Is Sampling Stealing?
The Grammys as per usual were quite safe this year. The most interesting moment came when Kanye West climbed onstage when Beck received album of the year. Initially this seemed a joke, viagra but in numerous interviews after the show, West confirmed that this act had deeper meaning. Long story short, West felt that the Grammys had played it safe by awarding album of the year to Beck, and felt that “artistic integrity” had been disrespected.
A lot of people laughed at this. Its been said that Beck is a more credible artist because he plays and produces all of his own music (this claim proves to be erroneous, as the liner notes for Morning Phase credit 9 producers and 17 musicians), whereas Kanye relies on sampled music. This has reopened the debate about the artistic credibility of sampling. This is especially ironic, because the strongest album in Beck’s oeuvre, 1997s slacker classic Odelay, is almost entirely built on samples.
One of the major arguments that exists against sampling is that it’s only done by people that are too lazy or too untalented to learn an instrument. The sole purpose of Sampling isn’t to allow people to merely rip off other songs, to allow somebody to take someone else’s music and pass it off as their own. A song that uses samples will often contain several, from disparate sources and therein lays the beauty of it. It allows producers to create a sonic collage of sorts. This is something that a guitar, drum kit, piano etc can’t do. It subverts the idea of somebody being limited by an instrument, because it transcends the limitations of an instrument. Rather than rewarding technical knowledge, sampling rewards imagination. A prime example of this is the Beastie Boys “B-boy bouillabaisse” which utilises 24 different songs to create a multi textured, sprawling track.
Another major argument against sampling is that it allows people to cash in on something familiar. The argument is that sampling steals from the goodwill of a past success. Generally this isn’t the case. Sampling generally draws from obscure, unknown records, which is always a good thing, because it introduces the listener to new songs. When the sampled material is familiar, oftentimes it will be in a context totally different from the original, which gives it a new dimension and changes the way you think about it. Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album, which fuses the Beatles and Jay-z, offers new perspectives on both of these artists.
None of this is to suggest that sampling can’t be lazy and unimaginative, which it certainly can be (“Ice Ice Baby” is a prime example of this). But “real instruments” aren’t exempt from that accusation. Some of the biggest bands in the world, such as Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones, have blatantly stolen from other musicians, but gotten away with it, on the basis that they play “real instruments”. Saying that Noel Gallagher, who seemingly steals from the Beatles wherever possible, is a more “legitimate” artist then the likes of Tricky, Kanye West, RZA, Dr. Dre, Geoff Barrow, Rick Rubin, Andre 3000, Q-Tip or The Bomb Squad, on the basis that he plays guitar, is ridiculous. Some artists, such as RJD2, The Dust Brothers, J Dilla and MF Doom create entirely instrumental music using samples. Instrumental music generally doesn’t sell a huge amount, so this perhaps validates the artistic credibility of sampling.
Sampling another artist’s work remains a legal minefield, which has likely contributed to the aura of distrust that still surrounds sampling. To dismiss the idea as just being unimaginative though, is very close minded.