From Plunderphonics to Frankensampling: A Brief History of How Sampling Turned to Theft is probably a little busier than he’d like to be these days.  Though he’s one of the most in-demand producers in pop music, he keeps having to explain or simply silence nagging accusations that he’s not, well, producing many of his biggest songs… in the traditional sense. 

This past spring, the Black Eyed Peas mastermind fell in love with EDM-trance duo Arty and Mat Zo’s 2011 track Rebound.  When he inquired about permission to sample it, the duo refused.  So went ahead and took practically the entire track anyway, had Chris Brown sing on top of it, and released it, crediting Arty in the liner notes, but not Mat Zo. 

The cloistered EDM blogosphere erupted with accusations of theft.  After all, it was so blatantly obvious.  Arty & Mat Zo’s label, Anjunabeats, responded in a statement issued on May 2 of this year that essentially said that was not playing nice.  Now Anjunabeats, which is run by the popular EDM trio Above & Beyond, presumably has the money to launch a lawsuit.  But they haven’t.  In fact, apart from the curious statement, Above & Beyond has deleted all tweets related to the matter, and Mat Zo has closed his twitter account.

"...millionaire pop producers
are taking tracks from
underground producers
wholesale and getting
away with it..." was also supposedly being sued by former N-dubz singer and X-Factor judge Tulisa for oh-so-slightly changing the lyrics she’d written to Don’t Give a F**k. The Black Eyed Pea took most of the lyrics along the way and gave them to Britney Spears for their massive 2012 hit Scream & Shout.  Tulisa had the right idea in wanting to sue for publishing rights, but in the end she held back too. 

The list goes on with similar instances happening to Adam Freeland and even Daft Punk. With the latter however, it was the only instance he had to pull a track due to the original artist’s denial of permission, and the version now only appears as the “Video Remix”, in which starts off by shouting, “Believe it or not, this is a remix” on top of Around the World

Two things are clear from all this. First, has developed a taste for electronic dance music that’s changed the direction of his own productions and, beyond that, the sound of pop music in general.  Second, his admiration for the genre is dangerous for electronic-music producers, unless you happen to have an equally expensive legal team on your side.

What started with has become a full-grown trend in popular music.  Robin Thicke has pilfered Marvin Gaye’s catalogue a few times now, most notably with Blurred Lines but more obviously with 2009’s Million Dollar Baby.  The Weeknd’s latest single, Belong to the World drew the attention of Portishead’s Geoff Barrow for coming too close to the latter’s Machine Gun.  The Weeknd’s team requested permission for the sample were denied, they then rebuilt the portion they wanted using a legal loophole.  The list of such trespasses could go on.  It’s a very long list.

The discussion around copyright, fair use, and licensing has been played out many times before, but at this point it’s worth asking: what’s happened to the art form of sampling to get us here? It used to be that sampling was the great equalizer: if you couldn’t afford to line up professional musicians in an expensive studio to get the sound you wanted, then you could bridge that privilege gap with the right record and some dexterous maneuvering of a turntable.  Or it was a form of intellectual audio piracy, the Plunderphonics outlined by John Oswald and practiced by Negativland and other tape loopers whose main intention was to sabotage the corporate ownership of creative artifacts.

But that dynamic began to change with the advent of digital sampling. Nearly three decades on, the tables have turned.  Now, millionaire pop producers are taking tracks from underground producers wholesale and getting away with it, give or take a the occasionally weak call for greater integrity.  It’s worth taking a look back at how sampling in popular music has mutated into frankensampling, an uncontrollable monstrosity.

Sampling through the 80s & 90s

In 1986, when the first affordable digital samplers, from the E-mu SP-12 on down, first emerged, the length of a possible sample ranged from 1.2 to 10 seconds.  During that golden heyday of sampling, dance music and hip-hop mushroomed with innovation.  Mixing acid house, breakbeat and hip-hop, dance troupe M|A|R|R|S scored the first global hit to feature heavy digital sampling, Pump Up the Volume, hit the top of the charts in four countries and was nominated for a Grammy.  Digital sampling profoundly affected remix culture too, and DJs such as Jonathan More and Matt Black of Coldcut were in high demand for their expert handling of marrying samples and the dancefloor. The rampant cross-pollination within dance music that digital samplers made possible led to the formation of numerous sub-genres.

This open window lasted until the early 90s, when digital samplers began to infiltrate the American pop-cultural mainstream in a major way.  Once established artists became aware that the likes of Biz Markie, Vanilla Ice, MC Hammer, Public Enemy, De La Soul, and the Beastie Boys were all raking in money off hits cobbled together with 1.2- to 10-second elements of their own recordings, the expense of the litigation involved skyrocketed. 

Unless you had a bag of money to spend on licensing, digital sampling in the 90s went back underground.  Spearheaded by Coldcut and UNKLE, and their respective Ninja Tune and Mo’ Wax rosters, the sample returned to its turntablist roots, where it flourished into a highly detailed collage aesthetic.  Figures such as DJ Krush, Peanut Butter Wolf, Cut Chemist, Kid Koala, DJ Food, and DJ Shadow set fire to the dance-music underground in that time, and the latters Entroducing still stands as a masterpiece of the era’s turntablist ambitions, in which entire albums could be constructed from obscure, crate-dug, sampled sources. Entirely forgotten stretches of lounge, exotica, library music, and other long-past genres were resurrected by this new form of canonization.

"...the portion sampled
could actually add value
and maximize profit..."

However, top-draw pop producers who were willing to shell out exorbitant licensing fees evolved the sample in an entirely different direction, turning it into a distorted form of hit-making by association. In the mid- to late-90s, major artists who’d crossed over from the world of hip-hop, such as Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, Jermaine Dupri, and Wyclef Jean, began shelling out licensing fees for the most noticeable elements of highly recognizable hits from major-label back catalogues.

Here the sample, which was once relegated to a short, looped, otherwise unremarkable break from a crate-dug gem, morphed in many instances into an entire chorus that gave its repurpose the instant recognition the original had garnered.  If, like Puff Daddy, you had the money and wanted to buy the chorus line from The Police’s Every Breath You Take, you could also afford to spend a little extra and have Sting sing it with you at the MTV Video Music Awards. As long as the sample generated more income than it cost to license, then it was a justifiable business decision. In this light, the portion sampled could actually add value and maximize profit.

Sampling Meets Software and the Internet

It was only a matter of time before the once-toxic notion of sampling the most recognizable element of a song filtered back down into the underground.  One could argue the tradition had originated there in the form of anti-corporate audio piracy espoused by John Oswald, Negativland and others, but near the turn of the century, young producers such as San Francisco’s Kid606 drew a ton of attention for bringing the P. Diddy aesthetic back to club music.  Ironically or not, these fusions of mainstream hip-hop excess and rave roots sampled Kylie Minogue, Missy Elliott, and the Bangles into hardcore breaks and junglist aesthetics.

The mash-up was born.  As music software grew more sophisticated and Napster had broken open the floodgates to sharing music, almost anyone could take their favourite music and mash it bluntly together to make a mixtape of high-energy choruses.  For every artful DJ or producer along the lines of 2 Many DJs or Akufen who indulged the deeper connotations of such neck-breaking recognition or delved into micro-sampling, there were ten others who went for the gimmick of simply mixing hits together to see what happened. 

"...culture is continually
looking to the past for
future inspiration..."

By the early- to mid-2000s, independent artist such as Girl Talk and Dangermouse began using the Internet to release albums composed entirely of instantly recognizable samples, claiming fair use for their collages.  Onlookers cringed waiting for lawsuits to pour in, but the recording industry had fundamentally changed with the Internet and controlling music was becoming an increasingly difficult prospect. In any case, copyright and publishing infringement lawsuits are a function of profitability, and many mash-up artists had escaped any damaging prosecution by giving away their music for free.  After all, if there is no profit being made from sampled music, and sampled artists had established a precedent of suing for profit, then there was technically nothing to sue for. 

As the 2000s wore on and audiences became more technologically inclined through more powerful personal computers and affordable music-creation software, the bottom fell out of the recording industry as listeners sought a more egalitarian relationship with their music.  Remix culture took hold as amateur producers tried their own hands at repurposing their favourite tracks, and sampling became a way out of the top-down relationship most music fans had with musicians.  Remixing and editing became a freedom worth demanding, an interactive way to engage with an artist.

Twenty-seven years after the first explosion of sampling, the notion of giving away your music for free has taken root, and the permissiveness of sampling has only grown as fans look for a different relationship with music. Fan-generated remix contests, disco edits, free albums, Soundcloud and Bandcamp downloads – recorded music has gone from being the foundational basis of an artist’s profitability to becoming the price of entry into a wide-ranging world of professionalism, a sharable business card.

For all intents and purposes, anyone can sample however much or little they want, as long as no one’s making any money.  The ethics of sampling have arrived at this point as a function of left turns dictated by the ups and downs of its profitability and of the evolving technology that has made it more affordable and available.  The copyright wall has been breached so many times before that it would almost seem hypocritical to take action. 

"...audiences tend to trust
the added context of
recognizable sample
more than they do
an original..."

Original or sampled, much of our music culture is now built upon the idea of re-purposing what already exists.  In a general atmosphere where we gauge success by the proliferation and regenerations of a cultural product, audiences tend to trust the added context of recognizable sample more than they do an original.  With the advent of Youtube, the culture of sampling has leapfrogged into video as well, where variations of an original work, and here the Harlem Shake is a telling example, vastly outnumber and overshadow any sense of originality.  Call it a derivative of Simon Reynold’s Retromania, where culture is continually looking to the past for future inspiration.  Like the never-ending run of blockbuster sequels that flood movie theatres every summer because of their built-in profitability, a new context is more reliably acceptable than an original idea.

In retrospect, the groundbreaking use of sampling all those years ago was just a Trojan horse, leading us into the current mainstream culture where everything is easily sampled and depth is construed as elitist.  That may sound nihilistic, but few people care.  Our ethics have changed along with the acceptance of this re-purposing, and we now hold art forms to different standards.

The creative energy that went into sampling during the 90s turntablism era, arguably the most complex and talent-oriented period in the technique’s trajectory, still applies to some, but those few are the exception to the rule.  For the rest, it’s pretty cool if Beyoncé samples Major Lazer’s Pon de Floor only two years after the original was widely heard. Beyoncé fans, like fans, jump onboard for the Beyoncé context, not the credibility of wholly original composition. 

Culturally, we’ve arrived at a point where modern producers don’t have to push the window of acceptability any further to sample whatever they want and making a profit – as long as their audience doesn’t hold that standard.  Which brings us back to and Arty & Mat Zo.  What happens when a top-tier pop producer from the world of major labels begins pilfering electronic music from emerging artists?  As a profit model, it’s definitely more lucrative than paying licensing fees.  And with the intimidation of a very expensive and drawn-out legal suit that independents can’t afford, chances are whatever settlement is reached will be cheaper than licensing. That’s what Robin Thicke attempted to pull off by offering the estate of Marvin Gaye six figures when they complained.  When the estate turned him down, he sued them pre-emptively.

But in the case of a jilted electronic producer with little capital, the reality is that nothing happens.  And apart from a cordoned-off fanbase crying foul, the millions who spend money on the frankensample don’t care.

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