Machines are made by men for man's benefit and progress, but when man ceases to control the products of his ingenuity and imagination, he risks losing the benefits.
-- Rod Serling
The creator of TV's Twilight Zone didn't live to see the advent of sampling technology, but with typical prescience he foresaw its consequences. These days, our disposable culture thrives on technology, automation, and instant gratification. Imagination, however, is becoming a thing of the past. Today's musical artists rarely navigate beyond those roads mapped out by their predecessors, and, as a result, nostalgia takes the place of creativity.
Nostalgia's best friend is the sampler. With the push of a few buttons, it can copy any sound -- be it a human voice or a drumbeat -- and manipulate it in various ways, creating repetitive rhythms and distorted noises. To many new artists, the electric guitar looks like an old pinball machine in an arcade full of virtual-reality playstations. Sean "Puffy" Combs, who owes much of his lucrative career to the sampler, recently told Source magazine: "I never played no instruments. I never programmed no drum machines. So if I was at a party and heard a record that I loved, I would figure out a way to bring that record to life."
But does sampling really bring old music to life, or does it just help uninspired musicians steal other people's ideas?
The invention of the sampler was inevitable. What the sampler can do with a computer chip was once done by hand. George Martin, the Beatles' legendary producer, for example, worked for many hours just to adjust tape speeds and distort sounds. In the '70s, the disco craze ushered in a new medium, the twelve-inch single, which required splicing tapes and mixing tracks together seamlessly to create lengthy dance tracks. When European electronic groups like Kraftwerk began to emerge in the '80s, the market for drum machines and synthesizers exploded. The early synthesizers were limited to factory-preset sounds that, in hindsight, sound pretty cheesy: Just try listening to an Ultravox album today.
Throughout the late '70s and early '80s, DJs in New York were creating seemingly endless jams with breakbeats from old funk and R&B albums. ("Funky Drummer," by James Brown, was a particular favorite.) While a DJ alternated and synchronized identical records on two turntables, an MC would rap over top of the beat. The sound became known as hip-hop, and DJs would be the first to realize the potential of the sampler.
The first digital sampler arrived in 1981 and was appropriately titled "Emulator." DJs were now able to record sounds and bits of music and use them in various ways, including looping a favorite beat all night long without wearing out one's fingers. But as sampling became popular and new artists began making money from old songs, music publishing companies sought compensation. In an early court case, Castor v. Def Jam (1987), Jimmy Castor sued the Beastie Boys' label for the unauthorized use of samples in the song "Hold It Now, Hit It." He cited drumbeats and the phrase "Yo Leroy" from his 1977 hit, "The Return of Leroy (Part 1)," as examples. The two parties settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.
Two years later the hip-hop group De La Soul was sued for using a few seconds of the Turtles' 1969 hit "You Showed Me" in the song "Transmitting Live From Mars." That case was also settled out of court.
Biz Markie was less fortunate. The rapper was sued for the illegal use of Gilbert O'Sullivan's 1972 hit "Alone Again (Naturally)." Markie borrowed the title, looped eight bars of music, and even included the song's wistful chorus: "Alone again, naturally." In court in 1991, a judge quoted the seventh commandment, "Thou shalt not steal," and demanded that all copies of Markie's album be pulled from the shelves. Markie was later quoted as saying, "I felt that I was made an example of." Speaking for the many hip-hop artists who sample old songs, he added: "We just bringing it back to life. They ain't doin' nothing with it anyway, so why just let it sit?"
The constant threat of lawsuits has established an unprecedented demand for "sampling administration." Sample clearance houses, such as Diamond Time and Sample Clearance Ltd., obtain legally binding copyright clearances for their clients. When a label or sampling artist submits a tape of sampled works, a company spends two to three weeks researching and identifying the writers, publishers, and owners of original works and master recordings. The company then contacts the responsible parties and negotiates terms for fees to be paid -- one for publishing, another for using the master. Of course there is also a substantial fee for the clearance house's services.
When an album is full of samples, the process gets expensive. Songwriter Services was put to work by a little-known Phoenix band, Phunk Junkeez, and the bill amounted to $39,200.
Joe Valiente, the band's frontman, was shocked. "There are absolutely no musical samples on the album," he fumes. "These are all just vocal scratches." He explains: "We wanted to use a vocal scratch from Run-D.M.C., 'Best DJ in the U.S. of A.!' We were quoted between 25 to 50 percent of our publishing on the new song and an advance of $3000 to $5000, which they would have to get in cash before our record is even released. Then you gotta pay the label who owns the publishing a rollover, which is $3000 to $5000 cash after every 100,000 units we sell."
Valiente claims that newer artists tend to demand a bigger piece of the pie than more established acts. "'Sexual Healing,' from Marvin Gaye, which we've all heard a billion times, was only 15 percent of our publishing, a $1500 advance, and a rollover of $1500 per every 250,000 units," he says. "They're way more reasonable, 'cause the song has been fuckin' makin' money for years! And don't forget that the clearance service won't even start the process until they get your check for $3500 to $4500."
Not everyone bothers with the legal headaches. The newer breed of DJs -- those making drum 'n' bass, jungle, or "abstract hip-hop" -- rarely pay, because their sources are obscure and dramatically distorted. Hip-hop producer DJ Premier says he gives credit only when he absolutely has to. "Why give up everything on an album?" he asks. "There's a chance it may never be recognized, so I don't let 'em know beforehand."
Arguments can be made in favor of sampling. The best of the samplers are like impressionist painters, the samples their paints. Colors are chosen, and when mixed together, they create new hues. Stand back and look at the whole picture, and it's tough to tell exactly what colors were on the palette. Obviously, those who choose only one color paint a less interesting picture.
Mike Simpson -- half of the production team the Dust Brothers, which has worked with Beck and the Beastie Boys -- recently told Keyboard magazine, "We really feel like we're creating new works. A lot of people out there sampling, especially in the rap world, aren't creating new works. They're basically putting new lyrics to another person's song."
Perhaps Simpson is referring to Combs, who enjoys quadruple-platinum sales but has taken substantial critical heat for his lack of originality. Indeed, he helps himself to choruses from other songs like someone buying self-service copies at Kinko's. But financially the businessman-turned-rapper can afford to surrender at least 75 percent of his publishing to the original artists. Echoing the defensiveness of MC Hammer, Combs once admitted: "Yes, I sample records.... That's my shit! But you can't say you ain't gonna dance to my shit. When that muthafucka comes on, your ass is jigglin.'"
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At least he admits it. The Verve copped a sample, got called on it, and then copped an attitude. Their recent hit, "Bitter Sweet Symphony," contains a four-bar loop of an orchestral version of an old Rolling Stones nugget, "The Last Time." ABCKO Music owns 100 percent of the publishing rights and denied the Verve clearance, stopping the single's release just as it was heading for the top of the English charts. Only after a 50 percent share was negotiated for Keith Richards and Mick Jagger -- the other 50 percent went to their manager, Allen Klein -- was the single released.
Richard Ashcroft, the Verve's frontman, later complained to one interviewer: "We sampled four bars, and we put that on one track and laid down 47 tracks of music beyond that little piece. We're talking a four-bar sample turning into 'Bitter Sweet Symphony' -- and they're still claiming it's the same song."
The pissed-off, percentageless Ashcroft has obviously bought into one of sampling's biggest myths: "It's OK if you only take a few bars." Now that sampling is a risky business, some artists miss the earlier, more lawless days. DJ Shadow, a widely respected electronica artist, has fond memories of the carefree days when people like De La Soul, Biz Markie, and the Beastie Boys gave no thought to pocketing a bit of music they liked.
"It was just so hip-hop," Shadow told Keyboard magazine. "They were the underdogs going up against these bloated rock 'n' roll mind-states. And as a result, I got really rebellious and just sort of took a stance of, 'Fuck it. I'm just gonna use it.'