Sam Frampton waxes poetic on vinyl, sampling, and their role in hip-hop.
My best friend from home recently resolved to “get into beatmaking.” Naturally, I fired a few technical questions at him. In essence, I asked him how he planned to accomplish such a mammoth task. He declared that first of all, he would never use samples in his beats. Avoiding samples is a matter of integrity, he said. Surely making music from scratch is “artistic” in a purer sense than rehashing existing material.
I admit that my friend’s hesitance to sample is understandable. For example, Ghostface Killah’s self-produced song “Holla” may be cited as problematic. In “Holla” Ghostface rhymes over the entirety of The Delfonics’ 1968 classic “La La Means I Love You.” One may begin to wonder whether Ghostface’s choice constitutes musicianship or outright stealing.
This tension is an essential aspect of hip-hop culture. Here, I take hip-hop culture to encompass a range of practices that have developed alongside the music including break dancing, graffiti, and even some styles of skateboarding. Ghostface’s virtuosic verses on “Holla” are analogous to Saber’s famously large graffiti piece on the banks of the Los Angeles River. In both cases, the artists chose to treat someone else’s property as if it were a blank canvas. (If minor issues of legality are your concern, then you should probably stay away from hip-hop.)
In more the more typical examples of sampling, wherein a producer manipulates one or more samples, the analogy only runs deeper. The untouched sample—bear with me here—is akin to a block of marble waiting to take on a new form.
If sampling is essential to hip-hop culture, it is equally essential to how we create and consume music. With hip-hop came a revolutionary paradigm for making popular music. Homemade, clumsily wired turntables, mixers and samplers replaced centuries-old instruments as the tools of music making. Think about it, how many pop icons from the 1960s and 70s played instruments? Now, how many do today?
These innovations arose from practicality: young people who couldn’t afford instruments turned to their home stereo systems to help them make music. They raided their parents’ record collections, seeking out the snippets they could dance to. Early hip-hop partygoers recognized a distinct new style of music despite the fact that they had heard the original records before. Today’s obsession with remixes and mash-ups mirrors this phenomenon.
Like many things that probably shouldn’t be lifestyles, sampling is a lifestyle. Hip-hop heads call this lifestyle Crate Diggin’, a term immortalized by The Lootpack’s song of the same name. The term evokes images of a solitary beatsmith digging through dusty vinyl treasure troves haphazardly stored in milk crates, looking for rare and exotic sounds to sample. As a veteran crate digger, I aim to use this column as a space to examine the art of sampling, and reveal the overlaps between the music of today and the music of the past.