Thirty-plus years after the fact, sampling is both a natural element of our cultural ecosystem and a bygone art.
We think nothing, nowadays, of hearing a snippet of sound in a context totally different from its source. That is, after all, a foundational element of hip-hop: the repurposing of drum breaks, instrumental riffs and vocal exclamations as part of the bedrock of a whole new thing. Hip-hop producers weren’t the only ones — maverick sound collagists and even the occasional rock band took to the practice too.
But sampling today isn’t what it once was, and hasn’t been for quite some time. Where once you could virtual play name-that-tune while listening to a string of hip-hop hits that sampled large chunks of well-known songs, it’s now become almost jarring to hear a recognizable sample on a hip-hop track. And when you do, aside from ensembles like the Avalanches, it’s not likely to be done with anything close to the compositional detail J Dilla achieved on Donuts.
One reason for that is sampling is no longer as simple a proposition as it used to be. Once older artists, record labels and publishing companies discovered a new generation was making new music from their artistic properties, money became a thing. The phrase “sample clearance” soon entered the industry lexicon, and in time getting the rights to sample older material to goose up a song (let alone sample-heavy opuses like the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique) became prohibitively expensive, save for the Kanyes, Beyonces and JAY Zs of the world with massive budgets at their disposals.
Still, sampling transformed how we make and hear music, so it’s useful that a comprehensive documentary about the practice’s rise and fall is now out in an expanded version. Benjamin Franzen’s Copyright Criminals: The Funky Drummer Edition adds a bonus DVD of expanded interviews, WAV files and short featurettes to the original 2009 film. The extra material is nice to have, but the original doc, which aired on PBS’ Independent Lens, packs an awful lot of still-relevant information from all perspectives into a tight and lively 53 minutes.
Franzen interviews a ton of people — rappers, producers, cultural critics, and copyright attorneys — on all sides of the issue. Among the rappers, Chuck D is prominently featured, and for good reason: Public Enemy’s use of sampling, especially on It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Fear of a Black Planet, stand among the high-water marks of sampling as an art form, not just a way to capture an old beat to help make a new hit.
Chuck’s experience with sampling mirrors much of the arc Franzen laid out in Copyright Criminals. In a recent phone interview, he explained that the advent of Akai digital samplers and other advanced keyboard technology, brought to market in the mid-’80s, was a game-changer just as Public Enemy was starting out. “We were taking bits and pieces of records and sounds anyway, because we kinda thought that lifting the entire composition, being DJs we had a respect for records recording the composition,” he explained. “But we also knew, coming out of remix culture, we could also create from the bits and pieces.” He cited Double Dee and Steinski’s “Lesson” records (“The Payoff Mix”, “The James Brown Mix”, and “The History of Hip-Hop Mix”) and disco DJs making their own remixes of club hits as early influences in the process.
“We wanted to be diggers,” he continued, “we wanted to take the obscure parts that we knew the critical mass either had forgotten or had just overlooked. That’s what we had going in our favor, is that we had two rooms of records… we knew that popular culture ran on being fed what was always newnewnewnewnewnew, and we knew that there was a lot of forgetfulness in mass culture.”
Sampling older R&B and soul records, as it happened, allowed Public Enemy to fly under the radar of the companies who held the rights to that music. “They didn’t know what they owned, they didn’t give a damn about soul or black people or what was a 45 in 1964 on the B-side,” he said, “They gave less than a fuck, it was too much bandwidth for them, too much work for them, and we knew that.”
In those early, free-wheeling days, the artists were way ahead of the lawyers. “It was like throwing a spitball in 1914,” he explained, referring to the baseball pitch that was not outlawed until 1920. “There was no law or no rule, that was what got it over the plate at that particular time, that’s what we did,” he said.
By the end of the decade, record companies had finally gotten wise to the riches of their back catalogues. Many, such as Blue Note, reissued oft-sampled tracks in new compilations. Others started hiring lawyers and people stepped into remix culture to scour hip-hop records for unauthorized samples. That practice tripped up De La Soul after their groundbreaking Three Feet High and Rising, when their sampling of the Turtles’ “You Showed Me” got inadvertently left off the list of samples needing to be cleared, and a lawsuit ensued.
The most notorious sampling lawsuit came in 1991, after Biz Markie lifted Gilbert O’Sullivan’s massive hit “Alone Again (Naturally)” for his track “Alone Again”. Biz made little effort to hide the original recording in his sample, and O’Sullivan sued to have the record pulled from store shelves. The judge in the case, as reported in Copyright Criminals, pronounced the use of the sample as “Biblically incorrect.”
“Now, how country is that, how backwards is that?” posed Chuck in the documentary. “That’s somebody who totally is oblivious to the speed of things happening.” (When Biz finally dropped the album that was supposed to include “Alone Again”, it was called All Samples Cleared.)
But Biz’s wholesale use of the O’Sullivan track pointed to a bad habit that would hasten sampling’s demise, Chuck says. He alluded to the incident as an example of “when sampling became lazy, when cats would just start taking the whole record, they would take obvious hit records. A lot of the producers and DJs, a lot of them were ten, 12 years younger, they were neophytes, they really kinda couldn’t understand that you’re taking a record that was such a big pop hit, but you’re taking it and trying to get away with it, ’cause you didn’t know it, but everybody else did.”
By contrast, Chuck and his fellow members of the Bomb Squad production crew (Hank and Keith Shocklee, Eric “Vietnam” Sadler) didn’t rely on one familiar sample for their tracks. “We kinda wanted to go for the obscure area,” he explained, “and then build upon it with layering and making original sounds versus what we had actually taken, and strung (them) together like calico.”
The irony here is that Public Enemy would become a highly sampled hip-hop act — especially Chuck’s booming baritone and Flavor Flav’s sneering “yeaaaahhh boyeee!” “It was flattering, I got to hear my voice on somebody else’s record,” Chuck recalled. But it quickly became a dual-edged sword: “I’ve written songs, and although I might feel okay as [the sample] being a gratis use, the other songwriters that I shared the composition with, might be, once again, just like the same people who sued us, like ‘where’s my cut?’ I’m like, shake my head, how we came from this environment to how we got the nerve to be mad at somebody sampling us when we sampled as a foundation? But it all becomes a little thing for everybody trying to be themselves and get paid at the end of the day. So I might be benevolent but the next songwriter might not be.”
Copyright Criminals goes deep on both sides of the sampling saga — the art and process of it, and the business end of things. But there’s another, less acknowledged side of the story: the musicians whose work is actually being sampled. In the documentary, they’re represented by the footage and bonus material featuring Clyde Stubblefield, whose drum break on the 1969 James Brown track “Funky Drummer” became one of the most sampled pieces of music ever. Yet because Stubblefield didn’t write the song and isn’t credited as the performer, he was never entitled to any royalties for the use of his break. At least sampling — and the worldwide deep funk-sampling community — established Stubblefield, who passed away in 2017, as an artist in his own light. (Much the same can be said for his fellow JB drummer John “Jabo” Starks, who passed away in April 2018.)
To hear Chuck tell it (and others in Copyright Criminals allude likewise), it wasn’t just the act of sampling for them, it was the material they were sampling. Public Enemy’s two rooms of records contained a treasure trove of soul, funk and R&B, all played by some of the greatest musicians of the era. Just as they didn’t rhyme for the sake of riddling, they didn’t sample just for the thrill of doing it. They were specific and most intentional in what they sampled, why they sampled it, and how they used it. They both valued and craved the messages, grooves and textures of all that back-in-the-day black music, and their tapping into that vast canon gave their end results a sonic and cultural richness beyond merely looping a familiar hook or instrumental riff.
It’s the essential quality of that back-in-the-day musicianship, the engineers who worked the boards on recording sessions, and the makeshift closets or state-of-the-art studios where they happened, that Chuck sees as the biggest difference between hip-hop then and now. Or, to be specific, it’s the loss of those essential qualities, with sampling restrictions (and newer recording technologies and tools) leading producers and musicians to rely more on wholly-original beats. “The musicians that made hip-hop, I think, in the last 20 years were far more inferior in skill and talent [to] the musicians from the records that we sampled, and that’s a fact,” he said. “These musicians today can’t touch the musicians and the recording engineers and techniques of the ’60s and ’70s, I don’t care what kind of new shit they come up with.
“That’s why sampling was so popular, because it was able to take a magic and a dynamic that probably couldn’t be repeated easily, if ever again. Many of those musicians and engineers have come and gone, they’ve passed away. But that magic is there, documented and recorded. A sample is going to take a magic snatch, and it can’t be duplicated with a bunch of lesser musicians in the studio working by themselves. They ain’t got the chops to do it, they just ain’t got it.”