‘Cross the Breeze

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The art of sampling is currently enjoying a creative resurgence in indie and underground music, appearing in and often defining a number of emerging genres such as footwork, glitch hop, vaporwave, dubstep, mashup, ambient, drone, cinematic grind and more. Notably absent from this list is hip hop, the progenitor of many of these styles and widely recognized as the cradle of the sampling technique. While the rise of sampling in hip hop and the reasons for its subsequent decline in the 1990s are well known (copyright lawsuits brought by record companies and other wealthy “rights-holders”, the mainstreaming of hip hop, etc.), sampling’s reemergence in these genres suggests some interesting possibilities for the market forces that seem to be enabling and/or “allowing” it. Better yet, contemporary sampling techniques and arrangements are opening up a host of nuanced signification that goes well beyond the simply ironic and oppositional meanings of the 90s and 2000s.

To briefly review the use of sampling over the past 25 years, let’s start with one of the more provocative claims of the “fall of sampling” story, which goes something like “Fear of a Black Planet / Paul’s Boutique / Three Feet High and Rising couldn’t be made today” because the copyright lawsuits and/or the high cost of the licensing payments related to legally using the samples would prevent the record company from releasing the album, or worse yet, would preemptively discourage the artist(s) from even bothering to reach those pinnacles of sampling artistry (Kimbrew McLeod, 2011). An intrepid cataloging and pricing of all the samples used in Paul’s Boutique puts a $20,000,000 price tag on the total licensing fees and clearances required to make the album (ibid.). It’s enough to make you want to go all OCCUPY! at the local Target, until you remember that today no such creative artist would bother to work with a major label (and vice versa), as an interesting thing has happened since the departure of sampling from hip hop in the 1990s: music sales no longer matter. Or to clarify with the negative, only shitty music makes money for the major labels, and they remain significantly weakened since the rise of internet-based music “sharing”, stumbling about their customers’ living rooms, breaking things and generally embarrassing themselves.

It is this nadir of the labels’ power and reputation that has fertilized the ground for sampling’s return, in a few ways. First, as evidenced by the unwillingness of any major to sue Girl Talk after a number of acclaimed albums that mashup hundreds of the most ubiquitous of capital “P” Pop songs, “rights-holders” have backed off their pursuit of unauthorized sampling, realizing that not only would such action just bring more bad press, but (perhaps more importantly) those artists and “small” labels putting out the work featuring unlicensed samples don’t have any real money to go after anyways. Second – and at the other end of the radar – many artists seem more interested in sampling sounds and musics that are unknown, non-western, lo-fi, rebroadcast, created as “field recordings” and/or produced by themselves or members of their clique. Warms Thighs, Foodman, Teebs, Gold Panda, Forest Swords, Traxman, DJ Rashad, These New Puritans, RL Grime, and Death Grips are but a few such artists spanning a broad spectrum of styles and degrees of recognition working in these modes. Certainly these realms provide fresher musical territory, but part of their appeal is undoubtedly their distance from the expense and red tape better known musics.

While sampling at hip hop’s beginning was employed most often with the straightforward intention of providing a hook, beat,or melody for the MC to rap over (think of the number of artists using James Brown and other 70s funk samples in the 80s), early- to mid-90s acts such as Beck, Beastie Boys and others began to use less-identifiable samples in ironic or detourned ways to add depth and facets of meaning: the aspiring race car driver earnestly proclaiming “I’m a winner/Things are gonna change, I can feel it” in Beck’s “Loser”; the corny 1950s dinner party dialog at the beginning of the Beastie Boy’s “Blue Nun”:

[Woman] “What’s the secret, Peter?”
[Peter] “Naturally, I’ll say it’s the wine.”
[Woman] “Mmmm, it does go well with the chicken!
[Narrator] “Delicious again, Peter”

Beyond the additive, contradictory and/or ironic meanings these snippets bring, they winkingly call attention to their nondiagetic nature in relation to the song – their “samplehood”, if you will – and push the listener into a number of considerations not usually attendant to listening to music: one’s subjectivity as a pop culture participant and consumer, the possibility of multiple and divergent intentions and dialogs occurring simultaneously in a single song, etc. The listener’s heightened sense of subjectivity is thus primed to search for connections, contradictions, and alternate meanings represented by the shifting overlays of disparate and vaguely familiar but not recognizable samples: “that’s probably a mariachi band from the 70s, that’s probably some NYC DJ toasting a block party in the early 80s,” etc. An archetypal space is created by this mode of sampling in the early and mid-90s that is rich, broad and complex, but the artistic high tide quickly recedes in the face of the aforementioned legal issues and the ever-shifting trajectory of pop music’s stylistic churn.

As the 90s turn to the 2000s the sampling in pop music becomes increasingly recognizable and mainstream in provenance. This Mashup Era is more concerned with saccharine surprises and immediate dancefloor gratification. Girl Talk’s output, Dangermouse’s Grey Album mashup of Jay Z’s Black and The Beatles’ White album, Wugazi’s 13 Chambers mashup of Fugazi and The Wu-Tang Clan, and others employ samples as “plunderphones”, a term coined by John Oswald who experimented in sampling and mashup as early as 1975. Oswald calls the use of high profile sounds plunderphonics: “A plunderphone is a recognizable sonic quote, using the actual sound of something familiar which has already been recorded… Taking Madonna singing “Like a Virgin” and rerecording it backwards or slower is plunderphonics, as long as you can reasonably recognize the source. The plundering has to be blatant.” While at first listen intriguing and satisfying (who doesn’t feel giddily smart when catching the quick “Casey Jones” turnaround dropped into Girl Talk’s mashup of Biggie’s “Nasty Girl”, Bananrama’s “Cruel Summer”, the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back”, and 23 other samples all inside one five minute song?), the plunderphonic method of sampling via the mashup ultimately flattens the depth of meaning, turning the contextual winks and hints into a self-congratulatory scavenger hunt.

While plunderphonics continue in much popular hip hop, sometimes with a degree of transgressive detournement such as when Action Bronson describes his graphic sexcapades over romantic classics like John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane” (“Contemporary Man”) and the Hubert Selby-worthy hooker profile over The Flamingos’ “I Only Have Eyes For You” (“Thug Love Story 2012”), lesser known and artistically-progressive musicians are currently using samples with little or no mainstream recognition (the non-western, insular, and others previously mentioned), often in new arrangements that signify more than irony, mockery, debasement and other forms of opposition. Many artists are focusing on the sample as the primary or even exclusive element of the song. Teebs, Foodman, Warm Thighs, Lampgod and other beats- / glitch-oriented artists deploy samples in the foreground with understated or no additional instrumentation, vocals, or electronics; running them through various pitch- and tempo-shifting permutations and editing regimes so that the end result is an uncannily familiar or nostalgic remnant that seems to have travelled a great distance through a wormhole, faulty piece of equipment, or some other field of interference. More dance-based artists such as footwork’s Traxman and DJ Rashad and EDM’s Gold Panda and Caribou/Daphni use the repetition of a single phrase, word or clipped syllable throughout a song’s entirety so that it becomes a rhythmic mantra or even anchor beat upon which all other elements hinge. Artists making atmospheric / ambient music like Forest Swords and Huerco S. deploy similarly repetitive but less-recognizable samples submerged in echoes or alternatively muffled to evoke fairly site-specific aqueous, subterranean, arboreal and through-the-wall soundscapes. While these artists cover a wide range of genres, moods and tempos, they all place heavily-manipulated, -edited and repetitious samples clearly in the foreground of their pieces and avoid pop song conventions such as verse/chorus structure, narrative arc, “singing” and lyricism, crescendos and other dynamic devices. Furthermore, these artists treat the music and recordings they do make as samples, subjecting them to the same types of treatment and deployment. The origin of a sound – one created by the artist versus one sampled from elsewhere – matters little if at all to these artists due to their final similarity once sounds are entered into a digital audio workstation: they’re all just waveforms strung and mixed together, equally open to various modes of manipulation and editing.

Perhaps this great equalization of various sounds’ styles and histories as entered, heard, cut and copied in contemporary digital interfaces is the reason for the lack of ironic and otherwise oppositional stances in today’s wave of sample-oriented music. This music is not reactionary because there is no single preceding style to work against. Rather it emanates from the digital wellspring of all recorded music that comes before and now; an endless spray from a mediated big bang spreading outward in an all-encompassing expansion of sound dust – interconnected, hypnagogic, and productive in its creation of new territories and latticeworks that are uncanny, uncertain, and beyond verbal. Has our mediated culture collected so much detritus subject to such a mighty array of manipulators that creative and “original” artwork can now be constructed from mere samples, reflections, and reverberations of earlier pieces, without the need or interest in physically manipulating an instrument of wood, metal, skin or flesh? Are we so siloed and isolated in our own personally curated channels of media and lifestyle that there can no longer be a meaningful and progressive popular culture? Across the void these sample-based musics bounce back at us from the digital event horizon, reforming and reinvesting the tunes and voices lost at the shattering of our shared experience.

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