Through modern tools and technology, we are able to approach the music making experience in a vastly different way than ever before. We are able to take the existence of multiple pieces of music and craft them together as if they were in collaboration to begin with. In a way, sampling is a bit like taking entering into someone else’s narrative to adapt and transform it to be your own. A little over 30 years ago, the first sampler as we know them came into existence. Samplers have since then paved the way for the sampling age of music that we find ourselves in today.
Before we move onto what most of us know as sampling, I’d like to take you way back in time to the 1940s. Pierre Schaeffer, a name you have probably never heard of, was truly one of the first composers and musical mad scientists on record. He began experimenting with recording single sounds onto tape recorders, a new commercial invention of the time, and putting them together to play them back. This form of composing was called Musique Concrete. It was strange and illogical, almost verging on uncomfortable to listen to at times. While it certainly never caught the attention of major record labels, it did put the idea out that music did not have to be limited to the pure acoustic forms of everyday instruments. Sounds could be manipulated and transformed; reversed or mangled. It was the dawning of something new that would take a few more decades to catch the ears of the mainstream.
I thought about the concept for this article the other day when I purchased the Fairlight CMI plugin by Arturia. It’s a VST that is based off of the Fairlight CMI, the world’s very first digital sampling synthesizer to ever hit the big time. When the physical unit came out in the early 80s, it was hundreds of thousands of dollars to own. Even with the insane price point, all major studios had to have one. They knew that the ability to sample any and every sound you could think had obvious revolutionary potential. Artists could then take something along the lines of a tympani from their favorite classical record or a sax sound from their favorite jazz standard. You were able to hear the Fairlight CMI making its way on to now classic songs, such as the flute sound on Tears for Fears’ “Shout” and the rhythmic hysteria on Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit”.
As the decade stretched further into the late 80s and 90s, we began the discovery of hip-hop. You had albums like “Low End Theory” by Tribe Called Quest and “Licensed To Ill” by the Beastie Boys that pretty much went into the deepest corners of past music to take samples from records in order to create what we now consider legendary albums. While it may not seem like much to the modern ear, these artists were pioneering something that would soon change the industry for good.
Many musicians had a pompous attitude when it came to sampling back then, as they deemed it lazy or unimaginative. Many of these people also felt that hip-hop artists, such as the ones mentioned, were only trying to cop a paycheck off of the hits of yesterday. We now know that was not true at all. If you look at albums like “Low End Theory”, you begin to see the obscurity of the samples these artists were getting a hold of. Obviously there were some exception the obscurity of samples, such as 2 Live Crew’s parody of “Pretty Woman”, but you get the gist. These obscure jazz or funk tunes were to hip-hop producers as Robert Johnson was to Zeppelin and the Stones. It was inspiration and emotion in sonic form. They had a need to be a part of that, and therefore revived it in their own music.
The above song that you are looking at is called “Amen Brother” and it is by a 1960s soul and funk group called The Winstons. It is the most sampled song of all time at about 2847 unique sampling instances. By the time this article is a few months old, that number will have probably gone up. Everyone from NWA to Skrillex to Tyler The Creator and all of their mothers have sampled this song in at least one track. The drum break in the beginning allowed it to be easily injected into many pieces of music without limiting the creativity in layering. That goes to show that these artists weren’t merely taking the piece of music to recycle it into the sonic realm, but were modernizing it and using its properties to make something original. Still, many rock and jazz purists still make the argument that these artists aren’t creating something new. Even the Grammy committee won’t allow a song that uses any samples in it to be up for ‘Song of the Year’. The issue is that we are past the point of no return. We live in a post-sampling era where music creation has completely transformed itself.
So to wrap it all up, yes, sampling was in a strange pit of obscurity when it began. Fast-forward to today and it has easily become one of the most used methods of creating music. Just look at Kanye West, one of the biggest artists in the world right now. We only hope that we can change the perspective on what sampling for those who still don’t agree with it and help them realize that music would be much emptier without it today.