With sampling now a common feature of the music industry, Aidan Crilly looks back on its rise to popularity.
Over the past few decades, sampling, the act of reusing parts of pre-existing recordings in new music, has become a staple tool for contemporary producers and musicians. While once an obscure, underground and even controversial method of creating music, today it is featured in many chart hits and accepted as the norm.
The first appearance of recorded sounds being used as samples, in the way with which we are familiar today, was in the genre known as musique concrète.
Though often seen as a modern invention, the concept behind sampling has been around for many decades and in multiple genres. From the early twentieth century, jazz artists would routinely pay homage to their peers and influences by borrowing licks and progressions. This happened so often that certain clichés and trends developed: certain melodies and lines even became inside jokes between musicians. This was not seen as stealing another artist’s work, but as an act of respect and acknowledgment.
The first appearance of recorded sounds being used as samples, in the way with which we are familiar today, was in the genre known as musique concrète. Led by French composer Pierre Schaeffer, from the 1940s, this experimental movement used the newly commercialised tape recorder to create music from various recordings. These recordings commonly consisted of instruments being played, the human voice, and even sounds from nature.
Musique concrète shrugged the restrictions of usual musical etiquette and routinely ignored traditional rules of melody, harmony, and timbre. Early compositions often sounded more like audio tracks from films than independent songs of themselves. The eclectic sonic palette from which artists like Schaeffer worked meant that compositions lacked the type of coherence that we are use to today. Practitioners of musique concrète made use of many early oscillators, filters, mixing desks and others processing systems used commonly today. While the genre was extremely innovative in its ideas, it never hit the mainstream, perhaps unsurprisingly. Nevertheless, its influence can certainly be heard in contemporary sample-based music.
In the 1960s, the Mellotron, a tape-relay keyboard, considered to be the predecessor of modern samplers and synthesisers, was invented. The Mellotron took over from the previously-used Chamberlin, as it was cheaper and easier to mass produce. In contrast to modern samplers, the Mellotron was used rather like a traditional instrument: its sample tapes were used to embellish existing melodies and rhythms, rather than act as a musical structure around which to build a piece. It was most notably used by the Beatles on ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, by Led Zeppelin on ‘Kashmir’ and by David Bowie on ‘Space Oddity’. The Mellotron was featured quite heavily in progressive rock, before it was phased out by more modern polyphonic synthesizers and samplers.
The Mellotron took over from the previously-used Chamberlin, as it was cheaper and easier to mass produce.
Jump forward to the late 1970s and early 1980s, and we can observe the rise of the sample in hip-hop. DJs in the early hip-hop scene in the South Bronx used live mixing and skilful vinyl manipulation to acquire their samples, rather than using actual samplers. Most of these early samples were taken from funk songs, and from artists like James Brown, Leon Haywood, and Barry White. The most important type of sample to these early DJs was the breakbeat, which was essentially a rhythm break in the song. This type of rhythm was good for MCs to rap over and for people to dance to.
Some of the most notable DJs of this time were DJ Kool Herc, who is often considered the ‘father of hip-hop’, and Grandmaster Flash. The latter’s 1981 track, ‘The Adventures of Grand Master Flash on the Wheels of Steel” was created using three turntables, allowing a large variety of sounds and samples to be put together to form a sonically coherent composition. This track in particular includes samples from Queen, Blondie, and even Flash Gordon, among many more.
Sampling became much more accessible in the 1980s when brands like Akai and Roland started producing affordable digital samplers. The Akai S900, released in 1986, has left a legacy as one of most influential pieces of technology ever, in terms of shaping how music is made. This sampler allowed artists to store and edit over 30 sound files at once, and made looping these sounds extremely easy.
Throughout the 1990s, sampling continued to remain at the forefront in hip-hop, with notable producers including Pete Rock, DJ Premier and RZA. There was no longer anything subversive about its use, and even outside of hip-hop it had become part of normal practice. This is largely the situation which we have today.
Sampling has its roots in some of the most influential and sometimes obscure genres in modern history, but has risen to become one of the most used methods of creating music today. So, the next time you hear Jay-Z sample Frank Sinatra, Kanye West sample Aphex Twin or Rihanna sample Michael Jackson, perhaps have a think about the history of this unusual tool and how different music would be without it.