Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Sampling: laziness from artists or something else?

Time for me to step outside my comfort zone! Yesterday (at the time I started writing this), I happened to hear Pitbull's recent single (you know, the one with the sample from "Take On Me" by A-Ha). This caused me and my sister to get into a debate about sampling in music and, to make a long story short, we pretty much agreed to disagree. To me, at least, sampling is a tool like Auto Tune: it has uses that are undeniable, but is frequently misused by lazy artists. In the Auto Tune example, I do not mind it when it is used for effect, as it can make your singing voice sound hollow and mechanical, which I think is a great use for it, but many use it to disguise poor singing, which I do not agree with. Let me give you a ridiculous example to illustrate my point: let's say Johnny Rotten wrote "Bohemian Rhapsody". Would you let him sing it and Auto Tune him to make him sound like he can sing it or would you give it to someone who can sing it? I'm sure just about everyone would give it to someone else, which is my point. Back before the Beatles, songs were written and given to people who could sing them, which may seem odd in todays post-Beatles market, but trust me, it's like that a lot in folk music even now. While I will not say I want a return to the old days (after all, I'm a metalhead at heart, so that would mean giving up metal), I will say that pop has become dominated by singers who rely on Auto Tune, which, to me at least, is not right. At the risk of losing all of my credibility as a metalhead, this is why I respect Lady Gaga (key word being "respect": I would not say I am a fan of her music beyond a few of her songs): she doesn't rely on Auto Tune to cover up her singing, she uses it as a tool to enhance her music. So, now you know my stance on Auto Tune, when would I be ok with sampling?

Well, to start with, a sample, as a snippet of another song, will naturally earn comparisons to the song sampled, so I think a good sample is of a song that is old enough for it to be forgotten by a good number of people. That might seem like a strange comment to make, but hear me out: if you pick an obscure song, you're bringing exposure to an underrated (or justly forgotten, depending on your viewpoint) artist, which helps them out. If you pick an obscure song, you mutually help each other out, since it's unlikely people will know the original song, so they will go look it up and hopefully become fond of the original song while still appreciating the elements you added to the song (I'll go into more detail about that later). If, however, you pick a well known song (like Pitbull did), you're dooming yourself before you start, since it's rare that your sample will be seen with anything other than contempt by fans of the original and you'll be accused of laziness by a lot of people. Let me give you an example of a Pitbull song that I do not like, but appreciate the sample from: his song "Back In Time" features the guitar riff (and possibly the chorus: not sure whether Pitbull and someone else recorded it or it was a direct sample) from a song from 1956 called "Love Is Strange" by Mickey & Sylvia. As I'd never heard of the original song, I had no problems with the guitar riff being sampled, as it was a seriously cool riff that helped enhance the song (although the chorus really did not fit the song: again, I'll go into this in more detail later). With "Feel This Moment", I'm pretty sure everyone and their mother knows that song, so, to me at least, he was jumping on the success of the song and, in the process, produced a sample that did nothing to make his song better and pissed off fans of the A-Ha song like myself. So yeah, if you're going to sample a song, make sure it's not a well known (or, probably better, well respected) song, as you're going to receive a lot of flak no matter how good your song is. Obscure songs are ok, because you help give exposure to the other artist while minimising damage to yourself.

The next thing about a sample is that it has to fit the song. If you pardon me focusing on Pitbull again, the chorus of "Back In Time" was pretty much made up of the line "Oh baby, you're the one". Since this is meant to be a song about the Men In Black, the sample simply doesn't fit the song (unless you're really determined to make it fit, but I'm not a shipper here). If it had been just the guitar riff and had another sample for the chorus (maybe even the theme to the first Men In Black film), then I wouldn't have had a problem. As an example of a sample that does work, Flo Rida's song "I Cry" features a sample of "Piano In The Dark" by Brenda Russell. The chorus might be shifted into a much higher pitch compared to the original song and the whole song might be pretty much standard Flo Rida stuff (I honestly don't bother listening to Flo Rida that much: again, I'm a metalhead at heart), but it actually does fit the song (well, maybe not the "Gave up on the riddle" line, but, as it's a song about Flo Rida's life so far, I'm letting him off on that one). If you want a ridiculous example to highlight the point, you wouldn't sample "Back In Black" by AC/DC for a soft, mournful ballad song, you'd sample something like "Changes" by Black Sabbath (if you're daft enough to ignore my previous point, of course) or the obscure-even-to-Black Sabbath-fans song "She's Gone".

The last thing a good song with a sample needs is that the sample either needs to be the building block upon which the song is built or be used to make a point that the building block approach wouldn't succeed with. I can't think of any real bad examples of this off the top of my head, but I can think of a good way to do it: if you're writing a song about a broken romance, you can either sample a song about that or you can sample a love song and use the love song to make a point that things used to be different. Both would work well, but the latter, if done well, shows a hint of regret that the former wouldn't be able to manage so effectively. If you want to add something to the original song through your sample, you'll need to make sure you use the sample to build up your song, not get so caught up in everything else that the sample feels pointless. To return to my old point, if you're sampling "Changes" by Black Sabbath, you'll need to make sure you're talking about how your life has changed over time and how it's always going to happen if you're using it as a building block to make a point. If you're using it with the other approach, you could use it to say "I'm not changing who I am any more" and the sample is pretty much saying "Nope, you're still changing". If you will, you can use the sample as part of your own voice or as another voice against you. What you can't do is use the sample without thinking about it.

All told, I think sampling is like Auto Tune: it is a tool which can enhance the music if used well. However, many people don't use it well (or, at least, not as well as they could). At least in my viewpoint, the ways I've pointed out are the ways sampling should be used. It's not something you just do to give your song a chorus: it's a key part of the song and, if you don't think about it carefully, you're setting yourself up for a serious fall.

I encourage you guys to let me know whether they think I've made fair points on this topic or whether I'm so far off the mark that I'm actually invisible.

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