Discussion | The Science of Sampling

Sampling is a musical art form. Irrespective of what some may have you believe, the act of sampling can be both as challenging and rewarding as producing original compositions and has had a significant effect on the sound of modern music.

“It’s hard to sample and it’s hard to make music… They try to act like sampling’s not music but it’s hard to do correctly,” expressed Madlib during his Red Bull Music Academy Lecture in 2016, shedding a light on the frustration caused by some quarters of the music community that don’t consider sampling a worthy expertise.

Differences of opinion have been expressed and discussed in documentaries that focus on whether sampling should be considered as stealing, such as ‘Copyright Criminals’ (2009), within which music producer Steve Albini denounces sampling as a legitimate way of making music. In the same documentary, Digital Underground’s Shock G counters this viewpoint by using the example of paintings compared to photographs when discussing the relationship between original compositions and sampling and is supported by citations of Andy Warhol’s work. The American artist is renowned for his contribution to the pop art movement, a technique that is essentially the equivalent of sampling in the world of art.

While the origins of sampling in music most notably stem from Hip Hop, a variety of styles and genres have adopted the technique during the following years, including Drum & Bass, House and Garage. A method that was born out of a lack of resource has become a prevalent way to re-invent and pay homage to sounds of the past, even by those in the most affluent of positions. In an attempt to dispel any misconceptions, I wanted to examine the allure of sampling and dissect the science behind the divisive practice.

Before discussing the intricacies of sampling, I was keen to discover how some producers began using the technique. Selvsse – who initially made his mark as through his project Rituals – describes how stumbling on a wave editing program led to him learning about sampling. “This, for me, was a game changer because I had no idea how my favourite producers would incorporate samples into their music. Putting a CD into my computer and seeing the music show up in a wave format got me excited because at that moment I saw all the beats I could create.”

OthaSoul’s emcee/producer Dozer Carter was making music before he began sampling, but it was a certain Wu-Tang Clan hit that caused his association with the method. “I knew about sampling simply through Kanye’s pitched-up vocal style in the early 2000s, but it was Wu-Tang Clan – ‘C.R.E.A.M’ that got me hooked,” he explains. “I literally became obsessed with it. I downloaded the sample (The Charmels – ‘As Long As I’ve Got You’) and tried my best to recreate it in Cubase. From that day [sampling] became a drug.”

The idea of sampling having an addictive nature may be due to the fact that, in order for it to be sustainable, it forces producers to discover new sounds by exposing themselves to many different records. This never-ending search becomes the fuel, with each potential sample found used as means to re-fill your sound tank.

“The main way I got into sampling was through YouTube,” reveals Talos, whose most recent work was released through High Focus Records. “I learnt about important artists from older generations plus I found new sounds and genres through e-digging. Now when I go to record shops I have more of an idea of what I want to because of all the hours and hours spent e-digging.” To those not familiar with sampling, the process may seem like a chore, but there are some unique, unquantifiable benefits.

“The thing I enjoy most about sampling is the unique approach to beginning an idea,” says Rebel Kleff, the producer responsible for some of Loyle Carner’s most popular work. “The rush or feeling you get when you discover something that excites you. It’s like entering the great unknown or being on a treasure hunt that never ends.”

Dozer echoes similar sentiments, commenting that sampling helps to keep the sound of eras gone by relevant to a new generation of listeners. “I see it as a challenge, almost like a puzzle,” he states. “How can I use this piece of music to create something completely new whilst respecting the original artist? You can be obsessed with music and live a lifetime without hearing more than ten per cent of it globally. Digging becomes both a search for rare records as well as a time-warp to the era it was recorded.”

Selvsse considers the act of sampling as “reinterpreting” music he already admires, so simply listening to potential samples is a significant aspect for him. “I get all precious about the sample, [I] listen through and maybe only loop two bars but that small fraction usually carries the essence of where it was taken from and drives the new direction. So, I’d say listening is the most enjoyable, letting every possibility play out in my mind before I get to work.”

Though producers may spend plenty of time looking for samples to use as musical stimulus, Talos speaks of a sense of fate when it comes to the development of certain beats. “One of my favourite things is stumbling on something by accident. I feel like it’s a different way of creating music compared to a producer who plays all instruments,” he tells.

Perhaps this perception can be attributed to the fact that it’s difficult to explain, especially to those who are not producers, what someone seeks when searching for a suitable sample. “There is no real method, rhyme or reason as to why I sample something or what I’m looking for,” Rebel Kleff declares in an attempt to offer more insight into the process. “Over time you definitely build up a knowledge of genres, labels, musicians and tempos, but a good sample can come from anywhere – that’s the beauty.

“It’s hard to explain but I guess it’s whatever strikes at that moment. I can go back to old records that seemed unusable or uninspiring six months ago and find stuff that I had totally overlooked or hear in a different light. It’s definitely a lot to do with mindset. Someone else may hear something totally different in the same sample and it’s about how creative you can be.”

Selvsse specifies listening for the “golden moment” when sample digging, with Dozer expanding on that idea. “Everyone is looking for that 3-4 second loop that makes them feel something and that was my approach for many years. At the end of the day, producers are waiting for that moment in the song that makes us close our eyes and imagine the beat we’re going to make next.”

The openness of the sample search is seen as a positive, giving producers the flexibility to pinpoint something particular or embrace a variety of sounds. “I just dig and see what comes my way. It’s nice to have samples with different textures and different sound qualities. As well as sampling music, I use a lot of ambient recordings and more everyday sounds to add subtle textures,” details Talos, excellent examples of which can be heard throughout his Lowlight EP.

Despite all the indications of the positive effects that sampling has had, there are still people who refuse to give the users of the technique credit for their efforts. Kleff suggests these groups are unaware of the technique’s ethos – thoughts Dozer and Talos agree with. “I think sampling is seen as negative by people who maybe don’t understand it or appreciate it as an art form. It’s not there to discredit or replace real musicians in the traditional sense, it’s just another technique.”

Talos shares a memory that further illustrates this perceived lack of understanding about sampling. “I remember when I was younger – before I even started making music – someone showed me a video that was called something like ‘Dr Dre steals music to make his beats’. It was a video playing the samples Dre used and then playing his beats after, accusing him of being talentless and stealing music. Dre, you know! The idea that sampling is uncreative and stealing is backwards. For me, if you sample a track well, you put it in a different context or translate it to a different rhythm. If you use it as inspiration to express yourself and make something new and beautiful there shouldn’t be a problem.”

Dozer understands that people could consider sampling “cheating or stealing”, but is quick to defend the correct use of the technique. “It can’t be denied that sampling is lazy at times, but you’ve got to weave through the bullshit to appreciate some of the genius work that sampling has produced. Sampling is Hip-Hop and will always be, [but] I don’t have anything against anyone who doesn’t appreciate sampling because you either understand it or you don’t.”

Ultimately, like most things that divide opinion, the dissent toward sampling by some can be ascribed to a lack of comprehension. But, with more education as to how the technique can be used skillfully, those that use sampling as a way to create new music will be heralded as much as the musicians that they choose to sample.


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