This piece was published at Brisbane Society of Sound in July 2014.
I had an Old moment the other day. For those who don’t know, an Old moment is when you suddenly morph into a post-middle-aged spinster with an affinity for Yorkshire puddings and felines. Old moments include but are not limited to: knowing in centimetres the amount of milk you like in your tea, tutting at young hooligans in shopping centres, and buying ugly slippers. Mine consisted of turning on Triple J and immediately thinking, “sweet lord, what is this ungodly noise?” I practically clutched my heaving bosom. It was something by Major Laser, as I recall.
When did I stop jumping up and down to music that sounds like multiple car alarms?
Initially, I was horrified by my own reaction. When did I stop thinking this stuff was cool? When did I stop jumping up and down to music that sounds like multiple car alarms? Why do I suddenly feel like crocheting? I am only nineteen, and I generally like cool, hipster DJs with weird sampling techniques. I should be at least six years away from a quarter-life crisis. Yet, here we are.
So I did some self-actualising and asked myself: what was it that really annoyed me? Was it the doof-doof beats or the excessive vocoder use? Was it the total lack of lyrics? Was it the frustratingly catchy bassline? No, I decided. It was the samples, random and deeply irritating, that were just chucked in there. It sounded messy. It sounded like when a heckler yells something out of context at an intimate show, and so I started to wonder why sampling is sometimes so effective, and sometimes… well, it’s just noise.
Sampling, for anyone who doesn’t know, is the process of pinching snippets of sound from past recordings to use in new recordings. It’s the green alternative — recycle, reuse, and all that, minus the plagiarism — and often, it sounds pretty damn cool. It turns out the whole idea came from experimental musicians in the 1960s, who physically manipulated vinyl or cassettes to add in bits of other tracks. It tended to get pretty weird (think: the musical equivalent of LSD) and was pretty fringe until the 70s, when hip-hoppers and DJs started using audio mixers and turntables to chuck their samples into rap, hip-hop and disco (with a fair amount of copyright infringement). A major player was Dr. Dre, who pretty much perfected the art and made sampling the biggest thing in hip-hop through the mid-90s, often featuring 70s soul and RnB music — tracks like Get Down by Nas or Gangsta’s Paradise by Coolio. Now, sampling is done electronically, of course, although some of the more retro clubs in the Valley may be twiddling the vinyl turntables to this day.
Sampling, for anyone who doesn’t know, is the process of pinching snippets of sound from past recordings to use in new recordings.
The coolest thing is that sampling is so embedded in some genres, like hip-hop and pretty much all of pop music, that most people only recognise the remixes. Some of them are obvious: Vanilla Ice’s Ice Ice Baby uses a lot of Queen and David Bowie’s Under Pressure; MC Hammer’s U Can’t Touch This comes from Rick James’s Superfreak; Puff Daddy and Faith Evans’s I’ll Be Missing You samples Every Breath You Take by The Police. But did you know that both Gwen Stefani and Notorious BIG sampled Between The Sheets by The Isley Brothers? Or that Fat Boy Slim’s Praise You features parts of Walt Disney’s It’s A Small World After All?
Sampling is pretty much everywhere now, so much so that there’s a whole sub-genre (and many sub-sub-genres) that stem from it — can you say Daft Punk? Of course, it’s still rife in rap and hip-hop, with multi-platinum sellers like Kanye West and Jay-Z using samples all the live-long day, for better or worse (I love Curtis Mayfield in Touch The Sky; I hate Shirley Bassey in Diamonds From Sierra Leone). But other artists have snuck in on it too, slipping samples into more chilled genres. There are people like Gotye, who is undeniably brilliant with his slick production in tracks like Thanks For Your Time, or fellow Aussies The Avalanches’ bizarre and genius album Since I Left You, which features around 3,500 vinyl samples. Thanks to sampling, genres have divided and sub-divided until we get gimmicky pop remixes like Madeon’s Pop Culture, or clever electro-swing artists like Pavrov Stelar or Caravan Palace, who sample pretty much exclusively from the swing decade. And I love the idea that artists can show their inspirations and collaborate with anyone, anywhere, dead or alive. But that’s when it goes right, when there’s subtlety and smart production. Occassionally, like what inspired my Old moment, it goes horribly, horribly wrong.
Technology can be a tool or a weapon and, much like music, can work well at its simplest or its most complex.
Why? Well, I guess, if it’s tacky. If it’s a rip-off. If it’s clumsily placed. Who on earth let Flo Rida get his hands on a classic like Dead Or Alive’s You Spin Me Right Round (Like A Record)? Why does everyone pretend like Kid Rock didn’t blatantly rip off Sweet Home Alabama? I’d even argue that Kimbra’s 90s Music is a mess of samples and fits the “just plain noise” category.
Sampling toes a fine line: the line between paying homage to great music and poaching someone’s talent. Critics call it unoriginality, laziness, or a cheap way to spice up bland music, and when you hear a couple of the bad ones out there, you may agree. But it’s time to admit that the 80s are gone and songwriting no longer consists of sitting in a basement with a guitar and a blank piece of paper. I often think the critics are those that believe electronic music — unlike the ‘authentic’ music of yesteryear — is created with the push of a big red button marked “press to sell soul”. Technology can be a tool or a weapon and, much like music, can work well at its simplest or its most complex. There will always be bad music, there will always be noise. But as long as music is a global network of artists sharing and sampling each other, we could be doing much worse.