The art and ethics of music sampling… a few thoughts

Ahh, sampling… A topic everyone seems to have a strong opinion on, and for good reason. Last week, legendary producer Timbaland was trending on social media, and not for a particularly good reason. On the 18th January, London-based DJ Nooriah posted this on social media:

It was a harmless reminder of the beauty and art of sampling. The original post wasn’t a criticism of sampling or Timbaland in particular, it just highlighted some excellent Middle Eastern music being sampled by hip-hop greats. Twitter being Twitter however, turned this tweet into a fierce criticism of sampling and its ethics. It’s either direct criticism over the illegal use of someone’s work, or the usually misinformed and ignorant opinion that “sampling is unoriginal and super problematic”. I guess I should have known better that social media isn’t often the best tool for constructive, healthy and well-informed opinion, but to set the record straight – music sampling is art. It is the use of pre-recorded sounds, incorporated in another piece of music. Sampling can be lazy, it can be done to absolute perfection. It’s a form of expression at the end of the day and nothing will ever change that fact. To dismiss it is to dismiss entire genres of music, and more importantly particular experiences that have shaped our culture as we know it. You can’t tell me with a straight face that DJ Shadow’s seminal Endtroducing….. isn’t an incredible work of art. Without sampling, Kanye West, J Dilla, Madlib, Q-Tip, RZA and Alchemist wouldn’t exist as we know them now. The art of sampling has created some of the most iconic albums, from Madvillainy to To Pimp A Butterfly. Sampling is a bridge that connects two generations together, with a rich history and is essential to the progress of music and creativity.

On Adam Behr, Keith Negus & John Street 2017 research report The sampling continuum: musical aesthetics and ethics in the age of digital production, they state: “across genres, whilst musicians have often imbibed Romantic conceptions of originality, these do not map neatly onto their practices. Offhand, jokey references to ‘ripping off’ are peppered with acknowledgements that their work depends on its predecessors and that the line between outright acquisition and influence is blurred”. This is such a vital observation and paints the practice of sampling as something founded on respect and admiration for the original piece of music. And what does original mean anyway? Every artist has influences, and I’m sure most people go to certain pieces of work for inspiration while working on their own projects. To me it seems like the morality of sampling, despite all its blurred lines and definitions, is really about ego and pride of own work. Letting go of that, at least from a moral standpoint, will likely encourage more sonic experimentation, though I’m sure you could make the case that it would do the exact opposite.

As many of us already know, the music industry can be a very toxic and manipulative place, especially if we’re talking about major labels and the power and influence they have. Copyright laws exist to protect artists and their ideas, though the issue of plagiarism is one that is still heavily debated even today. I keep thinking back to Led Zeppelin’s 1971 classic “Stairway To Heaven” and the accusations thrown that the track stole a melody off the 1968 track “Taurus” by American rock group Spirit. There’s no definitive answer as to whether there was any plagiarism involved. It all comes down to interpretation, and that’s one of the many conflicts that arise from these kind of conversations. More direct sampling, usually within hip-hop, aims to interpret older, classic and often rare melodies and grooves, introducing them to a much wider audience. With independent artists or labels, accusations of plagiarism or sampling without authorization can break the bank. I’ve had artists come to me and advise I don’t mention samples used in their work, more commonly known as “sample snitching”. It was something I hadn’t quite considered at the time, and is now one of the reasons I’ve stopped the Madlib Samples featured articles and refrain from talking about samples in general. I get it, and I respect it. Independent musicians don’t have the same financial and legal network as major labels and for a lot of incredibly talented folks trying to create for the love of music, sample-snitching like I’ve admittedly done can cost them a lot. Clearing samples can be expensive, and it’s usually those with the legal rights to the particular piece in question that reap the financial rewards. It may be an unpopular opinion, but music is there to be sampled, played and experimented with.

Just create.

Hey everyone, thanks for stopping by. I run In Search Of Media with the aim of giving a platform to independent beatmakers, rappers and talented musicians. I also hope to make this a home for music discovery, interesting film analysis, exhibition reviews and other interesting content for all of you guys to dive in to. I hope to start a podcast and documentary-style project soon. If you're looking to be a part of this creative project, please go to the contact page and drop me an email, or connect via Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. I also write for 'Music Is My Sanctuary.' Thanks 🙏

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