We’ve all seen the mass debate that goes on surrounding autotune and its heavy use in pop music. It often gets a bad rep as we see successful artists belt out pitchy live performances whilst talented singer after talented singer fails to make it to the big time – leaving us all feeling somewhat duped. More recently though autotune has found its own place in creativity; artists like T-Pain and Lil Yachty have been big advocates for using autotune not to sneakily fix their poor vocals but to gain a specific timbre and feel. It’s become another one of the many electronic instruments in today’s musical arsenal and personally I think it’s great. Music has always been about experimentation and new technology even in the days when the all-singing and dancing piano swept aside the trusty old harpsichord.
My question is whether sampling has followed the same arc – can we call it creative or is it a writing shortcut?
The most famous example of sampling ever is Clyde Stubblefield’s instantly recognisable solo on James Brown’s ‘Funky Drummer’. Asked by Brown to riff a solo drum beat Clyde himself came up with the catchy fill. The way the song drops away momentarily leaving Clyde's exposed kit made it a dream for samplers over the years. The beat has actually featured in thousands of songs, most notably in hip hop, and can be credited as the hard-hitting start to N.W.A’s ‘Straight Outta Compton’. The problem for me with this side of sampling is that being a lowly instrumentalist in the band fronted by James Brown means that Clyde never really got any credit; I’m sure nearly all of you reading would recognise his drum beat, but not his name. The genius mind behind one of the most iconic drum beats of all time gets his work used on song after song regardless of genre yet he went largely unrecognised until his death – it hardly seems fair. My other issue with the mass use of the famous ‘Funky Drummer’ lick is just how common and recognisable it has become. This is not a slight on the beat itself or its composer, but more how it has been used. To me it smacks of a lack of creativity that over the span of decades the same drum beat has been near enough the staple of chart music. Yes, it’s iconic and it does sound great, so you can’t blame people for wanting to use it – but how hard would it have really been to come up with your own beat? Now that I know about the ‘Funky Drummer’ I find myself tuned into it and almost cringing every time I hear it in a modern pop song – I just can’t help but think, ‘Could you not have just spent a little time thinking up something different?’
This is furthered in today’s chart music. Over the last ten years or so it has been extremely popular to take an iconic riff, lyric or melody from an extremely popular old song and slap it into anywhere it fits. Poor old Robin S. themselves must be fed up of hearing the catchy melody from ‘Show me Love’ (although I’m sure their accountants don’t mind). It just feels like a bit of a cheat to me. Even in the songs where the sample has been used slightly differently, like an instrumental melody becoming the vocal line, it just seems unfair that you could pick out something that you know people love and fill out your song with it. I’d compare it to attempting to write a novel then filling the whole middle section with well-known excerpts from Shakespeare or Stephen King; sure the middle of your book may be amazing but I’m hardly going to give you credit for it. An example in the charts as I write this is ‘Your Love’ which samples ATB’s ‘9 PM’. This is an interesting one in that ATB is also involved in the rework but the point still stands. I must admit I do like the song but using his most famous riff as the centrepiece for a ‘brand new’ song just leaves me feeling conned; has he not come up with anything better since then? It feels like the song has been approached with an ‘if it ain’t broke’ attitude in which when sat in the studio ATB simply dipped into his files and remarked, ‘Well this did the trick last time’.
So I'm being a little harsh, maybe a lot harsh. There's still a lot that goes into a song and sampling a small part doesn't mean you don't deserve credit. I mentioned the autotune argument earlier and I could easily write a whole article about it being cheaply used to fix poor vocals, but it would be unfair without touching on the artistry of it. Sampling is no different.
Having recently fallen into the addictive trap that is TikTok, I stumbled upon a user named @tracklibofficial. On this channel famous songs (mainly hip hop but not exclusively) are broken down and the origin of the sample is shown before a demonstration of how it has been chopped, edited and re-worked. It absolutely blows my mind how these samples are used. Sure there are some examples where as soon as the original is played the sample becomes obvious, but for most of them you'd have no idea. A great one is the breakdown of Drake’s ‘Started From the Bottom’. The original play through of a classical piano piece leaves you feeling bemused before it is revealed that very particular notes throughout are chopped up, rearranged and repeated to make the famous piano melody that underpins the song. A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘Award Tour’ is an interesting one too, in which three different songs are picked apart to create the backing. It’s hard to comprehend how three songs from different genres that sound nothing alike come together to create one hit. It’s even more interesting when it is a song you know well as you know how it ends up, but seeing how they fit in other songs, how they’re pulled apart and where they come from is so interesting. Although I still stand by my point that samples of longer melodies or entire instrumentals can show a lack of creativity, sampling in this sense is anything but. It really speaks to the vision and talent of some of these producers when they can create something new from something old; especially in examples like ‘Started from the Bottom’. Watching these TikToks, I find myself thinking, ‘Where did they even find that song, and how did they have the vision to pull it apart and come up with a completely separate thing?’ This is even more impressive when you look back before technology was as advanced as it is today; sampling didn’t used to be simple copies and pastes, but involved the physical act of mixing records or actually cutting and sticking together pieces of tape in order to re-work and fragment songs enough to use for something else. I can’t even begin to imagine the skill involved in precisely cutting up bits of tape whilst using them to make a new song.
I think sampling has followed the same arc as autotune, and will continue to cause debate. The reality is that, like autotune, it is both an art-form and a shortcut really depending on how it’s used. There are some songs where sampling does feel like a bit of a cheat; where creativity takes a back seat and the same repetitive tune from the 90's hits our radios once more. There are, however, songs where sampling shows creativity and skill at an amazing level. The ability to hear one song and have the vision to manipulate it to make something entirely unrelated is crazy to me, and when you start to see examples where two, three or four songs of entirely different sounds and genres are brought together to create a whole new sound, it’s hard to make any arguments about shortcuts or creativity. I implore anyone who is interested in music at all to look at some of the breakdowns of sampled songs by @tracklibofficial, or go on YouTube and find some yourself. I guarantee it will blow your mind.
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