Music and Technology: The Legitimacy of Sampling

For centuries, artists have been stealing from other artists in order to create “new,” “original” works. The sampler began to enter American music in serious way in the 1960s and 1970s (at the time it was big and giant and scary: now it is sleek and cool). The machine allowed artists to record pieces of music from other musicians’’ works and then play them back and manipulate them as an sort of instrumental part of their own works.

Initially, artists who used sampling cruised under the radar because they weren’t making copious amounts of money off of the works, but soon, some of these musicians starting seeing some serious financial returns. That’s when industry people started getting angry and the lawsuits began to role in (think Danger Mouse).

I’ve complied a list of documentaries, articles, and websites that address this tangle of technology, music, artistic license, and law. Scroll through the links and try to make up your own decision. Is sampling a 21st century version of the “stealing” that musicians have been doing for centuries, or is it more complicated, less creatively legitimate, and more ethically dangerous.

  • Good Copy Bad Copy: Here is a link to a full documentary that explores issues surrounding copyright and sampling. It’s a natural sound piece (there is no narration), and so the interviewed musicians tell the story. Girl Talk (Greg Gillis) plays a large roll in the piece. I was particularly interested in his arguments regarding the legality of his own music. Danger Mouse, creator of The Gray Album, is also interviewed about his EMI lawsuit.
  • Zero G Limited: Zero G Limited is a UK company that offers hundreds of “original” sample CDs filled with breakbeats that artists can incorporate into their own music. You can experiment with the box in the upper left hand corner of the website to find specific types of breakbeats. I found it fascinating that Zero G is able to stay in business by mass-producing only a few measures of music at a time. The situation begs for a dialogue regarding whether this is art or an electronic assembly line of manufactured music.
  • The History of the Amen Break: This mini documentary created in 2004 by artist and writer Nate Harrison, gave me the basis for my technology & music presentation. The video breaks down the importance of this 6 second break on American popular culture, beginning with the release of The Winstons‘ Single Amen Brother, all the way up to NWA’s hit Straight Out of Compton. Harrison is a bit pessimistic in his view of how sampling will ultimately fit into American culture (I’m see the chance for a more positive outcome), but the video is detailed and clever. It’s a great history lesson on the evolution of breakbeat.
  • Amen Break Database: I highlighted this website it my class presentation. It alphabetically lists many 20th and 21st century songs that incorporate the Amen Break. It’s illuminating to scroll through the site and to see just how prevalent this one sample has become in American popular music.

  • From Mozart to Hip-Hop: The Impact of Bridgeport v Dimension Films: Lauren Fontein Brandes’ wrote this thesis on digital sampling as a thesis while she was a law student at UCLA. The text is available on LexisNexis. The piece centers on the 2005 lawsuit of Bridgeport v Dimension Films—a case that ominously ruled that no samples (no matter how short) could be used in new productions. Also, the introduction is particularly interesting because she addresses the fact that musicians have been “borrowing” (or stealing) from one another for centuries and discusses whether or not modern day sampling is really all that different.

  • A New History of Jazz: In preparing for my presentation, I also checked out this book by Alyn Shipton. Shipton traces jazz music back to its roots in West Africa. It was really cool to see how one genre of music can grow into another. Again, like Brandes’ piece, it encourages thought regarding how different this “natural” process of musical influence is from the electronic process of digital sampling. 


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