"I Want to Evolve": Frank Dukes on the Past, Present & Future of Sampling

Meet the producer Kanye just credited with helping make the "Real Friends" beat.
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He's won a GRAMMY working with Eminem and been nominated for another two GRAMMYs for his work with Drake ("0-100") and ScHoolboy Q ("Grooveline Pt. 2").

He's produced for 50 Cent, Ghostface Killah, Danny Brown, Ludacris and many more, and recently his work has appeared in songs by Drake and Future ("Diamonds Dancing"), Jeremih ("Planes"), Mac Miller ("Perfect Circle / God Speed"), Pusha T ("M.F.T.R."), Freddie Gibbs ("Fuckin Up the Count") and a host of others.

Oh, and there's also this. This was kind of a big deal. 

By any measure, it's an extraordinary resume, but if I hadn't already given it away, there's a good chance that you wouldn't know the name of the man responsible for that mountain of dopeness. That man's name is Frank Dukes, and in many ways, the story of this Canadian producer and his movement through the music ranks is also the story of modern sample-based production, a topic I've been increasingly obsessed with since reading Amir Said's excellent book, The Art of Sampling.

Not only did Dukes make sampling a core part of beats, especially earlier in his career, he's now opened the Kingway Music Library, an extensive collection of music he's recorded that any producer can go into and pull from. 

Shortly before "Real Friends" dropped and Kanye put his name up in the big lights, I talked to Dukes about breaking into the music industry and his transition from sampler to a source of samples himself.  

I was just a fan of rap who wanted to try to sound like my heroes.

"It all came from me being a fan," said Dukes when we spoke. "The feeling of buying a record and realizing, oh shit, that's what 'Bonita Applebaum' sampled? Hearing a song and figuring out what Q-Tip did here, what DJ Premier did there. For me, it started with just finding samples of the songs I loved."

Slowly but surely Dukes went from spending hours trying to decode how his favorite producers flipped samples to feeling compelled to try himself. So he bought an MPC and moved from spectator to participant, diligently working on flipping samples purely for the love of making music. 

"Early on, I wasn't thinking about clearing samples," he said. "I was only thinking, 'How can I make that sound like RZA?' As a 17 or 18-year-old, I was just a fan of rap who wanted to try to sound like my heroes. I'll never grow tired of hearing people flip records." 

As a producer, you're rolling the dice when you sample something.

If Dukes had kept his beatmaking confined to his bedroom he could have stopped there, kept his music making focused purely on art and not the business of art. But his talent didn't go unrecognized for long and catching the ear of 50 Cent meant he'd not only become officially inducted into the ranks of professional musicians, he was forced to reckon with the mechanisms of the music industry.  

"When I started doing stuff with G-Unit and Ghostface, that's the first time I had to think about clearing samples," he recounted. "And getting those splits back and realizing, oh damn, I got 5 percent on it. The owner of the master got paid more than I did for my producer fee. That was a big turning point."

It was a harsh reality lesson for Dukes, but an instrumental one. Sampling meant being forced to navigate the complicated, arcane and often very pricey world of sample clearance. Assuming you could even track down who owned the publishing on a sample, you still had to get them to agree, and in the process would very often watch your share of the song be cut into slivers. 

"Sampling something like an old Al Green record, you don't know where that leaves you," said Dukes. "It could be a faceless corporation that owns that and wants $4 million and all the publishing. As a producer, you're rolling the dice when you sample something like that. Most companies have it backward. If they want to make money, why not open the whole catalog up? Most of those songs are just sitting there, not making them anything. But it's hard for most companies to have that foresight, they don't live in that world." 

Now I'm interested in making something no one's ever heard before.

Like many other producers Dukes may have simply resigned himself to his fate under the sample clearance system or stopped sampling all together, but instead, all of his recent successes have come from a revelation he had when connected with a modern band making music that had the soulful feel of classic records. 

"The real turning point for me, was when I sampled the Menahan Street Band, it was for a 50 Cent song," he remembered. "They never cleared the sample, but I was a fan so I reached out. I ended up becoming friends with those guys and adopting their approach to recording music. It was so ill. They were recording the way my favorite bands from the '60s and '70s were. It opened my eyes to a whole different way of recording music."

Dukes had dabbled in playing guitar and keys for years, but not seriously. Now, with the Menahan Street Band showing him the way, he began to record more and more of his own original music and then sampling that music for his beats. Now he could take a more proactive role in getting exactly the sounds he was looking for, and without any of the headache of clearing samples.

"At first I was interested in making something that sounded like what I would sample," Dukes said. "Now I'm interested in making something no one's ever heard before. I'm ok with it having some of that nostalgic element, but I want it to be new, fresh and interesting. I want it to be evolved."

It's hard to argue with Dukes' evolved approach considering the results he's achieved, but there's another facet to Dukes' sample history. Once he started recording his own original music, he quickly amassed a massive collection of original music he had recorded, some ideas, some fully formed songs that failed to find a home for whatever reason—why not put all that music back into the sample ecosystem? And the Kingsway Music Library was born. 

"Instead of all this music just sitting on my hard drive, I wanted to put it out into the world," Dukes explained. "Producers can approach it like any music they would sample, they can interpret it how they would interpret it. I've been on both sides. I was sampling when I was coming up and making beats, and now I'm the one being sampled. So I want to approach it from both sides, give people a chance to get a fair split if they're taking something I wrote, let everyone get a fair piece." 

A system like that seems like common sense, but in a music industry still largely trapped in outdated and narrow-minded ways of viewing sampling, it's nothing short of revolutionary. Dukes has always been able to look at what is and see what could be, take the present and flip it into the future, and he's just getting started. 

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