middle age, but cool. He can relate with teenagers; he understands contemporary directions and appreciates young art. “It’s the record companies who are the stupid ones,” Platzer says, thumping ashes off the cigarette he always seems to be smoking. He pauses, closes his eyes behind thick-rimmed glasses,  then continues in strong Brooklynese. “They’re stupid for cutting out all these great records. Now, I’m not talking about the small record companies – they struggle and go out of business – I’m talking about the major labels. Remember Kraftwerk?,” he snaps. “They sued Bambaataa for ‘Planet Rock.’ It ended in some kind of settlement. Well now, they’d gone back to Germany long before, given up on America already. And here comes Bambaataa, making something out of their song. If it hadn’t been for him, no one in America would have ever heard ‘Planet Rock.’

“Look over there,” Platzer snaps again, pointing to a heavily sifted-through record bin. “See that Bob James record over there, with ‘Mardi Gras’ on it? It was a cutout before the kids started sampling from it. Only now have they finally reissued it. Stupid.”

The big man with the bald head is proud of his own success – but most of all, he’s proud of the success of “his” kids. Says Platzer: “We’re the meeting place here. Every rapper comes in here, and not just the ones from New York. We get ‘em in here from the west coast, from England – all of them. You know Derek B., from England? He’s been in here. They come in, look around, get all the new beats…” Platzer cuts himself off. “Just look over there,” he snaps again, pointing toward the heavy metal section. “There’s DJ Mark over there. Man, he’s the sampling king.”

One wall of the Music Factory is covered with the entire 20-strong collection of Ultimate Breaks and Beats, a series Platzer has kept since the first ones appeared years ago. The collection was compiled by Lenny Roberts, a New York chauffeur and big-time record collector. He began compiling the series after local DJs started asking him for records with good breaks in them. He says most of the DJs’ parents probably had many of the records in their collections, but they didn’t understand what a break was. So, Roberts sifted through his own collection, recorded the tunes with the best breaks, and provided a valuable service. “Roberts – he makes the records and I stock ‘em,” Platzer says. “Now all the kids wait for the latest collection. The 21st in the Ultimate Breaks and Beats series will come in January. They’ll all be in here for it.”

MusicFactoryIf sampling is wrong, then what should we make of Woody Guthrie’s observation that plagiarism is the essence of folk music? Shouldn’t pop music live by the same rules as folk music once did? Or, has all music gone too far beyond just another form of folk music; too far into the world of big biz, lawyers and money mongers? And what are some of the most sampled records – James Brown’s “Funky President,” the Incredible Bongo Band’s “Apache,”  Jimmy Castor’s “It’s Just Begun,” Sly and the Family Stone’s “Dance to the Music,” and even Billy Squier’s “The Big Beat” – if they aren’t simply dated folk songs waiting to be revamped by young, enthusiastic musicians? Perhaps the rappers have redefined pop music, brought it back to its folk roots.

“It’s like they say,” Eric B. philosophizes, citing Stetsasonic. “‘A sample’s just a tactic.’ We’re not out here trying to steal anything. Quite the opposite. We’re using these songs to make something new.”

Sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s actually being sampled and what’s being played by the groups and then injected into the raps. Take Derek B.’s “GoodGroove,” for example. The piano part from the Jackson 5′s “A.B.C.” is used throughout the song. But it is not from the source record. Is that wrong? If it is, then consider the Jackson 5 themselves. Back in the early ’70s, they injected the first ten notes of Sly and the Family Stone’s “Sing a Simple Song” into their own version of “Zip A Dee Doo Dah.” Perhaps they received Sly’s blessings. Perhaps not. So what’s worse: the Jackson 5 actually singing those notes, Derek B.’s group actually playing the J5 piano part, or say, Stetsasonic sampling the same ten notes plus some instrumentals of “Sing a Simple Song” for their own “It’s In My Song”?

John King has ideas of his own about sampling. King’s recording studio – Chung King House of Metal – is one of the most-used hip-hop studios in New York City. Located in Chinatown in an unsightly building on a side street, Chung King is where Run-DMC’s Raising Hell, L.L. Cool J’s Bigger and Deffer, and Stetsasonic’s In Full Gear were recorded or mixed. “I don’t go for out-and-out ripoffs,” King says. “But sometimes sampling can be an art. I do believe there should be an established precedent set on sampling. It’s just so unclear at this point.

“I’ve seen sampling used so creatively that it’s absolutely mind-boggling,” King adds. “This stuff is no different from the collages of photographs and paintings of other peoples’ art of the ’60s. As a whole, the fragments turn out to be brand new pieces of art. The question is: ‘When is it a created thing? What constitutes a created piece of art?’ I think it’s stupid if the courts eventually say, ‘You can’t sample at all.’ If you’re merely tapping something, and it’s done as a creative art, then I don’t think it’s a property thing any longer. But if you’re stealing entire phrases – like going beyond the already established ‘seven-sequential-note rule’ in regular music – then I believe you are doing something that is questionable as a piece of art.” The seven-sequential-note rule maintains that a song is not truly someone’s property until there are seven notes in a row, thus completing a 4/4 measure.

VinylTODAY, NOT ONLY performers and producers are being brought into the legal arena over the practice of sampling – even engineers are being singled out. Steve Ett, engineer on Run-DMC’s Raising Hell, among others, is currently in the middle of a lawsuit. Says Bob Coulter, engineer on Stetsasonic’s In Full Gear, ”The guys were worried about all that stuff they were sampling, and frankly, so was I. So they started asking permission to use the music they were sampling. But look, sampling is everywhere. I’d say half of the really big records out there – heavy metal, house, rap, what have you – use samples. So it’s not just happening on [rap] records.”

Coulter stands in the control room at Calliope Studios in midtown Manhattan, where he’s done lots of engineering work. He shows how sampling machines operate by laying a vocal part from Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” over a collage of looped Iggy Pop rhythm guitar and drum noise. Coulter is working on an Akai S-900 sampler. “It might not be the best,” he says, “But it’s the most efficient sampler I know of.

“Sampling has got to expand,” Coulter adds. “There’s so much that they could be doing right now that they aren’t doing. I mean, when we first started the In Full Gear thing, we’d literally stay in here eight hours at a time just for two measures of a song. We’d sit around, scratch our heads, and say, ‘What the fuck!’ But now we’ve improved, gotten it down to a fine art.”

And that’s just what those who sample want to show the world – that it can be done, and that it can be done as Art. Just before he was senselessly shot to death in New York City in 1987, Boogie Down Productions’ Scott La Rock, one of the deffest of all the hip-hop DJs, summed it up frankly for a Village Voice writer: “You do rap records; all rap is is the message you give it and borrowing beats and music from other records. That’s what makes rap records. I don’t worry about the law…you can’t stop what is.”

Watch the video for Stetsasonic’s “Talkin’ All That Jazz”:

© Mark Kemp, 1989

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