While the vast majority of contemporary music recording and production occurs in the digital domain, it hasn’t always been this way. Back in the 60s and 70s, when the first prehistoric digital recordings were made, they were named after they way they worked – ‘sampling’ an analogue input thousands of times a second to build up a series of discrete digital values that could be stored and played back in a potentially much more versatile manner than analogue tape was capable of.
Nowadays, with practically all our recording done digitally, sampling doesn’t seem like quite such a clever trick, but its still a technique that has an astonishing amount of creative potential. Sadly, sampling has developed something of a bad reputation for itself and has become a byword for any kind of lazy appropriation of musical ideas.
Of course, only a true naïve would suggest that all musical theft is a bad thing. As Jean-Luc Godard said, “It’s not where you take things from, it’s where you take them to.” Sampling has demonstrated the validity of this statement time and time again.
When samplers became relatively affordable in the the late 1980s, they enabled musicians not only to mutate the music of the past into exciting new forms (inventing entirely new genres like disco house and jungle as they did), but also to turn everyday sounds into fantastical new textures that were simultaneously familiar and alien.
When sampling is done creatively by artists, it results in unique, evocative music that couldn’t have been created any other way.
Thanks to digital technology’s decreasing manufacturing costs. the ﬁrst relatively cheap samplers began to appear in the mid-to-late 80s. Classic hardware like the E-mu SP-1200 and Akai S950 made sampling available to studios that didn’t have astronomical budgets, and hip-hop was the first genre to explore the sampler’s ability to recycle musical ideas and put them into
entirely new contexts.
Hip-hop had been founded on the instrumental breaks of funk and rock tracks since the 70s, and pre-sampling records like The Sugarhill Gangs Rappers Delight and West Street Mob’s Break Dance utilised session musicians replaying famous grooves or turntablists cutting up breaks. Now producers could simply sample their favourite parts of songs and cut them up in exciting new ways.
A genre that couldn‘t have existed before the advent of the sampler is hardcore rave, which combined sped-up hip-hop beats with sampled techno stabs and house vocals to create a new style of hi-tech music. Affordable, all-in-one sequencers and samplers like Roland’s W-30 workstation keyboard would allow musicians like The Prodigy’s Liam Howlett to practice an early form of ‘in-the-box’ production. putting together beats, basslines and leads within a single piece of hardware.
Howlett and contemporaries like Joey Beltram would pioneer resampling by recording sounds from synths and using their samplers’ editing and modulation to twist them into exciting new sounds. resulting in revolutionary tunes like The Prodigy‘s “Charly” and Second Phase’s “Mentasm”.
The Prodigy – Charly
Call the lawyers
This approach to making music was new to everyone in the late 80s and early 90s, and the thorny issue of copyright infringement quickly appeared. One of the most high-profile cases is that of Black Box’s sampling of a Loleatta Holloway acapella for their international megahit “Ride On Time”.
The record very obviously used snatches of the diva’s “Love Sensation” to create the stuttered vocal hook used prolifically throughout the record. What’s more, the video featured a model miming along to the vocal, and even though Black Box had cleared the sample by organising a licensing agreement with the label that released “Love Sensation” originally, they faced a legal challenge from Holloway’s lawyers for not crediting the vocal.
Clearly, the legal situation can be complex. To cut a long story short, if you publish music that samples another’s work without permission, you could theoretically face a legal challenge from the copyright owner, no matter how short or unrecognisable the sample.
In practice, a huge amount of music does feature uncleared samples – lawyers most often come knocking if you’re using immediately recognisable samples and making a bit of money.
Black Box – Ride On Time
Loleatta Holloway – Love Sensation