Soundtracks vs. Comebacks: Music Sampling Gets Scored

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Often found beneath the guise of cliched lyrics and catchy pop tunes, retired songs lend themselves to new-age musical doctors for dissection, emerging as a sample to be used and recycled amongst various songs of the pop music genre.

Battling synthetic keyboards, distortion pedals and cheesy dance moves daily, most samples claw their way to the surface of a chorus line for just a taste of the fame they used to have. Some samples are devoured by their newer pop successors; while others have the ability to win over listeners without breaking a sweat. Case in point: the rise and fall of the ’90s pop classic “Ice, Ice, Baby”.

Performed by rapper, Vanilla Ice, this track includes a well-known sample of the ’80s Queen hit, “Under Pressure”.

Secretly designed to expose the age of an individual, Generation Y tends to say, “Hmm…my dad’s favourite Queen track sounds just like that song from Vanilla Ice,” while the generations before tend to say, “They’re already sampling my favorite Queen song?! It hasn’t even been a year!”

Either way, the music of Queen is simply timeless. Every generation is aware of their legacy and can sing along to at least one of their songs.

Initially, it may have been clever for Vanilla Ice to use Queen’s fame to create his own; however, he proves that relying heavily on the fame of legendary artists can only take you so far. There’s a strong possibility that their reputation will soon engulf the residual fame of any one-hit-wonder.

In comparison to the unprofitable gamble of Vanilla Ice, South African hip-hop artist, HHP, had a massive hit with his rendition of ‘Music and Lights’ in 2009. With the chorus being sampled from the Imagination song of the same name, this track only elevated the career of the established South African musician.

My concern, however, is how this international influence is affecting the local South African music scene.

“People always tend to look overseas for ideas, trends and inspiration,” says South African musician and songwriter, Eksteen Jacobsz, “I guess it’s inevitable that South African music will lose some of its unique qualities in time because of the influence of international music.”

Producer and previous nightclub owner, Henk Smith, disagrees with Eksteen saying, “I don’t think South African music will lose its unique sound, but it will definitely keep evolving.”

The success of HHP’s ‘Music and Lights’ may also prove that good song is best sampled after a few years. After all, any track needs time to mature and reflect on its glory days before being reincarnated for a new generation, right?

Wrong. It seems sampling knows no time frame. Even the most recently deceased pop tracks are being sampled before they’ve had a chance to experience a proper burial into the music archives.

Emerging hip hop artist, Kid Cudi made the clever decision to sample Lady Gaga’s “Pokerface” on his track, “Make Her Say”, jumping into the slipstream of the massive pop track just as it was dropping off the charts in 2009.

Needless to say, Kid Cudi’s one-hit-wonder status (achieved thanks to the 2008 remix of his track “Day and Night”) coupled with the fame of Lady Gaga (pardon the pun), Kanye West and Common, resulted in an instant leverage point for his career. However, it remains to be seen whether or not the Kid can survive on his own without the Lady, Kanye and Common there to hold his hand.

From humble beginnings in Jamaica during the ’60s to the underground rap scene of New York in the ’70s, sampling has become increasingly prevalent throughout the music industry over the years. We may not realize it, but every second song on the radio today includes a sample of some sort – be it a beat, chorus line or rhythm.

The reason for this increase can be attributed to the speedy technological advances of the world as well as the ever-increasing popularity of rap and hip hop music – the two genres which are known for their abundant use of samples.

“From a production point of view, the legalities involved in the sampling process makes it a difficult ‘genre’ to encourage, but if an artist or producer feels that their work has what it takes to survive in the music industry, they should do all they can to get it out there – even if that means including a sample on their tracks,” says Henk.

However, the question remains: Is it possible that producers and artists are running out of fresh song ideas and have turned to sampling as a means to an end? Possibly a get-rich-quick scheme? Or do producers and artists see sampling as a way of paying tribute to the music they grew up with and draw inspiration from?

Henk continues, shedding some light on these questions, “Sampling is sometimes used by producers in the same way a remix is used – to draw attention to their respective production skills and artists. Most critics would say it’s a lack of creativity which make producers sample, where as in most cases, it is exactly the opposite.”

Eksteen takes the PC approach, believing that sampling could be a bit of both, “If you give the sample a new life or twist then it can be homage, but if it sounds forcefully put in or it doesn’t seem to fit with the song, then I’d say a it’s get-rich quick scheme,” Eksteen continues, “Sampling is all to do with familiarity. There is so much music out there these days that you have to do something to stand out and be heard. One way to do this is through music sampling. If you can incorporate a well known riff or hook into your song then that makes it instantly recognisable and is sure to help you’re song with radio play.”

Interestingly enough, there is much deliberation over which track has been the most sampled thus far in musical history. Most sources point towards two main songs as contenders for the title.

The five second ‘Amen break’ from The Winston’s “Amen, brother” and the drum solo from James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” are the beats which have been sampled, tweaked, trimmed and replicated more than any other.

Upon discovering this information, I couldn’t resist locating these tracks and aurally dissecting them for myself, eager to spot the hidden sample.

To my surprise, the instrumental samples were quite a letdown. No longer than a few seconds, they can be clearly recognized, but are so routine that any musician could’ve accidentally strung those beats together.

Paying for mere seconds of vague beats should be criminal, I say. I’m sure that The Winstons and James Brown were not the first to think up those beats and nor will they be the last. My heart goes out to the poor, struggling artist who has to pay the exorbitant infringement fines for sampling a beat which they thought originated in their own creative mind.

From two notes to twenty seconds, the free replication of any part of a recorded track is seen as infringement in the eyes of the law; however, it’s been said that international courts have been struggling for decades to find a definitive basis upon which to judge sampled tracks.

“If musicians and artists are sampling any specific track, they should get permission to do in order to avoid “accidents,” says Henk, “You have to ask yourself what you would like to happen if someone samples your work. In the music industry everything is negotiable so consult the copyright holders of the sound recording as well as the publishers of the track right from the start.”

In fact, I believe Brit alternative rock band, Coldplay, have been accused of copyright infringement by four individuals thus far. Joe Satriani, Yusuf Islam and obscure indie rock band, the Creaky Boards, all claimed to have penned some – or all – of Coldplay’s massive pop tune, “Viva La Vida”.

Now, there’s a new guy trying to grab a piece of Coldplay’s millions (what a surprise).

Forget sampling! Sammie Lee Smith, a self-proclaimed “well-talented but unknown” songwriter, is claiming that Coldplay ripped off the lyrics to not one, but three of his songs (“Clocks”, “Trouble” and “Yellow”).

Personally, I think this issue is a case of a songwriter who’s struggled for years to get his songs noticed, but to no avail (queue his moment of ‘clarity’). He realized that all he needs to do issue a world-famous band in order to get some publicity – be it good or bad – and he’ll be set for life.

He has definitely received some publicity; however, I predict this stint to be short-lived with Sammie returning to his common residential lifestyle without a dime. It seems as though it’s about time for a career change, Sammie boy.

It’s clear that sampling is not all about musical hits and misses. It can cause sticky legal situations for any musician or producer if they’re not careful. However, those working in the music industry can only be so cautious without becoming paranoid about their music, praying that every two second riff they worked out is not ‘stolen’ from an obscure ’60s band.

Because of this, sampling seems to be inescapable in the music industry and is desperately in need of firm legal boundaries in order to protect all artists and producers from accidental copyright infringement.

The ultimate question, however, is which tracks are better: original tracks or tracks which are largely based on samples? Eksteen believes they are not mutually exclusive saying, “I guess both [original and sampled tracks] have their place if done properly and creatively. However, In the future, I believe quality artists will thrive and the over saturation of artists and music will start to decline.”

Eksteen continues to share his perceptions about the future of the music industry saying, “The noughties were a directionless decade for music,” he says with conviction, “The main focus was the transformation of the industry from analogue to digital. Regarding what will happen next? Well, that’s anybody’s guess. As long as there is fame and money for a hit song, sampling won’t die down. As long as sampling keeps on paying artists, they will continue to do it.”

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Kristin Mento is a second year journalism student in Cape Town, South Africa, formerly the creative director and contributing journalist, now editor-at-large for TOAST magazine. She is a versatile writer who writes on a range of topics in a range of styles and is most passionate about Art, Music, Reviews, Features and Fiction.