In Defense of Sampling: Why Stealing is Inspiring

Audio sampling in contemporary music is a form of budding innovation that proves not only the evolution of the industry, but a method to build on creative works that inspire us.  The practice of sampling is common in most creative industries, but often less obvious than it is in music.  Music sampling happens to receive a poor, distasteful reputation simply because of how it’s perceived in popular culture, rather than understanding why it is a creative tool.  The critics and intellectuals bash the sample for its lack of originality. I praise it for its inspirational tangibility.

My unique argument is that we all, especially those in creative fields, sample like music producers.  Sampling, as it’s embraced in music, just happens to be a more concrete citation of inspiration.  It’s a nod, an ode or respectful glance to those that did it before we did.  The sample is why we do what we do.

The sample is observed in a variety of shapes, forms and frequencies.  Typically, a snippet of another song is cut out, sped up, slowed down or looped, and finally mashed, forced or hammered into new, original sound bite.  Occasionally, the sample is obvious, even identifiable at first listen.  Other times, the sample is indistinguishable, taking on a new creative life form of its own.

The hip-hop music industry has embraced the audio sample, and has subsequently become an easy target for the so-called critics.  The critics yell that it’s stealing.  My response is that it’s sharing.  The critics cry that it’s not creative.  I respond that it’s a new type of creative.  Sampling is simply fair use of the available technology to build and advance previous works of art, displaying little difference to how we embrace the same technologies in other industries.

My only personal, and admittedly obnoxious issue with sampling is the expected public ignorance it promotes.  For instance, Kanye West (who samples in nearly every one of his songs, sometimes distastefully) rapped on the monster, Just Blaze produced, smash hit “Touch the Sky,” which borrowed nearly the entire background instrumentation of Curtis Mayfield’s “Move on Up.”  Likewise, the Grammy nominated song “Paper Planes” by M.I.A. pulled the retro punk-rock introduction from the Clash’s “Straight to Hell,” while adding stylistic gunshots and heavy drums for flavor.  Overall, this is healthy for the industry.  But, while these songs have become mainstream hits, the references are ignored by most listeners.

Sampling has and continues to expand past hip-hop.  Led Zeppelin, arguably the most innovative rock outfit in blues rock and heavy metal history, were actually samplers of their time.  They borrowed rifts, covered jams and even transferred lyrics into their own original music for the recording of their second album.  And, twenty-five years later, the Beastie Boys sampled the brave drum introduction from “When the Levee Breaks” into a aggressive, break beat for their song “Rhymin’ and Stealin.”  Led Zeppelin, the innovators, have been re-innovated.  The old folks scream blasphemy.  To me, it is a slight confirmation that the Beastie Boys have good taste in rock ‘n roll.

Sampling is prominent everywhere.  The Blue Note has a compilation of heavily sampled jazz tunes, most of which you will recognize.  Girl Talk developed his entire album, Feed the Animals, around snippets of samples, producing entirely new songs from pieces of others.  When you watch a Quentin Tarantino film, notice his samples of classic Kung Fu flicks.  Or, when you observe a painting by Salvador Dali, attempt to understand his influence from Sigmund Freud.  The sample is relative in all forms of art and science.

My experience as an entrepreneur, specifically in managing software development, has been sample driven.  Although I do more reacting than planning, large aspects of my job are sampling what has worked in the past with hopes that it will work again in the future.  The team I work with began our design process by reviewing numerous software dashboards that had pieces relevant to our vision.  We then pulled and sampled these elements into our sketches, and finally implemented the puzzle pieces into an original design.

The goal of recognizing samples in any form is to have an open, but defensive mind, and question not only the music, but how it is consumed.  Who are the artist’s influences?  Who is sampled, deliberately or unconsciously?  Recognizing sampled inspiration is more than being aware or knowledgeable of history.  It allows you to be a true, critical observer of artistic foundation.

This is a guest post from Alex J. Mann.  You can subscribe to his blog here and follow him on Twitter here.

3 thoughts on “In Defense of Sampling: Why Stealing is Inspiring

  1. Pingback: Natalie Portman Says This Post Will Change Your Life | alex j. mann (.com)

  2. Pingback: Guest Post — “The Evolution of Sound” by Alex Mann : SoundCtrl

  3. Jake

    I think there’s a distinct difference between imitation, parody, and sampling. You seem to think they are all the same.

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