We know the origin story of hip hop as the product of an enterprising subculture of young, mostly African-American, West Indian, and Latino tastemakers in the Bronx (or first in Brooklyn, according to an alternate history). We’ve seen at least one of the dozens of documentaries and dramatizations centered on this pivotal moment in musical history in the late 70s/early 80s—when pioneers like DJ Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash began using two turntables and a mixer to splice together bars of disco, soul, funk, and many other kinds of music to turn them into an entirely new form.
In time, sampling became the provenance of dedicated digital machines, which, in concert with drum machines and classic turntable techniques, formed the basis of the sound of hip hop, dance, and pop music as we know them today. From local NYC roots came a global phenomenon—which has taken “center stage on Netflix’s original music programming,” as Forbes notes, with the streaming company investing millions in new hip hop-themed content. Still, even with the music’s mainstreaming and global reach, it’s a bit odd to see the pivotal role of sampling explained by English DJ and pop producer Mark Ronson, on a TED Talk Stage, through a remix of a few dozen other TED talks.
But Ronson turns this clever presentation into an immersive example of the ways that sampling allows creators to become part of a “shared event” and to make new narratives or alter the old ones. “That’s what the past 30 years of music has been,” he says, “that’s the major thread.” Sampling, he argues, is not about “hijacking nostalgia wholesale,” but about creating new tapestries of sound. “Albums like De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising and the Beastie Boy’s Paul’s Boutique,” he notes, “looted from decades of recordings to create these sonic, layered masterpieces that were basically the Sgt. Pepper’s of their day.”
I think Ronson’s right—no these weren’t pioneering, experimental rock albums, as purists might point out, but the comparison is valid for the sheer variety, inventiveness, and sonic complexity of the arrangements. (And like The Beatles, these artists were involved in their share of lawsuits, though in their case for copyright infringement.) Artists making albums built primarily out of samples aren’t “too lazy to make their own music,” Ronson says, or “trying to cash in on the familiarity of the original stuff.” Most artists and producers, indeed, look for the most obscure samples they can find, with some pretty obvious exceptions.
Rather, Ronson argues, like the influence of the Delta blues on British invasion rockers, sampling is a way for artists to pay tribute to music that moves them and to take its distinctiveness and make it their own, “to co-opt that music for the tools of their day.” To put it in other terms, sampling is both a form of love and theft. Ronson follows his argument with some personal history of his own musical journey, then gets back behind his DJ rig for a demonstration of Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick’s “La Di Da Di,” the fifth most sampled song of all time, as re-appropriated by The Notorious B.I.G. and “cultural tour-de-force" (he says with tongue in cheek), Miley Cyrus.
Like it or not, sampling is here to stay, now the source of virtually every building block of many popular genres, from snare drums and cymbals to guitars and effects. But maybe this isn't just a new phenomenon of the digital age or a specific artifact of the hip hop revolution, but just another example of Kirby Ferguson’s cultural theory of everything in his four part video essay series, Everything is a Remix.