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The art of sampling

The art of sampling — Should a recent court decision make some people question its future?

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Stop, hey, what’s that familiar sound? It’s the swooping bass line from Lou Reed’s ”Walk on the Wild Side” — except you’re hearing it throughout Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch’s hit ”Wildside.” Or what about that gently plucked guitar and those vocal ah-ahs that cushion P.M. Dawn’s ”Set Adrift on Memory Bliss”? That’s right — they’re from Spandau Ballet’s destined-for-Muzak ballad, ”True.”

You’re probably familiar with digital sampling — the art of incorporating a part of one song into another, newer track. Commonly used on hip-hop records, sampling can form the foundation for a whole song (as it does in the Marky Mark single and, even more blatantly, in Hammer’s use of Rick James’ ”Super Freak” in ”U Can’t Touch This”). Sometimes it can be heard only as a snippet here or there — the horn riff from Peter Gabriel’s ”Sledgehammer” is just one of many samples in 3rd Bass’ ”Pop Goes the Weasel.” But is sampling a form of pop collage art — the musical equivalent of using a TV remote control to absorb bits and pieces of dozens of TV shows — or is it nothing but theft?

Last month, a U.S. district court found rapper Biz Markie guilty of violating U.S. copyright law by sampling (without legal clearance) eight bars from Gilbert O’Sullivan’s 1972 hit ”Alone Again (Naturally)” and incorporating them into the song ”Alone Again” on his latest album, I Need a Haircut. Warner Bros., which distributes Biz Markie’s label, Cold Chillin’, was ordered to remove all copies of the album from stores; more ominously, the judge recommended the case for criminal prosecution.

The Biz Markie case was ultimately dismissed when an out-of-court settlement was reached with O’Sullivan. (The handful of earlier ’80s sampling lawsuits — involving De La Soul and Beastie Boys, among others — have also been settled this way, thereby avoiding a judge’s ruling.) But what made it historic was that it was the first time a federal court had passed judgment on the practice of sampling. Even more disturbing, the tone of some media coverage implied that sampling is outright robbery and that finally the law had caught up with rappers guilty of ripping off other artists in the name of so-called art. ”Sampling is just a longer term for theft,” Mark Volman of the Turtles told the Los Angeles Times. (The Turtles sued De La Soul in 1989 for sampling one of their old hits.) There were even a few intimations that the ruling would result in the decline of rap itself.

For the most part, such ideas are uninformed. There’s no question, of course, that artists who’ve been sampled deserve financial compensation. And in light of the sampling lawsuits of the ’80s, many rappers and their labels are getting legal clearance, even for the slightest two-second samples. But anti-sampling perceptions also show a misunderstanding of the technique, its place in the history of hip-hop, and its status as a vibrant, bratty art form.

The origins of sampling lie in club and street parties in the Bronx during the late ’70s. DJs would cut back and forth between records on two turntables — excerpting a drum break here, a vocal bit there — as an accompaniment for dancers. The technique was not only cost-efficient for poor urban kids. It also allowed those without musical training (thanks to budget cutting at inner-city schools) to make their own music — folk art for a new generation. Sampling is now such an intrinsic part of black culture that objections to it can sometimes feel like veiled, if unintentional, racism.

In the beginning, samples were bare-boned and often limited to a lifted beat from, say, a James Brown funk record. Some of them still are. Two of last year’s brightest hip-hop singles used spare but simple sampling techniques: P.M. Dawn’s ”Set Adrift on Memory Bliss” and Naughty By Nature’s drooling ”O.P.P.,” which recycled the piano and vocal exclamations of the Jackson Five’s ”ABC.” Whether you like the idea or not, each record met a basic requirement of sampling: making old (and, in the case of Spandau, unlikely) music seem fresh again.

But as hip-hop has grown more sophisticated, so has sampling. These days, rap records are just as likely to be crammed with snippets — a drum beat from one old song, a funk or metal guitar lick from another, a background vocal or exclamation from a third. Current rap singles like Ice Cube’s ”Steady Mobbin”’ and Public Enemy’s ”Can’t Truss It” are mini-tornados of sound, with elements of hard-core R&B, metal, and ’70s dance music. Despite the borrowing, though, these recombinant records sound like nothing that has come before — they constitute, in effect, a new genre, and they owe allegiance to none. In the ’90s, that’s about as ”new” as new music gets.

At its worst, sampling can be lazy, an easy way to get on the charts by hitching onto the back of an old hit. Yet even Hammer — along with L.L. Cool J and others — has begun using real instruments on record and on stage. In time, sampling could end up a relic of rap’s early age. Even if that happens — or in the extremely unlikely event that sampling becomes extinct as a result of the initial Biz Markie decision — the technique has resulted in some of the spriest, wittiest pop of the last decade. De La Soul’s ”Eye Know,” for instance, is built around a riff from Steely Dan’s 1977 hit ”Peg” — and who ever thought you could dance to Steely Dan?

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