Sampling has been essential to hip-hop from the outset. Afrika Bambaataa was one of the first to test the waters with his project Planet Rock, sampling German electronic band Kraftwerk’s songs “Trans Europe Express” and “Numbers,” for the 1982 title track “Planet Rock.”
From there, the art of sampling trickled down through the rap world. The Beastie Boys’ debut album Licensed to Ill is a gold mine of samples, from Run-D.M.C. to Led Zeppelin to the Steve Miller Band. Dr. Dre employed the production method while in the World Class Wreckin’ Cru — and later down the line, on The Chronic. And of course, there’s DJ Premier, who’s built a career on sampling. The practice is storied.
But there’s been a decline in hip-hop sampling over the years, and that’s mainly due to a rise in cost. ?uestlove aptly pointed this out earlier today (September 9) on Instagram. While driving home, he heard a song on the radio that sampled another song he knew.
“This is what's beautiful about hip hop. And this is what I wish publishers and record labels realized. By making sampling unobtainable and only an option for the rich (let's face it: Ye & Hov the only cats who can afford samples in hip hop) but what these greedy lawyers and corporate leeches don't comprehend is that sampling is an education AND it gives back.”
Using Shazam, he figured out what the song was and then bought the song — and the whole album. “I get enlightened with more great music and the label gets another investment in its product from me 40 years after its release. This is when music is beautiful,” he wrote. If you were wondering what the song was, it’s “Chain Reaction” by The Crusaders, from their 1975 album of the same name.
A decrease in sampling, just as much as anything else, is responsible for the sharp change of direction in sound and approach to hip-hop. It’s either very costly, damn near impossible to clear a sample — historically, some artists like Prince and Stevie Wonder say no — or a song could be too obscure.
In August, Danny Brown revealed that he spent 70k to clear samples for his new album, and in July, James Blake revealed he refused to clear a sample for Drake (though that was more because Drake offended Blake). Big Sean could never get the sample cleared for “Control” and Chance the Rapper and producer Cam O'Bi had the same problem with “Grown Ass Kid.” There are countless examples.
?uest is right: In order to clear samples in 2016, you need money and influence to get things done — like Kanye and Jay Z. But regardless of clout, artists are moving toward live instrumentation and using original production to avoid the issues that come with sampling.
Even though publishers and labels keep making it more difficult for musicians to clear samples, the practice will never die out. It just means we now hear a lot bold and fresh sounds in rap, and more emcees backed by bands — both in the studio and live — which definitely isn’t the worst outcome.
By Tara Mahadevan. Follow her on Twitter.