Sampling in Popular Music

By Conor Bulkeley-Krane ’16

One of modern music’s most popular techniques is legally questionable and is disrespected by other artists. Known as sampling, many musicians and critics have begun to question the practice. Music sampling is when an artist uses a portion, or sample, of one sound recording and reuses it as an instrument or incorporates it into a different song or piece.

Many listeners are shocked when they learn that some of their favorite artists sample, but the technique is rampant in popular music, and everyone from Kendrick Lamar to Jason Derulo uses this technique.

This style of music production dominates modern music, but has in fact been around for decades. Starting in the early ’40s, French avant garde artists Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry began to use disc cutters to make unique sound collages.

One of the many tools used in modern sampling. (Photo: Conor Bulkeley-Krane '16)

One of the many tools used in modern sampling. (Photo: Conor Bulkeley-Krane ’16)

This artform became known as Musique Concrète and began to incorporate all sorts of sound from classical recordings to train sounds. This movement remained in the underground, but the technique of Musique Concrète began to circulate. Even the Beatles dabbled in this form of sampling with their experimental track “Revolution 9” from “The White Album.” This song was very different than their normal songs and featured many unusual sampled songs.

In the ’70s and ’80s, sampling began to emerge in the hip hop scene. It began when DJ’s began experimenting with vinyl at hip hop shows. These DJ’s would mix in funk breaks to their set’s and repeat these breaks over and over because they were so fun to dance to.

Kool DJ Herc is said to have pioneered this technique, but other DJ’s like DJ Grandmaster Flash, helped popularize and develop the techniques, such as changing turntable speeds and turning the records manually. He got together a group of rappers to join him and started the hip hop group, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. This hip hop group gained widespread acclaim their single “Freedom,” which sampled “Get Up and Dance” by Freedom.

Since then, the development of music technology made it easier for hip hop producers to sample music and work it in with their instrumentals. Roger Lin designed the Akai MPC60 Sampler that popularized sampling amongst electronic and hip hop producers everywhere.

This machine made it easier to sample than ever, and certain songs became known for having especially juicy samples.

The “Funky Drummer” break and the “Amen” break are both brief fragments taken from soul and funk music recordings of the late 1960s and have been used in thousands of hip hop songs and electronic songs as well.

Sampling is legally ambiguous, and many artists have gotten into lengthy disputes. In the early days of sampling, artists sampled other artists music without permission. However, once rap artists began to make significant money off of sampled music, original artists whose work had been sampled began to take legal action, claiming copyright infringement. Some sampling artists fought back, claiming their samples were fair use but they often lose.

As a result of this legal situation big name artists who expect to make lots of money off of sampled music will go to the original musician to get permission, and sometimes a revised version of their work to sample.

Beyoncé, for example, approached Major Lazerto get an edited version of their “Pon de Floor,” which she then turned into “Run the World [Girls].”

Sampling continues to dominate modern music, and artists like Kanye will usually have at least two samples in each of their songs.

Sampling, however, can run awry and prove dangerous for the artist. Baauer’s internet phenomena “Harlem Shake” contained vocal samples that had not been cleared by any of the original artists. Even though the song’s popularity jumpstarted his career, the resulting lawsuits that he lost cost him lots of money.

Despite the dangerous risks artists continue to sample extensively, and most of modern pop music either directly uses this technique or is inspired by it.