Sampling: the future of popular music?
Lydia McKenzie explores the future of the music industry considering the increased habit of sampling.
Sampling involves using a section of audio from an existing song – whether this be the melody, beat, bassline, lyrics – and reworking this into a new project. The sample may then be manipulated in some way, such as by increasing the tempo or changing the pitch, or left in its original state.
The technique has not risen to mainstream usage in the absence of scathing criticism: artists have faced accusations of lacking creativity and originality, with critics going as far to label the technique as nothing short of plagiarism. Such accusations can sometimes be warranted, however, due to the history of legal issues surrounding the technique: Ed Sheeran was plagued with copyright accusations over his globally recognizable single released in 2017, ‘Shape of You’, and the late American rapper Mac Miller faced a $10 million lawsuit over his incorporation of Finesse’s instrumental in the 1995 single, ‘Hip 2 Da Game’ in Miller’s 2010 single, ‘Kool Aid and Frozen Pizza’.
Nonetheless, Miller’s defence highlights precisely what is unique about sampling, stating that he was simply “an 18-year-old kid who wanted to rhyme and pay homage”. Sampling allows for the rediscovery and reinvention of sounds as a way to acknowledge one’s musical predecessors, breathing a new life into their work, as well as pointing the listener to a wealth of existing music that they may not have otherwise discovered.
Artists have faced accusations of lacking creativity and originality, with critics going as far to label the technique as nothing short of plagiarism.
For instance, Kendrick Lamar’s single, ‘Money Trees’, from his 2012 debut studio album, ‘Good Kid, m.A.A.d City’, opens with the reversed sample of the ethereal guitar and vocal instrumentation of Beach House’s 2010 single, ‘Silver Soul’. DJ Dahi, producer of Lamar’s single, explains how “Hip Hop music doesn’t inspire me itself”, seeking ideas from other genres, and citing Beach House as one of his favourite alternative bands. Kendrick Lamar’s wide-reaching influence thus brought a new spotlight to Beach House through the fusion of Hip Hop with an Indie sound, pointing Hip Hop fans to a radically different genre into which they may have previously delved.
Similarly, DJ Khaled’s 2017 hit single, ‘Wild Thoughts’ samples the Latin percussion and both the acoustic and electric guitar riffs from Santana’s 1999 single, ‘Maria Maria’. Santana’s classic riff is instantly recognisable as DJ Khaled points his contemporary listeners to a prior decade of ground-breaking Latin rock. Carlos Santana praised DJ Khaled’s use of ‘Maria Maria’, congratulating him on bring the song “to a new dimension” whilst maintaining “the groove and essence of the song”.
More recently, Nicki Minaj’s ‘Super Freaky Girl’ samples Rick James’s iconic melody from his 1981 single, ‘Super Freak’, which she then layers with her characteristically animated and sexually charged lyrics. James’s distinctive riff is by no means lesser-known than its recent reinvention; Minaj’s use of the sample only seems to further cement her status as revolutionary and on-par with such instantly recognisable 80s classics, having recently accepted the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award at the 2022 MTV Video Music Awards.
James’s distinctive riff is by no means lesser-known than its recent reinvention; Minaj’s use of the sample only seems to further cement her status as revolutionary and on-par with such instantly recognisable 80s classics
A lesser-known example is Japanese jazz artist Shigeo Sekito’s 1975 single, ‘The Word II’, whose ambient electone riff underpins Travis Scott and Quavo’s ‘How U Feel’, released in 2017. Sekito’s electone is almost hypnotic, lending itself perfectly to Scott and Quavo’s project: a more obscure instrument takes a central role to add a complexity and uniqueness to the 2017 single, and Scott and Quavo’s recognition of Sekito’s work serves to connect to a different culture and musical genre alike.
In 2014, a notable change to the Recording Academy’s awards criteria saw that songs containing samples could now be nominated for all categories at the prestigious, albeit controversial, Grammy Awards. Then-CEO of the Recording Academy Neil Portnow stated that the changes came as a reflection “of the current musical landscape”, highlighting the growing popularity of the sampling technique and its potential to revolutionize contemporary music across a variety of genres.