Words: Nick Gordon Brown

“Well here's how it started
Heard you on the radio, talkin' 'bout rap
Sayin' all that crap about how we sample
Giving examples
Think we'll let you get away with that?
You criticise our method of how we make records
You said it wasn't art, so now we're gonna rip you apart…”

In this opening verse to their 1988 hip hop classic Talkin’ All That Jazz, Stetsasonic neatly encapsulated the debate about sampling. For some, it is the best creative minds taking inspiration from the past to make groundbreaking new music for the present. For others, it is musical theft, a technique employed by those without the talent to create original pieces of work.

It was in the mid-80s, as sampling technology became more accessible and affordable, that sample-based releases exploded. The music industry was caught on the hop, with no template in place to deal with the legal implications. Records topped the charts and, in some cases, sold millions whilst behind closed doors lawyers belatedly negotiated how to share the spoils between the sampler and the sampled. Thankfully these days the “do’s and don’ts” are far better signposted, and guidance is available.

Sampling has been the bedrock of virtually all genres of dance and electronic music ever since, including many a house classic. It is also a staple part of many a pop hit. It’s here to stay. Let’s dig a little deeper…

Well Here’s How It Started…

Developed in the late 1940s / early 1950s, Musique Concrete is generally regarded as the forerunner of sampling, as classical experimentalists used new technology to incorporate elements of existing compositions into ‘new’ works. Pierre Schaeffer is credited with being the first; Karlheinz Stockhausen the most celebrated.

In the 1960s, bands such as The Beatles and Pink Floyd employed similar techniques of splicing and looping tapes, the former most famously on the White Album’s Revolution No.9, a track that confused and excited their global fanbase in equal measure.

However, it was in the late 1970s / early 1980s that the term sampling was first coined as technological advances significantly expanded the ways in which curious artists could incorporate pre-existing sounds and recordings. Japan’s Yellow Magic Orchestra were amongst the first to make waves and would be a major influence on New York’s nascent electro scene.

Public awareness of sampling moved up a gear with David Byrne and Brian Eno’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts collaboration in 1981. It was the first time Byrne had stepped away from his band Talking Heads, fresh from the critical and commercial success of Remain In Light; whilst Eno’s star had been in the ascendancy throughout the 1970s, as founder member of the inimitable Roxy Music; trailblazer for ambient music; and Bowie’s partner on the Berlin Trilogy. Expectations were high. 

In contrast to YMO, Byrne and Eno’s sample usage was overt – the ‘found sounds’ introduced African and Middle Eastern music into the mix, spliced with sampled voices from a mesmerising array of sources effectively acting as lead vocals. 

Another major artist who was happy to put his neck on the sampling block was Mick Jones. As a member of The Clash, he had introduced the band to the eclectic sounds of early 1980s New York, and was responsible for the hip hop and dancefloor influences on their Sandinista! and Combat Rock releases (most notably Larry Levan favourite The Magnificent Seven).

His post-Clash band, Big Audio Dynamite, were in effect the prototype multimedia band (it’s no coincidence Damon Albarn would later invite Jones into the Gorillaz fold). As well as placing as big an emphasis on the visuals as the audio, BAD helped elevate awareness of sampling and the creative possibilities it engendered.

Looking For The Perfect Beat 

Hip hop and sampling were always destined to be bedfellows, as the early Bronx DJs cast their nets ever further for the perfect break. However, it was two unassuming rap fans named Steven Stein and Doug DiFranco (aka Double Dee and Steinski) who would unexpectedly pave the way for the explosion in sample-based hip hop productions.

Between 1983-85 they released three unofficial 12”s, Lessons 1, 2 & 3, which created the blueprint for Coldcut, DJ Shadow and so many more, as well as pricking up the ears of the DJs who would within a few short years be masterminding international hip hop hits.

Lesson One was the winning entry in a remix competition run by Tommy Boy records. It’s starting point was thus Play That Beat Mr DJ by G.L.O.B.E and Whiz Kid, but the collage style used by the duo caused a sensation, with sampled  ‘guests’ on the track including The Supremes, Herbie Hancock, Culture Club, Little Richard, the Peech Boys and Humphrey Bogart:

Lesson Two was also known as the James Brown mix, and arguably paved the way for the tidal wave of JB samples that would flood hip hop for years to come. Much as the Godfather’s work forms the basis of the mix, Junior’s Mama Used To Say, Sly Stone, Clint Eastwood and Tweety Pie also feature.

Lesson 3 juxtaposes a host of breakdancers’ favourites with film and TV samples to devastating effect.

Aspirant hip hop producers were then handed the keys to a treasure trove of potential samples. The bootleg Ultimate Breaks and Beats series of albums ran for 25 volumes in the late 80s, and aimed to compile all the classic block party breaks, from Mary Mary by the Monkees (volume one track one) to, perhaps fittingly, The Payback by James Brown, which closes the final edition.

Officially the most sampled drum break, Amen Brother by the Winstons, featured on that first volume –from Salt’n’Pepa via the Prodigy to Skrillex, here is its story…

You had to wait til Volume 12 of UB&B for the equally ubiquitous break from James Brown’s Funky Drummer – here the man himself Clyde Stubblefield tells the tale…from Dr Dre to Ed Sheeran:

James Brown is officially the most sampled artist of all time. Initially sceptical, once his lawyers began to negotiate payments for clearances, he began to loosen up – and as Stetsasonic accurately rapped: “Tell the truth James Brown was old / Til Eric & Ra came out with I Got Soul.” 

Many of the tracks that help make up JB’s record-breaking sample tally were from the wider stable of artists he produced and collaborated with…including the impossible to avoid ‘yeah! woo!’, which gave a whole new lease of life to Lynne Collins’ Think (About It), as popularised by Rob Base and DJ Ez Rock:

 

Such was the speed with which sampling fired the imaginations of hip hop’s leading protagonists, by 1989 it was forming the foundation of classic albums. Having defended / championed sampling as part of Stetsasonic, Prince Paul would then prove one of its most adept practitioners when he took on production duties for De La Soul’s debut, and helped the trio put onto wax the kaleidoscope of sounds in their collective imaginations and record collections.

The stylistic smorgasbord of samples weaved in and out of 3 Feet High and Rising set it apart. The singles alone included sources as diverse as Funkadelic, Doug E Fresh, Johnny Cash, Bo Diddley. Arguably the most notable of all in terms of alerting the mainstream market was Say No Go, and its use of 80s megastars Hall & Oates.

By contrast, Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, now widely regarded as a sampladelic masterpiece, was seen by many at the time as career suicide. After the global phenomenon that was Licensed To Ill, they had split with Def Jam, and took nearly three years to follow up that era-defining rap/metal  debut…then doing so with a sprawling affair far removed from Fight For Your Right. Initially a flop, it became a sleeper hit, thanks to its mix of razor-sharp beats courtesy of the Dust Brothers production team, raps that were still witty but now more insightful than boastful, and over 100 (cleared) samples from myriad genres. On The Sounds of Science they even sampled the Beatles.

Eurostars #1 – The British Are Coming!

In 1987 The Justified Ancients of MuMu (aka The Jams, later the KLF), released 1987 (What The Fuck Is Going On?), a sample-filled alternative dance album. After a complaint from one of the featured acts, Abba, the band were ordered to destroy all unsold copies, which they did, often very publicly. A sample-less version was then released – with silence where the samples had been. The scarcity of copies may explain why it is not credited more often as a pioneering work.

In the same year,  Coldcut released their Double Dee & Steinski-inspired Say Kids What Time Is It, which led the sharp-eared A&R team at 4th& Broadway to invite the Londoners to remix Eric B & Rakim’s Paid In Full – their foresight rewarded with the legendary sample-driven 7 Minutes of Madness mix. It took clubland by storm, brought Israeli singer Ofra Haza to international attention…and was edited to 3.5 minutes of madness and made the A side of the UK release. Eric B was less impressed though – he wouldn’t play ball when it came to re-shooting the video, meaning the producers had to do some splicing and looping of their own to make everything look in sync.

The success of Coldcut’s studio adventures inspired many of their fellow UK DJs to make a beeline for the recording studio with a record box full of sample ideas. Within a matter of months, three chart toppers emerged from this frenzy of activity. First out of the blocks was Pump Up The Volume by MARRS, a collaboration between indie acts Colourbox and AR Kane that had appeared doomed to failure until prominent London DJs Dave Dorrell and CJ Mackintosh were asked in to add some dancefloor savvy, and totally transformed it. Hot on its heels was Beat Dis by Bomb The Bass, created by Wag Club DJ Tim Simenon. The trilogy was completed when another London leading light, Mark Moore, brought us Theme From S-Express.

All three clearly took a lead from Lessons 1-3 and Coldcut in their kid in a vinyl sweet shop approach to sampling, but sonically and in terms of their bpms, they arguably straddled hip hop and house, appealing in equal measure in house clubs and those that were still dancing to a slower groove. 

Eurostars#2 – The Italian Job

It was the Italians who led the way when it came to marrying house music with sampling culture. The first international Italian house hit Helyom Halib by Cappella (1988) may be cut from the same cloth as MARRS and co. However, at 122bpm it was aimed squarely at house-loving dancefloors; and its vocal hook was sampled not from a 60s or 70s track, but from a US house cut by LNR that itself had only been out a matter of weeks when Gianfranco Bortolotti loaded it into his sampler.

By the following year, Italo house was everywhere. Black Box’s Ride On Time is the best known example, but as that needs no introduction, we’ve chosen to shine a light on two different tracks from the same Groove Groove Melody production trio of Daniele Davoli, Valerio Semplici and Mirko Limoni. Their many and varied tracks perfectly caught the vibe of that heady summer of 1989, and they certainly had an ear for a vocal hook (by this time a series of Acappellas Anonymous bootleg albums were readily available, and became as crucial to house producers as Ultimate Breaks and Beats had been in the hip hop world). However, like many Italians, they were steeped in the history of soul and disco, as the source material here demonstrates.

Starlight’s Numero Uno typifies the Italian piano house sound…but few at the time realised its inspiration was a cult French disco track by Quartz:

At first listen, Wood Allen’s Airport 89 is a straight steal of the classic Todd Terry sound – however, whilst there are vocal samples aplenty, the lead hook is from a 1978 track by the UK’s RAH Band (not one of their hits) replayed in Todd’s trademark style.

We finish our 1989 Italian selection with a much-loved track that looked to an entirely different place for its inspiration. Manuel Gottsching was a Krautrock legend and ambient pioneer. Sueno Latino used his E2-E4 as the foundation of their self-titled debut. It is widely regarded as one of the first and best ambient house tracks, and was also influential in the development of Italy’s Dream House scene. Not only did Gottsching give the house version his blessing, he later collaborated with the band.

Eurostars#3 – French (& UK) Filter House

The early 1990s saw many formulaic sample-based dance tracks. This was why the French filter house sound that emerged later in the decade was so refreshing. Producers searched far and wide for fresh samples, using them in increasingly innovative ways. In our three examples here, there is only one sample, which the artist used as a springboard to create a hypnotic track that caused dancefloor mayhem, and queues of customers in record shop asking “have you got that one that goes…”

Alan Braxe and Fred Falke took the briefest of backing vocal intros (hence their track title) from the extended mix of a long forgotten 80s pop hit.

DJ Falcon and Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter, under the guise Together, turned to a much loved band, but took a single line from one of their lesser known tracks to create this supremely uplifting epic:

Pete Heller took his sample from a disco track that never charted, and used it as the hook for a track that, despite its ten minute length, leaves you wanting more:

Next Level Sampling

The Art vs Theft argument would rage throughout the first decade of mass sampling. As the industry finally began to get clearance templates in place, and sampled artists began to see the benefits of being sampled (not just in terms of royalties but also exposure to a new audience), sampling finally began to be accepted by most as part of the everyday fabric of music-making.

The art side of the argument would be further vindicated in the late 1990s / early 2000s, an era which saw sampling as artform truly arrive.

Here we present a snapshot of how this particularly fertile period elevated sampling to a new level – and for each selected artist, highlight a signature track and one of its primary sample sources.

DJ Shadow

With a passion for crate digging matched by his production expertise, the unassuming Shadow was the brightest star in the Mo Wax galaxy. Endtroducing (1996) has often been hailed as the first 100% sampled album – Shadow himself has always said he doesn’t know if that’s the case…but in terms of impact, it was certainly the first to showcase how brilliantly diverse and musically accomplished a sample-only album could be:

…here’s the initial inspiration behind Midnight In A Perfect World

Fatboy Slim

An early user of samples and cut’n’paste techniques under a variety of pseudonyms (and an early loser in a copyright infringement case as far back as 1989 with his Beats International hit Dub Be Good To Me), Norman Cook’s leap from respected DJ / producer to global star came with the hit-filled second Fatboy Slim album You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby (1998):

…check out the haunting vocal that led to Praise You here

Chemical Brothers

These electronic goliaths, for all their musical dexterity and ability to attract high profile guest vocalists, are famed for their creative sample use, be it beats, noises or vocal snippets. 1999’s much loved Hey Boy Hey Girl is a classic “where did they get that from?” tune.

Moby

After early success on the rave and techno scenes, Moby had somewhat fallen off the radar prior to the phenomenal success of 1999’s Play. It was the first album ever to license every single track onto a film soundtrack, TV show or advert; but its success also owed much to its innovative samples. Several were sourced from gospel, folk and blues .However, we’ve opted for the insistent guitar riff sample with the dancefloor back story – What We All Want by alternative legends Gang of Four had previously formed the basis of both Alarm Clock by West Bam; and Andy Weatherall’s remix of My Bloody Valentine’s Soon:

The Avalanches

Few debut albums have the impact of the Avalanches’ Since I Left You (2000 Australia / 2001 worldwide). From the same gene pool as Coldcut’s Journeys By DJ mix CD, Paul’s Boutique and Endtroducing, Since I Left You is another masterful collage of samples (allegedly 3,500+) from disparate backgrounds that together make a cohesive, stunning whole. A hard act to follow…their second album Wildflower finally saw the light of day in 2016.

…in its sea of samples, arguably Frontier Psychiatrist’s pivotal one is sourced from here

Defected Sampling Authority

By the turn of the century, house music could no longer be considered the new kid on the block. Into its third decade, it was now a mature genre – the use of samples remained popular, but they were expected to be fresh and creative. Increasingly, producers would use one key instrumental sample as a core element of what was otherwise a totally original song – here are three memorable examples from a then fresh-faced young label called Defected, setting the pace from the off:

(we’ve opted to go with Thelma’s original here, but recommend you also seek out the excellent remixes by both Danny Krivit and Joey Negro).  

…while we’re talking sampling, ATFC and Defected, we can’t pass up the opportunity to include this pioneering mash up – when Adeva met Fatboy!

A  well chosen, expertly used sample can still be the key to a track’s dancefloor success – as evidenced on this imminent release from Defected’s class of 2019, created by Ferreck Dawn with a little help from the one and only Jocelyn Brown, set to help soundtrack your summer:

Sampling: Art or Theft?

“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” (TS Eliot, poet)

“It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to.” (Jean Luc Godard. Film director)

“Bad artists copy, good artists steal.” (Pablo Picasso, artist)

“You can’t steal a gift. Bird [Charlie Parker] gave the world his music, and if you can hear it you can have it.” (Dizzy Gillespie, jazz musician)

 

Postscript: DeFACTed – some sampling snippets

-      Japanese company Akai were the go to suppliers of the first wave of affordable samplers in the 1980s. They remain a market leader.

-      The two word vocal sample in A Guy Called Gerald’s Voodoo Ray is from one of the notorious Derek and Clive albums, a pseudonym under which English comedians Peter Cook and Dudley Moore released more risqué material. Cook actually says “voodoo rage”, but Gerald’s sampler ran out of storage space, hence ‘rage’ being truncated to ‘ray’.

-      Landmark legal cases related to uncleared samples include: 1970s singer songwriter Gilbert O’Sullivan blocking novelty rapper Biz Markie in 1991 (allegedly GO’S didn’t have a problem with sampling, only with Biz as a comedy act)…Vanilla Ice only clearing the Under Pressure bassline after Ice Ice Baby was a hit (Queen / Bowie thus got paid but were denied the opportunity to judge the track on its artistic merit, which may well have influenced O’Sullivan a year later)…former Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham successfully suing The Verve for using more of his symphonic version of Stones track The Last Time on Bitter Sweet Symphony than originally agreed

-      Jazz giants Blue Note were the first label to actively encourage artists to sample their catalogue

-      Madonna sent a personal letter to Abba in her quest for permission to sample Gimme Gimme Gimme on Hung Up in 2005. The Swedes eventually consented but contrary to popular belief at the time,  this wasn’t the first time they had said yes to a sample – The Fugees got the green light for a Name of the Game sample in 1996’s Rumble in the Jungle (the track also samples Muhammad Ali).

-      Arguably the ultimate mash up, in 2004 producer Danger Mouse took (commercially available) acappellas from Jay Z’s The Black Album and painstakingly wove them into songs from the Beatles’ White Album to create The Grey Album. It was lauded on release – but despite support from both Jay Z and the surviving Beatles, who recognised its artistic worth and ingenuity, ultimately it was blocked by the suits (though only after ‘Grey Tuesday’, when by way of protest dozens of sites co-ordinated offering the album as a free download for 24 hours – over 100,000 downloads were recorded)