Argument for

“Bad artists copy. Good artists steal.” – Pablo Picasso

Sampling has always provoked controversy and furious debate since its humble beginnings when Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa looped the breakbeats from rock, funk, jazz and soul records so that breakdancers could show off their best moves. This debate will focus on sampling and sampled based music’s validity, leaving aside the often discussed and sticky issues of copyright. I will be arguing for sampling as a legitimate form of expression and an experimental tool that re-contextualises musical elements into new and sometimes unexpected juxtapositions. I will also look at how sampling and sampling technology developed and its impact on the possibilities for those musicians and producers who exploited its power. By sampling I refer to any manipulation of pre-recorded audio and thus I’ve included scratching and turntablism.

Even in its earliest construction at street parties and clubs in New York in the late 1970s sampling was about the re-contextualisation and manipulation of the source material. The extending of breakbeats by Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa dramatically altered the structure of the original pieces of music and the breakbeats took on a new life as a tool in a DJ’s weaponry. With  Grand Wizard Theodore’s invention of scratching and Grandmaster Flash’s development of key techniques the manipulation took to another level. It created new rhythms within a DJ’s set and they could apply their own skill and personalities, which created a new energy and competitiveness that drove the DJs and the music forward. Scratching created rhythms out of abstract sounds which acted as ‘exciters’ for their audiences. Grandmaster Flash showcased his virtuoso knowledge and a series of jar dropping juxtapositions on 1981’s ‘The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel’. The record used segments of Blondie’s ‘Rapture’ (which name checked Flash), Micheal Viner’s Incredible Bongo Band’s ‘Apache’ (the breakbeat from which became a classic sampling staple), ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ and ‘Good Times’ by Queen and Chic. ‘…Wheels of Steel’ was the first commercially released record to feature scratching and a style that soon became a main part of the then unnamed turntablism.In the mid 1990s Babu of the Dilated Peoples invented this term to give scratch DJs a solid identity separate from others. Babu believes the first turntablist was Grand Mixer DST who featured on ‘Rockit’ by pioneering jazz musician Herbie Hancock in 1982. As Babu put it, ‘he was not only an integral part of the song or band, he was the highlight’. The now legendary television performance of ‘Rockit’ at the 1983 Grammy Awards inspired the next generation of scratch happy turntablists who I’ll be covering later in this piece.

“The turntable is a musical instrument as long as you can see it being a musical instrument. You’re dealing with notes, you’re dealing with measures, you’re dealing with timing, you’re dealing with rhythm but the outcome is the same music” – Rob Swift, The X-ecutioners.

As hip-hop was exploiting the turntable as a new musical instrument and creating unpredictable musical juxtapositions so was experimental artist Christian Marclay who in 1979, when unable to find a drummer for a performance alongside guitarist Kurt Henry, used a skipping record as a percussive instrument. By the late ’80s Marclay was making waves with his albums ‘Records without Grooves’ (1987) and ‘More Encores: Christian Marclay plays the records of…’ (1989). His techniques varied from playing back damaged records, scratching, assembling together bits of different records to played as one and creating wild juxtapositions between music often at polar opposites of the musical spectrum. One of best examples being ‘His Master Voice’ which combines the sound of “a preacher railing against rock ‘n’ roll with “push, push in the bush” disco, Wagnerian chorales, metal guitar solos and Don Ho” all flitting in and out of focus. There is little difference between what the hip-hop pioneers and Marclay did yet the results are different, proof that the turntable was beginning to develop as an alternative to traditional instruments and traditional ideas about musical composition and performance. They are also the first example of sampling as a re-contextualisation tool, taking from multiple and widely varying sources to create new musical creations and languages in both hip-hop and avant-garde contexts.

The original sampler keyboard, a Fairlight CMI used by ’80s pop acts such as Art of Noise, Heaven 17 and producer Trevor Horn, who aided the acceptence of sampling by the mainstream music press and audience, was superseded by more advanced samplers while the avant-garde began to make inroads into sampling and turntablism using accidents and the effects of worn vinyl.

There was however a link between all these disparate strands and that was Public Enemy who produced a master class in pushing the basic sampling technology to its outer limits on ‘It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back’ (1988). Public Enemy didn’t just sample a break and lay another sample on top; they tested the samples to destruction. They achieved this by pitching the samples up or down, time stretching and using other non musical sounds to create a musical maelström that summed up their emotional and political feelings. The  sound scape built reflected the atmosphere of their New York environment. This was one of the first great examples of how to truly re-contextualise sample. Rather than superimposing the sample into a new musical environment, Public Enemy were changing the tempo, tone, pitch, timing and even the idea of what elements were. ‘…A Nation Of Millions’ blurred the lines: a trumpet could be a siren and siren could be a trumpet, a breakbeat could be broken and reconstructed, nothing was static anymore. Meanwhile in the UK sample based dance music records had took hold in 1987 with the release of M/A/R/R/S ‘Pump Up the Volume’, which became the first UK No.1 to feature samples of other songs. The track paved the way for the rave generation to fully embrace sampling and take it to new places and inadvertently inventing the mash-up over 15 years before the term came into use.

As the 80s rolled into the 90s the sampler became an increasingly important part of dance music and almost completely replaced the synthesiser as the main ‘instrument’ or piece of technology. Roger Linn designed the Akai MPC series of sampler/sequencers and the MPC 60 was based on the Linn 9000 sampler that previously he had  built. This series allowed the user to sample, pitch shift, time stretch and to program using the velocity sensitive pads and sequencer provided. The MPC-60 was used by jungle pioneer A Guy Called Gerald, trance producer BT and Apollo 440 as well as leading hip-hop producers DJ Premier and DJ Shadow.

Akai continued to push the technology forward by introducing CD quality audio and increasing sampler memory and note capacity. One of the most vital records of the sampling era was produced using just a MPC 60, a pair of turntables and a borrowed Pro Tools set-up: ‘Endtroducing…’ by DJ Shadow. Shadow was a turntablist that took sampling beyond purely musical function, he created sampledelic tracks infused with atmosphere and emotion that changed the very idea of what a hip-hop record could be and what even basic sampling technology could do. He wasn’t alone in challenging these ideas as DJ Spooky who also debuted in 1996 with ‘Songs of a Dead Dreamer’ was a turntablist ‘whose philosophy merges avant-garde theories of musique concrète with the increased devotion paid to mixing techniques’. Spooky believed that the turntable was an instrument in its own right capable of expressive musical composition and manipulation. Equally influenced by John Cage and Kool Herc he provides a link between the avant-garde work of Christian Marclay and Japan’s Ground Zero and that of hip-hop’s most far out turntablists DJ Q-Bert and Mixmaster Mike. A more direct contemporary with Spooky is DJ/Rupture who shares some musical influences (hip-hop and dub) and both create extreme music: Spooky’s is ambient (or illbient) and Rupture’s is more experimental and aggressive and utilises ethnic influences.

As the noughties dawned dance music seemed to catch-up with hip-hop, turntablism and the avant-garde. Sample heavy releases like The Avalanches’ ‘Since I Left You’ from 2001 demonstrated that dance music could produce something on a similar scale and weight as ‘Endtroducing…’ and shed some of dance music’s gimmicky use of samples. Though sonically different from DJ Shadow’s work, ‘Since I Left You’ had an advanced complexity that had been left relevantly untouched since the days of A Guy Called Gerald’s pioneering early 90s albums. Mash-up culture and sample based releases exploded after this; one of most critically acclaimed artists being Girl Talk (Greg Gillis). Gillis has often been in the middle of controversy about his employment of sampling and has featured in two documentaries about copyright: Brett Gaylor’s ‘Rip: A Remix Manifesto’ and ‘Good Copy, Bad Copy’. The peak of Girl Talk was ‘Feed the Animals’ from 2008. Originally conceived as a single piece of music which Gillis then sliced up into individual tracks made completely from samples of other recordings, the album was released under a Creative Common’s Attribution Non-Commercial Licence, which meant he had to fully credit all material sampled in the sleeve notes to legally profit from its sale.

Recently sampling has seen the emergence of a young generation of music makers influenced by the sample employing hip-hop and dance artists that dominated the ’90s. Artists are using samples as a starting and/or finishing point for compositions like Washed Out’s most popular song so far ‘Feel It All Around’, which revolves around Gary Low’s ‘I Want You’. Pantha du Prince explains that he takes a slightly different approach, ‘I sampled a lot of bands. Then I took the samples out in the end. I took the samples in, made the track, and took, for example, the melody or the chorus and then I took the track out again. With The Chills you can only hear it at the beginning and the end.’


With so many approaches to re-contextualisation how can sampling not be a valid form of musical expression? It is no longer as easy for those that oppose sampling to dismiss it as lacking in originality or depth. Technology’s development and the artists above has shown that it’s possible to create new pieces of music that emotionally connect with their audience or elicit a new physical movement or mental association that didn’t previously exist. Whether it is through  using turntables as instruments of re-contextualisation in hip-hop and avant-garde, a dance for creating euphoria in dance or nostalgia in newer genres such as chillwave, a sample is the inspiration for a song or the icing on the cake to finish it off. How ever artists choose to use and manipulate samples it is a strong relevant form of expression with a lengthy history on which to draw.

Argument against

To argue against sampling in this debate I will look at sampling’s claim to re-contextualise pieces of music by tailoring them into new compositions and the idea of sampling as a form of colonialism.

The claim that sampling re-contextualises a piece or pieces of music is naïvely reductive and  a complex and detailed idea simplified. We accept an artist or recording does not exist in a vacuum untouched and unaffected by outside forces and when we discuss a recording we are also discussing its context, its discourse. Transplanting a 16 bar loop from one recording to another does not and cannot alter its original context as it is intrinsically steeped in its discourse. The musical context has been altered but an entirely new, modern context has not been created. Discourse is not something ignorable, it is part of the fabric of a recording and an essential element in what makes that recording identifiable and understandable therefore sampling is capable only of stitching together pre-existing contexts not creating new ones. That transplanted 16 bar loop is still particular to a recording created at a specific time by a specific artist and is identifiable as such. Its context has not changed.

It is possible to link sampling to colonialism: taking work from one artist, sometimes without payment or accreditation, for the commercial gain of another taps into the dishonest domination of one force over others, similar to the discussion in the Cultural Tourism article. In an interview with Hybrid Life, Nicolas Jaar talks of his feelings towards sampling, “Of course the problem with this is the colonial problem, like imperialistic…I have absolutely nothing against Cadenza, but the song ‘La Mezcla’. They can pay whatever to…the person that did it. I could never have someone steal the core of (one of my records) like that. Simply because of this weird colonial thing, for me it can’t not have that context. Maybe for most people dancing it doesn’t have that context, but for me there’s the driven techno and then on top there’s some crazy Spanish lady singing. It’s not honest! I understand how it’s appealing, and I understand how it sells, and I understand that’s the world we live in…but I wouldn’t want to do that.” As Jaar points out taking from one recording and adding it to another could be construed as theft and in turn dishonest and thus dishonest musicianship. An important attraction of equipment like Recycle, Ableton and turntables is that it easily endows users with the advanced ability to unrecognisable transform a record sample and scatter it into a new composition, which feeds into the musically fraudulent colonial tendencies of artists who sample and leads back to the discourse in recordings discussion.

  <span><a href=””>Love you gotta lose again /// Nicolas Jaar (Double Standard Records)</a> by <a href=””>Clown and Sunset</a></span>

The borrowing from past records for the bulk of new material in genres such as hip-hop and the (over)use of certain familiar passages leads to a repetitive language of sounds and aesthetics and there will be, or already is as suggested by The Guardian’s recent article on hip-hop sampling, an inevitable exhaustion of vintage albums, which leads to a possible debate highlighting hip-hop’s contradictory braying pride of having the newest, most innovative sound but using aged, and at times conventional, recordings. An ideology of employing the past to build the future does not create previously unheard music, a new item or a new context, as explained early, it is solely an adapted preceding and inherent discourse.


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Sampling debate