For The Record: A History of Sampling

Graham Edmonson '24

Sampling: to include an element of a pre-existing recording from another musician in your own composition. 

Sampling is a huge part of music. For decades, artists have been slowing down, changing the pitch, or looping sections of earlier songs to create some awesome sounds. The first experiments that resemble modern sampling began in the late 1940s when Pierre Schaeffer, a French artist, began modifying pre-recorded sounds and arranging them into montages. By doing this, he created the obscure genre of musique concrète. This was the first time that cut up, backward, and echoed recordings were used as fundamental elements of songs. An example of musique concrète is James Tenney’s Collage #1 “Blue Suede,” a manipulation of Elvis Presley’s hit song “Blue Suede Shoes.” This collage of sounds is extremely unpleasant to listen to. The apparent lack of rhythm or pattern makes it hardly seem like music, but the techniques used would later become extremely popular. 

While Schaeffer’s techniques were the beginning of sampling, modern sampling really took shape in the early 1970s. Underground DJs, especially from New York, would spin funk and soul records, having artists freestyle over the music live. DJ Kool Herc, a DJ from the Bronx, was one of the first sampling revolutionaries. While DJ-ing these live shows, Herc realized that audiences responded well to the short percussion breaks in the records of artists like James Brown. Herc developed a technique which involved two of the same record queued on two different turntables. As soon as the drum section was over on one of the records, he would switch to the other record so he could repeat the part while resetting the first record. Using this technique, Herc could prolong these percussion breaks. He popularized the use of drum breaks, and was also one of the first DJs to popularize slang ad-libs in songs, a technique that is all over modern music. 

In the 80s, hip-hop skyrocketed in mainstream popularity, spawning hit songs that used sampling to great effect. In 1979, “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugar Hill Gang became the first definitively hip-hop single to reach the Billboard Top 40. The song samples “Good Times” by Chic, a funk tune from the same year. Other groups from the 80s like Public Enemy, N.W.A, and the Beastie Boys took sample-based music to new heights. The Beastie Boys’ second studio album Paul’s Boutique (1989) is often seen in retrospect as a work of sampling genius. The album was by no means unsuccessful, as it sold 500,000 copies within a year, but compared to the first album Licensed to Ill, many saw it as “too experimental” at the time of its release. The album contains close to 300 samples. 

While sampling was becoming dominant in American hip-hop, England did not want to miss out on the trend. In England, pop groups like Pop Will Eat Itself and The Art of Noise found widespread popularity with sample-based songs such as “Get The Girl! Kill The Baddies!” and “Doctorin’ the House” respectively. 

The 1980s are often referred to as the “golden age” of sampling. At this point sampling was in its infancy, so copyright laws had not really been applied to the practice yet, and the copyright legislation that was in place was extremely vague. Starting around the 1990s, copyright laws started getting enforced more strictly. Artists now have to pay substantial royalties to include samples in their works. This law makes sense, and is completely fair, but it makes sampling much less flexible in availability. 

In the early 90s, sampling technology started to advance extremely quickly. Early sampling technologies such as the SP 1200 were replaced by the Akai MPC and onwards. New sampling hardware allowed artists to sample individual parts of songs instead of just a few bars being looped. Artists combined many sections from many different songs into a single tune. In 1995, Lord Finesse released a single titled “Hip 2 Da Game.” This song samples melody, drums, ad-libs, and percussion, each from different songs, combining them all into a single new work. DJ Shadow’s 1996 album Entroducing is made entirely of samples. The Avalanches’ 2001 album Since I Left You is rumored to contain up to 3500 samples. 

To this day sampling is an important element of music, from mainstream to underground, especially in Rap and Hip-Hop. Since the initial experiments of musique concrète in the 1940s, sampling technology has become much more advanced. Nowadays anybody with a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) can manipulate sound in most any way to be thought of. Many songs sound like they do not have samples because the sample has been manipulated so much that it cannot be distinguished from the rest of the song. “Gold Digger” by Kanye West, for example, heavily samples “I Got a Woman” by Ray Charles. One of the primary reasons that sampling has become so popular has been because of its versatility. Making weird sounds is fun. Some may see sampling as “ripping off” other songs. Sampling, however, really did provide vitality to music and continues to do so. Not only can pieces of older songs live on in modern music, but sampling is also a creative way for artists to pay homage to their heroes. The potential is endless when you can do anything you want to a given sound.