The Art Of Recycling
Originally published in Modart
“In the future, records will be made from records.” John Cage, 1956
In Poliarte my dreams, it always happens the same way. The call is long distance; the voice on the other end quivering, almost tearful. “We’re being sued for £500,000,” it says. “They’re coming for you. For the love of god, get out of there…”
I run into my studio and begin disposing of the evidence: taking apart my sampler and hiding the parts under the carpet; breaking my vinyl into shards and trying to flush them down the toilet. At some point, I look up and there they are: the zombiefied remains of Miles Davis, Nick Drake and Bob Marley looming at my window, worms wriggling in their empty eye sockets, contracts clutched in their skeletal hands.
“Royalties,” they moan in unison. “Weee waaant royalties.” At which point I wake up screaming.
If all this sounds like a bad horror movie (or a good music video), then perhaps I should explain the premise of sampling. A person like myself cheap nba jerseys buys, borrows or steals a record. He then finds a part of that record he likes (a guitar loop, perhaps, or a short snatch of female vocals), cuts it out and pastes it into one of his own tunes. So it is that when the DJ drops Crazy In Love and you rush to the dancefloor, desperate to impress with your impersonation of Beyonce’s Amazing Vibrating Ass™, you’re actually shaking it to the horn section of the Chi Lites 1970s soul classic Are You My Woman. Ditto A Tribe Called Quest’s Can I Kick It? and Lou Reed’s Walk On The Wild Side, or Busta Rhymes’ Fire It Up and the Knight Rider theme.
These days, sampling is a hip hop phenomenon, but its roots go back to the musique concréte movement of the 1940s, when experimental French artists began taping and looping the sounds of trains passing, pianos tinkling and pots and pans rattling. The decades that followed saw the idea developed by various creative types, including The Beatles, who – under the influence of Yoko Ono and few blotter sheets of high-grade LSD – sampled and looped the sounds of car crashes, orchestras tuning up and people chattering aimlessly for Revolution 9, a hallucinatory interlude off The White Album that kill cult leader Charles Manson later quoted as a huge inspiration.
It wasn’t until the late 1970s, however, when dub reggae DJ Kool Herc left Jamaica for downtown New York, that sampling found its way into popular culture. It was here, in the infamous block parties of the Bronx, that Herc began chopping up and looping breaks from old funk records to maximise their dance potential, inspiring a generation of turntablists and creating a new form of music along the way. By producing tunes from the spare parts of old songs, the likes of Herc, Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa were breaking new ground, setting sail on an uncharted ocean of breaks, basslines and blistering grooves. Hip hop was born, and the potential was limitless.
Fast forward 30 years and 3,500 miles to the leafy streets of Sevenoaks in England, where Marc Bowles is on his way to the studio. Better known as hip hop DJ Mr Thing, Marc has spent the last twenty years blowing up parties from London to Los Alamos, along the way collecting enough records to fill a Scottish castle and a whole host of shiny awards. Today, however, he’s putting the finishing touches to his first LP, a collaborative project with up-and-coming UK rapper Yungun – but for a man on the verge of potential chart success, he’s sounding decidedly downbeat.
“I’ve been lucky so far,” he says. “The records I’ve made with really dodgy samples have been mostly underground, released on the smallest run possible and then never re-pressed. But I’ve got a bad feeling about this album. This one’s gonna land Zají?ek me in trouble, I just know it.”
It doesn’t take long for a record company executive to smell a buck, and hip hop’s honeymoon period in the early 80s was quickly followed by a rude awakening in the middle of a copyright minefield. The lawsuits came thick and fast, with everyone from The Beastie Boys to Biggie Smalls dragged into court for violations of intellectual property. Almost overnight, hip hop producers the world over became criminals, Mr Thing included.
“I actually DJ sampled a Michael Jackson song for one of the tracks on this album,” he says. “It’s 70s Michael Jackson, and it wasn’t a single or anything, but it’s still a bit of a worry. There’s a wacky clause in my contract that says responsibility for this stuff lies directly entre with me. No one’s likely to end up in jail, but if you’re a struggling artist having to pay back royalties on every record you sell, it’s going to ruin you.”
Far from arresting the New development of sample culture, however, such dangers have only served to drive it underground, where the hip hop community has continued to recycle old records with such wild abandon that the overall effect is gloriously incestuous: a group of artists all sleeping with the same muse, or animals feeding off the same enormous carcass. It’s a phenomenon that led American programmer Jesse Kriss to design an interactive website tracing the history of sampling from 1952 to the present day: an attempt, in his own words, “to communicate something about the cultural network that sampling creates.” Drag your mouse over any of the funk, rock or jazz records represented as tiny dots on the lower half of the screen, and immediately it’s linked to any number of dots on the upper half, each one a sample based hip hop record. So it is that we find James Brown’s In The Jungle Groove bastardised by no less than 139 tunes, from Cypress Hill and NWA to Public Enemy and Professor Griff – and those are just the ones we know about.
“Every musical genre has its own value system,” says Kriss. “I wouldn’t walk out of a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth and complain about the lack of improvised melodies, nor would I whine about MF Doom recording his albums without a live band. The process is part of the art, and it has to be judged on its own terms.”
It’s a wholesale nfl jerseys view that Russian-born mixologist DJ Vadim shares wholeheartedly. Since buying his first sampler in 1992, Vadim has virtually atomised the term ‘hip hop producer’ and remade it in his own image, travelling the world and sampling sounds from so many different countries that listening to his records can feel like wandering around a carnival, being constantly dazzled by vivid colours and cultures.
“Sampling allows me to work like a true 21st century conductor,” says Vadim, “bringing certain sections of the orchestra in and out as I desire, producing the arrangement, the direction, the tone of the piece I’m working on. There’s no formula for what works and what doesn’t. There are no morals, no right or wrong: just things that sound good and things that don’t.”
Nor is Vadim concerned with the embittered argument of more ‘traditional’ musicians that sampling is a violation of original music. Everything, says Vadim, is in some wholesale nba jerseys way indebted to work that preceded it – and that’s as true of literature as it is of painting; of rock as it is of rap.
“Look at The Kaiser Chiefs: they’re selling shitloads, but they’re blatantly doing nothing original or interesting. Will they be remembered ten years from now? Highly unlikely. And yet most people would list them as ‘real musicians’ compared to someone like P Diddy, who samples 16 bars of The Police. What’s the difference? Why is one better than the other?”
The answer, of course, is that it isn’t. Originality is no longer measured in terms of musical instruments or swaggering rock star bravado: if anything, the sampler has freed artists of the practical limitations of live performance, opening up a brave new world of sonic evolution. Not that there isn’t still a place for bands – that would be In like burning all the bicycles after inventing the car. Nor is owning a sampler any guarantee of success: it’s still as easy to make a complete stinker with a computer as it is with two guitars and a drum kit. But for every unspeakable rip-off by P Diddy, there’s a mind-blowing floor-shaker by DJ Premier; for every shameless piece of disco fluff by the Black Eyed Peas, there’s a sweeping cinematic masterpiece by DJ Shadow. And for every cynical suck-up in it for the money, there’s someone like Blockhead, rummaging around the $1 bargain bins of New York’s backstreet record stores and shaping cheap jerseys modern classics on a shoestring in his bedroom studio.
“ I don’t play any instruments,” says Blockhead, “so sampling is the foundation of everything I do. I know most musicians frown upon it, but it doesn’t bother me. Anyone can sample, sure, but it’s what you do with samples that earns respect.”
And what Blockhead does with samples is powerful stuff: pitching them up, distorting them and – most importantly – linking them thematically. His second LP, Downtown Science, is a sort of surreal concept album about New York; the urban desolation and decay of the songs themselves in stark contrast to the cheerful voices of the 50s crooners that wander the streets like ghosts of a more innocent age. It’s an unsettling effect, and one that uses the medium of sampling to its maximum potential.
“I’m all about turning shit into gold: taking things that shouldn’t fit by any means and making them work. A lot of producers will just loop a whole song and call it their own. That’s wack my to me: you have to add the personal touches.”
The future of recorded music is thus inextricably bound up with its past; its DNA constantly evolving but never breaking free of its roots. As a movement it dates back decades, but only now are its pioneers being treated with the respect and recognition they deserve. Let’s just hope the record industry catches up soon, or these same ground-breaking artists could find themselves condemned criminals of their own creativity.