Why Sampling In Music Is Dead (Or Not)

By Max Newman

In a 2017 interview with The Guardian, esteemed artist DJ Shadow discussed the current state of sampling in music. Defined by the Abbey Road Institute as “including an element of a pre-existing recording by someone else in a composition”, sampling is something that Shadow is no stranger to. The veteran DJ (real name Josh Davis) is considered the first artist to ever compose an album entirely out of samples with his 1996 masterpiece Endtroducing. His blend of jazzy snippets, driving breakbeats, and esoteric sound effects and vocal lines has dazzled listeners for over two decades. But his outlook in this interview was rather bleak.

“In a strange sense I feel like music has never been worth less as a commodity, and yet sampling has never been more risky,” Davis opined. “We work in a hyper-capitalist time, where you grab what you can, get everything you can, it doesn’t matter whether it’s right or wrong, it doesn’t matter whether it’s valid, it doesn’t matter whether it’s deserved.”

Shadow’s attitude seems surprising given his past, but it’s hard to view the current state of sampling in music any differently. Sampling requires something called clearance, in which artists that have been sampled obtain a certain percentage of the song’s royalties. There is no fixed number for these percentages. “The problem is,” Davis explained, “you go to the first person – they want 75% whether they deserve it or not. You go to the next person they want 70% – whoops – you can’t cut a pie that many times, there isn’t enough pie to go around.”

This monetary barrier has been slowly destroying the art of sampling for the past three decades. Copyright laws have advanced significantly since Hip hop was in its infancy. The first real legal battle occurred in 1991, when Gilbert O’Sullivan sued legendary rapper Biz Markie, who sampled part of O’Sullivan’s song Alone Again, Naturally. Warner Bros, Markie’s co-defendants, claimed that O’Sullivan had never obtained valid copyright for his song, but their argument was to no avail. O’Sullivan won, setting a trend for sampling laws that are still evolving to this day.

Pitchfork put it best: “Overnight it became forbiddingly difficult and expensive to incorporate even a handful of samples into a new beat … Producers scaled back their creations, often augmenting one choice groove with a bevy of instrumental embellishments.”

Perhaps the best example of how far the war against sampling has advanced occurred in early 2020, when rock band 10cc sued producer J Dilla for sampling one of their songs without clearance in his 2006 classic Workinonit. Except, Dilla himself wasn’t actually being sued — he had passed away the same year the song was released, almost 14 years previously. It was a blatant, bold-faced cash grab, and a telltale sign that sampling laws had gone too far.

The problem is that laws and legal regulations around sampling have been turned into pure moneymakers, devoid of any artistic meaning. They are ripping into an art form that has existed for decades and has helped define the sounds of entire genres. Sampling is not something exclusive to Hip hop or electronic music. On the music production site Landr Blog, Rory Seydel summarized this point well. “[Sampling] isn’t a new concept. Jazz musicians would ‘quote’ one another by borrowing riffs for their own songs. It’s a way to cite other artists, to pay homage and to build communities across time.”

Sampling is its own form of expression and art, rather than a method for stealing, yet its existence is hurtling towards oblivion.

Not all is lost. Even in the hyper-capitalistic environment that has made sampling such a bone of contention, artists are still finding ways to keep it alive. In an interview with NPR, veteran producer DJ Premier discussed one of the ways in which this has been accomplished. 

“There’s still plenty of big Billboard hits made even today that really feature a classic sample. But, you know, what you see even more of nowadays is young producers sampling their peers, right? There’s a whole class of producers who create loops and melodies for others to sample. So, you know, it’s still sampling, but it’s a lot less expensive. And it’s definitely a lot less prone to lawsuits.”

For those with more financial might, there are other cost cutting avenues. Madlib, considered by many to be one of the greatest producers of all time, works almost exclusively with samples, but will usually not use more than one or two of them in each of his tracks. Instead, he chooses to chop up and alter his samples to create a new and authentic piece of art.

There are other methods, too. Koreatown Oddity, real name Dominique Purdy, is a rapper and producer from Los Angeles, whose brilliant, autobiographical 2020 album Little Dominique’s Nosebleed was composed entirely from samples and Purdy’s own voice. When asked how he was able to do this despite a small budget and a broad range of samples, he had a simple response: “Just dig deeper.” In essence, look for samples so obscure that financial blowbacks are unlikely. Some may argue that this is an unethical way of combating the restrictions around sampling. However, once again, it comes back to the idea of keeping an important and historical art form alive. If samples are being used to create an entirely new piece of art, why shouldn’t they be legal? 

Our system of litigation has evolved to play into the hands of greedy capitalists. Simultaneously, it has seemingly done all it can to dismantle a craft of long tradition and creative value. But thanks to the ingenuity of artists, there is hope for the future. As long as the art is there to be sampled, producers, composers, and musicians will make use of it in inspiring and dazzling ways. Sampling will truly never die.

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