How Sampling Transformed Music and Created New Tapestries of Sound: An Interactive Demonstration by Producer/DJ Mark Ronson

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 seriesEvery­thing is a Remix.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Every­thing is a Remix: The Full Series, Explor­ing the Sources of Cre­ativ­i­ty, Released in One Pol­ished HD Video on Its 5th Anniver­sary

Found­ing Fathers, A Doc­u­men­tary Nar­rat­ed By Pub­lic Enemy’s Chuck D, Presents the True His­to­ry of Hip Hop

150 Songs from 100+ Rap­pers Get Art­ful­ly Woven into One Great Mashup: Watch the “40 Years of Hip Hop”

The His­to­ry of Hip Hop Music Visu­al­ized on a Turntable Cir­cuit Dia­gram: Fea­tures 700 Artists, from DJ Kool Herc to Kanye West

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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