Slice & Dice
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I've often wondered about the art of sampling and how some samples seem to be okay to sample, whereas others are not. Sampling has been around for decades in Hip Hop and now it's spilled over into other genres of music, taking sampling to a whole new level. But how come it seems that you can get away with sampling some sounds and not others?
The Art Of Sampling
Usually when you sample, it's going to be something with a melody. You might use it as is and just loop it while you throw drums on top along with some other sounds, or you can cut it up into small pieces and make something completely unrecognisable. Or is it?
Most of the time when I sample something, I rip the sample apart and try to piece it back together in a brand new way. I find this technique to be the most challenging, but also the most fun because it takes a lot of time to come up with a decent pattern. It's also because I was a big fan of The Bomb Squad back in the day when Hank Shocklee led the way and produced countless hits for Public Enemy. The way that they stacked layers of samples together, some as tiny as a fraction of a second, was genius.
And this is where the questions begin to arise.
Is It Really Sampling?
Take for example, a drum loop. We've all sampled drums and we've all chopped them up into pieces so we could get our Kick, Snare, and Hat separate so we could then create our own drum pattern. Technically, we sampled those drum sounds - so how come we can get away with it?
The Skull Snaps drum loop and James Brown's "Funky Drummer" are two of the most recognized drum pieces ever. And they've been sampled tons of times by Hip Hop producers all over the globe. Those loops were chopped up and reused but how come some producers had to clear the samples and others didn't?
It's Easily Recognizable
The reason why one producer has to clear a sample of Funky Drummer and another producer doesn't, is all whether or not the sample being used can be recognized. Silly, isn't it? I know lots of people will argue that the original artists worked their asses off to compose/create/produce that piece of music - but I'm not talking about that.
It seems that sampling drums is not on the radar for the record industry when they're looking to sue people, but anything else is open for a lawsuit. It's not necessarily about whether or not one producer masked and morphed a drum snare and another producer didn't - it's more or less a question of just - why?
Is It All Fair Game?
If you listen to a DJ breakbeat record, it's full of samples that DJ's can use to scratch. Technically, you're not allowed to sample any of those sounds and use them in your own productions because of, well, THE LAW. But if a DJ were to take a sound from that record and scratch it, which is then recorded on top of some beat that I did - is that allowed? What if the sound is unrecognisable?
Let's say you're a keyboardist and you play a 3-note synth part, which is then recorded. Then I come along and take your recording, chop it up, and make it my own - is that okay? Because you took a synth sound from your keyboard, so then aren't I doing the same thing you are? The only difference is that you created a composition, but then so did I, by using yours. Yes, that's the way copyrighting works, but the question is if I have to clear a 1 bar sample, then how come I can get away with not clearing a fraction of a second sample?
I've lifted samples from a record that were then chopped up into little bits. I then took a small part and then played my own melody with it, to where it was completely unrecognisable. Even though I got away with not having to clear my sample, couldn't I then turn around and sue someone for sampling my composition!?!? Even though that composition I made was based on a sample that I didn't pay for?
Sampling is a funny thing because some producers will take almost an entire song or loop and just use it like that, while others will chop their samples into oblivion. Yet, some samples get cleared, others don't, and some are used as compositions that are then filed as copyright!
The whole sampling game is extremely flawed and I think that it's all based on interpretation. I could walk around my neighbourhood with a portable recorder and just record someone's footsteps as they walk by, then use those footsteps as part of an intro on my next production. Does that mean I have to pay that person royalties because I sampled their footsteps?
Let the debate begin...
Further Reading Related to Sampling