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Hip Hop Sampling: The Blueprint of Ghetto Music

There is no slight to hip hop music’s original production technique of sampling, when I call it the natural evolution of The Junkyard Band–Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids’ legendary animated band. True to the performing nature, and creative essence of African-Americans, the Junkyard Band used what was at their disposal, no pun intended, to create music. The ghettos of Philadelphia are the backdrop. The only abundantly accessible resources are, well, garbage, and by turning this garbage into makeshift instruments, they made jams that I bobbed my head to every Saturday.

Kidding aside, this paper will take a more serious look at the parallel between The Junkyard Band, and hip-hop music’s production technique of Sampling. It will also discuss: 1) sampling’s origins and pioneers, while briefly touching on other genres; 2) the historical praises and criticisms of sampling; and 3) my answer and explanation to the simple question writer Padraic Grant poses, in his online article “Mainstream Sampling: Innovation & Scorn”, Sampled or Stolen? It is impossible to discuss the merits of any art form without first understanding the artistic conception and creative journey of the original artists.

Using the Junkyard analogy, hip hop’s early pioneers like Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash used only the break beats (the good parts) of a vast array of records from a multiplicity of genres, and “looped” them over and over, using the eventual standard of two turntables and a mixer technique. Thereby, redeeming an aesthetically unpleasant song (the junk), and retaining the looped “break beat” (makeshift instrument), to create instant party pleasers, from which most of hip hop–the ‘Break’dancer, DJ, and MC–is born.

Robert Farris Thompson’s critical essay, “Hip Hop 101” in the anthology Droppin’ Science, shares Afrika Bambaata’s explanation from The Beginning of The Break Beat: “Break music is that certain part of the record that you just be waiting for to come up and when that certain part comes, the percussion part with all those drums, congas, it makes you dance real wild . . . “(215) In The Hip Hop Years: A History of Rap, Alex Ogg with David Upshal, the co-authors give an example of the creative manner in which Grandmaster Flash helped birth the musical genre and culture out of the virtual leftovers of records.

My junkyard analogy all but mirrors their chosen language when discussing one of Flash’s remarkable record choices. “‘Trans-Europe Express’ was an example of what Nelson George terms hip hop’s selective vision. Like the most virulent scavengers, hip-hoppers took what they wanted, stealing the kernel of the music, but leaving the husk behind. ”(36) Discovering the core of what hip hop music is, allows us to venture into the creative journey to what is known today, as sampling.

Seeing all that has come out of this one “kernel”, it is not only difficult to deny that the essence of hip-hop is the artistic reinvention of pre-existing music, but also impossible to deny that this act of reinvention, totally creates another separate but equal and original piece of art. This is at times to the detriment of the original piece, and at times to the betterment, if it is at all even recognized. But just like any piece of art, this is wholly subjective, and must stand up to personal critique.

Solidifying sampling as the original blueprint for modern day rap music is Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight”, hip hop’s first commercial hit to top the charts. Sugar Hill Gang sampled just the bass line from Chic’s “Good Times”. This began hip hop’s discovery of the full potential and possibilities of a hip hop record. By searching for what I like to call, spare parts–pieces of instrumentation, vocals, sound effects, or whatever from any and all sound sources—early hip hop artists found a new way to create music, without instruments. Grant writes about his perspective with the pros and cons of hip hop sampling:

“With the best hip hop, music becomes a huge canvass on which anything can be used to produce a new work, a collage expressing the performer’s musical ideas – this seems to have become lost in the lazy borrowing many artists resort to today, and which is so criticized by many music fans as well as critics. ” The development and perfection of the break beat, and the history of the DJ, indicates a logical progression to sampling. After all, the early DJs were essentially performing the same tasks as the music producers who have sampled ever since “Rapper’s Delight”.

Given the fact that it is impossible to separate hip hop from the source of its conception–sampling–I would like to pose the question: Does hip hop’s lineage of borrowers still make it an art form? Of course. Hopefully, there are not many people who will deny the most versatile, lucrative, and internationally endorsed musical genre in the world its artistic merits because of sampling. As Grant points out, there is fair criticism of sampling, when the goal is not the artist’s reinvention to make anew, but the musical equivalent of copying and pasting.

The ability and ease with which sampling can allow individuals to overstep the boundaries of artistic integrity and originality is the chief concern. Grant writes about his experiential opinion of this downside to sampling, while sitting on a shopping centre bench. “ . . . listening to a song that seems to confirm the suspicions of those opposed to the use of sampling for its “thievery. ” One song that is able to give new perspective on sampling, dragging my rosy viewpoint regarding its use and freedom of expression to a more ignoble path.

That song is Madonna’s “Hung Up” which heavily samples ABBA’s “Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight). ” It blasted out and invaded my hearing, leaving me trapped with what is simply cultural plundering on a vast scale, a song hungry for publicity and trading not on creativity but blatant nostalgia and recognition of a past classic. ” Despite sampling’s heavy dependence on the artistic integrity of the individual, it has still birthed an entire culture, a movement, lifestyle, and music genre.

Some might argue that the Junkyard band analogy is flawed, because in hip hop music, when the band takes the junk for its makeshift instruments, it’s not junk yet. It’s still sitting in the person’s living room. This point is well taken, but I’ll have to use yet another example to more succinctly explain just how creative–as opposed to “thievery”–sampling really is. Everyone wears out a pair of shoes, and eventually needs to purchase new ones. No one wears shoes until the soles are gone, but the shoes still go in the garbage or to the Salvation Army.

Sampling is merely taking those discarded shoes, and making a raincoat out of them. The problem comes when “artists” try to pass those well-worn shoes off as, shoes. Hip-Hop’s ability to invent and re-invent through sampling often ends up proving the opposite of a lack of integrity or originality, by showing how a song’s collage-like sampling can be much more creative than any of its individual parts. William Eric Perkins’s Introduction to Droppin’ Science highlights a quote from Afro-British rappers, Definition of Sound, “Hip Hop is the one music form that can change, because it thrives on other music forms” (1)

The changeable and thriving state of hip hop makes it one of the most exciting, always fresh, and consistently growing music forms, and this is due in a large part to sampling. There is no shame in sampling, but there is no harm in having proponents to it. I have a slight aversion to R&B, for admittedly less legitimate reasons. The point of this paper was not to argue for sampling to be appreciated by everybody, because that would, somehow, make it less of a true art. As if describing a baby’s first step, I feel compelled to complete the action by describing the second.

After “Rapper’s Delight”, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five immediately proved that sampling wasn’t a crutch but a tool used by hip hop artists, by releasing the “game changing” classic, “The Message” with all instrumentation. Arnold Shaw conveys Grandmaster Flash’s view on the importance of “The Message” in Black Popular Music in America: “Until then, Rap had a limited audience—something that was either a novelty for kids or dance music just for the black audience. We had always felt that we could reach all people, regardless of age or color. That’s what The Message did for us”(293)

Sampling is a shining example of the creative strength and vitality of hip hop, not of any weakness, or limitation. WORKS CITED Perkins, William Eric, ed. Droppin’ Science: Critical Essays on Rap Music and Hip Hop Culture Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996. Thompson, Robert Farris. “Hip Hop 101. ” Shaw, Arnold. Black Popular Music in America. New York: Shirmer Books, 1986. Ogg, Alex, and David Upshal. The hip hop years: A History Of Rap. London: Channel 4 Books, 1999. Perfect Sound Forever: Mainstream Sampling, Innovation & Scorn. Ed. Padraic Grant. 2007. October 2007 <http://www. furious. com/Perfect/sampling. html>

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