Sampling has a checkered history. One that has given birth to new forms of music, lowered the barrier to entry for producers and witnessed the rise and fall of artists in legal battles. Whether or not you follow the idea that ‘information wants to be free’, the decision to use pre-existing tracks in your own production work should be considered carefully. We still live in an age of rights holders. Let’s check out how a career in DJing can both benefit and be derailed by sampling.
What is sampling, again?
Sampling is the reuse of part of an existing sound recording in another recording. Typical examples of sampling include using snippets of vocals (speech or singing), melodies and, most notably, drum fills and sounds. It might sound like a hip hop thing, but sampling actually started in the 1940s with musique concrète, a form of experimental music. The term was brought to light with the manufacture of the Fairlight CMI sampler in the 1970s, which enjoyed widespread use as a substitute for live drums in 80s pop music.
Hip hop took sampling to the next level in the late 1980s, and still does to this day. Think your favorite producer actually made that beat from scratch? Guess again. Apparently, the rule goes something like this: the amount of sampling you think took place on a record is always less than the actual amount which did. It’s not easy to know. But we do know how sampling took off. The original Akai MPC was an affordable sampler which brought the act of sampling to the masses and formed the basis of most hip hop music. Drum breaks such as the famed ‘Amen Break’ were lifted from funk records and still used as the rhythmic backdrop to everything from gangster rap to corporate advertising. Good article here to debunk some myths around sampling.
Here’s where a little footwork is required. Sampling, in almost all cases, is an illegal practice according to US Copyright Law. The most powerful weapon a producer has to combat litigation is to avoid detection. In the early days, hiding your sampled material was as simple as outwitting the human ear by burying it in the mix, or using such short snippets that they were difficult to recognize. Now we have music recognition services like TuneSat (the software behind Shazam) to blow the whistle on impressively opaque usage. But as sophisticated as music recognition AI is already, there still isn’t enough scanning resolution to determine which songs contain exactly which samples. Sampling looks set to live another decade or so, but the jury’s out on what happens thereafter. The alternative to backdoor tactics? Get a copyright clearance for your record. If you can’t do that, don’t sample hit songs or anything by Disney!
Copyright was put in place to promote creativity. Without sampling, music simply wouldn’t be as fun. Sampling an old record and putting a beat to it is the starting point for multitudes of producers. Sure, in an ideal world we’d all be able to hire orchestras to play the string parts in our heads. (Side note: most orchestral music is public domain, meaning there will never be a lawsuit.) But until then, let the music be shared. Sign up for a DJ course today to get familiar with sampling software.