The Appropriation of Alan Watts in Contemporary Electronic Music

When it comes to sampling within electronic dance music, there are some staple, go-to sources when one needs to obtain a vocal hook. The great thinker that is Detroit’s Moodymann always makes a fine addition to any type of dance record. Then there’s Charlie Chaplin, although the main problem here is that he only really spoke in one movie, which kind of makes that speech from The Great Dictator a bit overused. More recently, another profound voice has started to become more prevalent in modern records, and that is the one belonging to Alan Watts. DJB explains further.

Born in 1915, Alan Watts was a British born philosopher who helped articulate Eastern ideologies through a series of books and lectures. Although he passed away in 1975, a lot of his talks and seminars have been etched into permanent YouTube history, due to the fact that after moving to the States, Watts was awarded his own TV show Eastern Wisdom and Modern Life, along with a long running radio show (some of which are still being broadcast today in San Francisco.)

Watts’ reassuring, articulate British voice talked about day-to-day issues, that appealed to a generation embracing new working practices and dealing more and more with daily anxieties. His ideologies were based on common sense and simple principles, breaking down the notions of choice, self-worth and want.

With such an up-lifting, clear and progressive narrative, it’s no surprise that Watt’s rhetoric has been appropriated to such a degree within dance music. A simple Google search of ‘Download Alan Watts’ points you to countless online sources of audio. Besides the examples given in this article, there have been countless psy-trance and progressive records built around Watts’ work. His messages of hope and inner-fulfilment are ideally suited to the paradigm presented by the psychedelic world of trance. But for now, we’re going to ignore these.

It Starts Now
It became apparent that Watts’ samples were beginning to hit the mainstream after listening to the forthcoming album by Blond:Ish on Kompakt Records. The spiritual, chilled-out LP, Welcome to the Future concludes with the track, ‘It Starts Now’, featuring a sample taken from Watts’ lecture, Not What Should Be, Not What Might Be. Here Watts talks of conscious responsibility, the power of meditation and the danger of egotism.

So cheer up! You can’t blame anyone else for the kind of world you’re in… And if you know, you see, that the I — in the sense of the person, the front, the ego — it really doesn’t exist, then it won’t go to your head too badly if you wake up and discover that you’re god.’


The sampled work befits the tonality of the LP, adding a holistic narrative, to the blissful, percussive nature of the music that precedes it. Yet, not all modern compositions that feature samples of Watts’ work are of such a mellowed timbre. Om Unit’s 2014 track ‘The War’, taken from the album Inversion released on Metalheadz was built around Goldie’s unused sample archive. The rattling, old-school, bass-heavy rhythm concludes with a two-minute sample from Watt’s lecture, What is wrong with our culture ­– a discourse on the perils of materialism.

‘You might think that people getting home to the real point of life in a robust material culture would go home to a colossal banquet or an orgy of love-making or a riot of music and dancing; But nothing of the kind.’


British bass producer Warsnare released the track ‘Megatribe (Solitude)’ on Starkey’s Seclusiasis imprint last year. The track is structured around a talk by Watts, discussing the potential implosion of humanity; A subject that resonates throughout the LP, entitled Endgame.

‘A very strong case can be made that the entire intellectual venture of civilization has been a ghastly mistake and that we are now on a collision course, and that all the vaunted benefits of intelligence—technology, and all that—is simply going to draw the human race to an extremely swift conclusion.’

On the 2013 track ‘Dreams’, ethereal UK producer N u a g e s samples one of Watts’ more famous works – a metaphorical discussion on multiverse theory taken from his lecture, Out of your mind.

Meanwhile back in 2012, Australian duo Flight Facilities paid a more subtle reference to Alan Watts in their exquisite, pop-single, ‘Clare de Lune.’ Played out under the background of a progressive string sequence and light drum rhythm, the band samples a section from The Nature of Consciousness.

‘But the truth is funnier than that. It is that you are looking right at the brilliant light now that the experience you are having that you call ordinary everyday consciousness–pretending you’re not it–that experience is exactly the same thing as ‘it.’ There’s no difference at all. And when you find that out, you laugh yourself silly. That’s the great discovery.’

Do You Do It, or Does It Do You?
The big questions to rise out of all this are, what is spurring this modern trend and does this type of sampling fall into the realm of misappropriation?

Watts’s work is becoming more relevant with youth cultures, with leading surveys pointing towards a trend in growing levels of spirituality, and the need for people to seek re-balance in their behavioural patterns. During the last US general election, 37% of those who registered themselves as having no religious preference, actually identify themselves as being “spiritual but not religious.”

In addition, the adoption of Watts’ work spreads out far beyond the realm of electronic dance music. Bands such as STRFKR, Cullah and The Books have all paid reference to the Brit as well. Numero Group also recently re-released an extremely experimental recording, taken from a Watts-led conscious, communal chant back in February, entitled This Is It!

To ask however whether these are works of merit that reflect the nature of the Watts’ elaborate conjecture is irrelevant. Although some of the works themselves have been used purposefully to simply add dramatic clout to the records in question -for instance when a sample is added to the end of a track- it cannot really be argued that they have been used for capital gain. It’s far from likely that, as say with a catchy Moodymann sample, that DJs in Paranorama Bar will be dropping philosophical cuts by Alan Watts during the massive breakdowns, when everyone is busy topping up their drinks.

Watts himself was someone that encouraged people to live in the present, and embody the very moment of being. In other works he compared life to being like a ‘musical thing’ and that, unlike comparing it to a journey, ‘you were supposed to sing or to dance while the music was being played.’ To conclude, well, it’s probably best not to think about it too much.

Life is like music for its own sake. We are living in an eternal now, and when we listen to music we are not listening to the past, we are not listening to the future, we are listening to an expanded present.’