Thursday 20 July 2017

Art of the sample

Some claim its prevalence is the sign of a creative stasis in modern music, but the technique has given rise to some classic tracks and has been used by everyone from The Beatles to Kanye

The xx
The xx
John Meagher

John Meagher

We may only be in the third month of the year, but I'd be very surprised if the xx's I See You isn't towards the top of those best albums of 2017 lists come year end. Released at the beginning of January, it's an album I return to time and again, and offers further proof that Romy Madley Croft, Oliver Sim and Jamie Smith's band is among the finer British exports of recent years.

The songwriting, singing, arrangements and production are all top-drawer, but the album also benefits from some cleverly employed samples, not least on the two standouts, 'Say Something Loving' and 'On Hold'.

The former song uses a line - "before it slips away" - from the Alessi Brothers' comparatively obscure 1976 single 'Do You Feel It?', while the latter samples Hall & Oates' 1981 global chart-topper 'I Can't Go For That (No Can Do)'.

Both are integral components of each song and don't feel cobbled on. They're perfect examples of how a smartly used snippet from another track can work beautifully in such capable hands - and credit really must go to Smith for fashioning the songs with such élan. (His 2015 solo debut, In Colour, uses samples liberally - and brilliantly - so he's particularly adroit at the art.)

It's remarkable just how frequently samples are employed today. It's practically unheard of, for instance, to encounter a hip-hop album that doesn't feature a huge array of them. The Roots' debut on the Geffen label, 1991's Do You Want More!!!??!, famously used no samples, although its tracks have been widely sampled by others.

Kanye West's The Life of Pablo embraced a breathtaking array of samples last year - from such eclectic sources as Nina Simone, Goldfrapp and Section 25, the early 1980s English post-punk band who must have been quite astonished to have found their way on to an album from one of today's sonic heavyweights.

Last year's Sunflower album from the Avalanches was almost entirely created from samples - and their superlative Since I Left You album from 2000 was estimated to have used no fewer than 6,000 samples. Unsurprisingly, it's an album that has spawned wads of litigation from musicians keen for their share of the royalties.

While some would suggest that the increasing preponderance of sampling is indicative of both an obsession with the past and a creative stasis, it can also be argued that advances in technology have allowed clean and inventive sampling to elevate the bones of a song into something very special indeed.

Would Beyoncé's 'Crazy in Love' - one of the century's great pop songs - be quite as wonderful if co-writer Rich Harrison had not sampled the 1970 hit 'Are You My Woman? (Tell Me So)' from Chicago group the Chi-Lites? Surely not.

And would Mr Beyoncé, Jay Z - who, of course featured on 'Crazy In Love' - have scored a crossover hit as massive as 'Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)' had he not liberally sampled 'It's the Hard Knock Life' from that most unlikely of sources, 1977 hit musical Annie?

The 1970s has proved to be a remarkably fertile ground for some of the most emblematic songs released over the past decade or so.

Among the many samples on Kanye West's breakthrough single, 'Jesus Walks', is Curtis Mayfield's 1970 song '(Don't Worry) If There's a Hell Below, We're All Going To Go'. Daft Punk's 'One More Time' samples the 1979 Eddie Johns hit 'More Spell On You' and MGMT's 'Time to Pretend' borrows from Abba's evergreen 1976 hit 'Dancing Queen', although producer Dave Fridmann utilises enough studio trickery to make detecting it difficult.

Sampling first came to prominence in the 1960s, thanks to huge advancements in studio technology. The Beatles - and producer George Martin - were masters of the art, particularly from Sgt Pepper on. 'All You Need is Love' from the Magical Mystery Tour album is a case in point as it borrows from Johann Sebastian Bach's 'Two-Part Invention No 8', the 16th-century folk standard 'Greensleeves' and Glenn Miller's 'In the Mood for Love' from 1939.

The Beatles were so fond of sampling that they sampled their own previous work on several songs, including 'Yellow Submarine' and 'I Am the Walrus'.

Led Zeppelin demonstrated just how incendiary a brilliantly chosen sample could be when they lifted the riff from Muddy Waters' 'You Need Love' for their landmark 'Whole Lotta Love', while David Bowie took some lines from Beatles track 'A Day in the Life' for 'Young Americans'.

Hip-hop has used sampling from its earliest days and two of the genre's most important tracks, 'Rapper's Delight' and 'Planet Rock', were heavily indebted to other songs. The former, from the Sugar Hill Gang, used Chic's 'Good Times' while the latter, from Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force, was largely built on Kraftwerk's 'Trans-Europe Express'.

'Good Times' is among the most sampled songs ever - good times indeed for Nile Rodgers' bank balance - while Bambaataa says the Kraftwerk influence has been overstated by musicologists. Who's he kidding?

As long as there have been samples, there have been spats over royalties and the battles can get entrenched when one artist claims their work is inspired by, or a homage to, another, rather than a direct copy.

Such suggestions didn't stop MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice having to pay hefty royalties to Rick James and David Bowie/Freddie Mercury for, respectively, 'U Can't Touch This' and 'Ice Ice Baby'. And the figures really can be enormous. Lynn Tolliver won a $1.2m lawsuit over unauthorised sampling of his song 'I Need a Freak', most notably used by the Black Eyed Peas in 'My Humps'.

The xx, meanwhile, have not been shy to admit the use of samples and the reaction from the Alessi Brothers and Hall & Oates could hardly be more different.

"I was very flattered," Billy Alessi told one interviewer. "I was so intrigued with the drumbeat they have and the way they used that sample and the chord changes they add and the way the beat comes in. His voice [Oliver Sim], I loved-and the girl [Romy Madley Croft] is great, too.

"I grew up loving Elton John, and to me, he's got maybe even a more powerful voice than Elton John. It's just so sincere."

Daryl Hall quipped about it always being interesting "to hear what somebody does with my songs - after a song is written it belongs to the world".

But there's a caveat: "As long as I get paid, of course. Have fun and pay me."

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