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Has Hip-Hop Sampling Gotten Lazy?

This article has been handpicked to be included in our Hip Hop 50 collection as a noteworthy inclusion to the genre’s rich and diverse narrative.

After decades of brilliance from producers across a spectrum of popular music, particularly hip-hop music, sampling shouldn’t need to be artistically defended or creatively qualified. One listen to the freewheeling whimsy of De La Soul’s 3 Feet High & Rising, the crate-pillaging “chipmunk-soul” of early Kanye West albums, or the flurry of dark and disparate sonics that make up a masterwork like Danny Brown’s Atrocity Exhibition should crush any conception that sampling can’t be art of the highest order.

Although newer artists and producers continue to breathe new life into the endless possibilities of sampling, there’s been growing criticism of contemporary popular music reaching back to sample the most obvious music in the most reductive ways, amid a flurry of sample-driven hits dominating the charts. As a result, there’s an ongoing conversation about what constitutes creativity and what, in essence, is just lazy sampling.

Coi Leray’s hit single “Players” prominently features a flip from Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s “The Message,” and her follow-up single “Make My Day” flipped Technotronic’s club hit “Pump Up the Jam.” Aside from these, critics have also called out Jack Harlow’s “First Class” (which samples Fergie’s early 2000s smash “Glamorous”), Nicki Minaj’s “Super Freaky Girl” (which revisits the frequently-sampled “Super Freak” by Rick James), Saucy Santana’s “Booty” (which samples Beyoncé’s “Crazy In Love”) and, more recently, NLE Choppa’s “It’s Getting Hot” (which samples Nelly’s “Hot in Herre”) as other culprits of this recent phenomenon.

Hip-hop has always sampled what’s recognizable

Coi Leray – Players (Official Audio)www.youtube.com

In reality, this isn’t anything new. Those who grew up with the rise of Bad Boy in the ‘90s have argued how Sean “Diddy” Combs employed a similar strategy to craft many of the label’s signature tunes, as they scored chart-toppers by looping disco smashes (Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out”), rock hits (“Every Breath You Take” by The Police), and R&B classics (The Isley Bros’ “Between The Sheets”) for their now-iconic rap tracks. But it wasn’t just Diddy. There were producer duos like The Trackmasters, who co-produced other Bad Boy hits alongside Diddy, as well, who cultivated the sound for most of Will Smith’s debut solo album Big Willie Style, sampling ‘70s hits like Sister Sledge’s “He’s the Greatest Dancer” and the Whispers’ “And the Beat Goes On On” for “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” and “Miami,” respectively. The “Fantasy” remix from Mariah Carey famously samples “Genius Of Love” by Tom Tom Club.

Still, this hasn’t stopped the criticism that contemporary rap artists (and their producers) have faced. Leray recently released her second album, Coi, and so much of the commentary on the project has centered on the prevalence of samples. From the previously-released singles “Players” and “Make My Day” to her reworking James Brown’s “Man’s World” (billed as a duet with the late icon) for her own “Man’s World,” and Lesley’s Gore’s “It’s My Party (I’ll Cry If I Want To)” on “My Body,” the heavy-handed use of these songs have been divisive.

“We didn’t feel for a second that there is a box we need to stay [in],” producer Johnny Goldstein said about working with Leray on Coi. Goldstein, who has produced a bevy of hits for artists ranging from Black Eyed Peas to Latto, said he doesn’t understand the criticism surrounding sampling, adding that, at this point, it’s part of a grand musical tradition.

“My biggest heroes are producers that sampled music all the time,” he said. “So, when you say ‘hip-hop,’ the first thing I think is…‘Where did the sample come from?’ For me, that’s part of the language. With Coi, it was obvious. That should be part of the language of that album. We play with different genres, but it’s all hip-hop.”

Aside from creative criticisms, for labels there are more direct concerns with this kind of music-making. With a major release like “Players” or Latto’s “Big Energy” — which also samples “Genius Of Love” — the logistics of sampling a well-known classic can be heady to navigate.

Ebrahim Rasheed, the Senior Vice President of MNRK Music Group’s Urban department, shared that the process of clearing a big sample can sometimes be tedious and ongoing.

“In most instances, it’s pretty easy,” he said. “In other instances, it’s been incredibly difficult, where you’ve had to literally knock on the person’s door who owns the sample, or try to catch them at the dinner table while they’re at Nobu or somewhere. It’s been that bad.

“I have a four-week window until the release date to make sure the sample language is there,” he continued. “Typically, if I haven’t initiated a conversation with the sample owner, I don’t put the record in the marketplace. As long as there is some sort of conversation happening, we’re pretty safe. And then the terms of entry get closed within the next few months, next year — we eventually do come to terms after the record is out. But during that time, a negotiation could take a second. It’s really hit or miss.”

A standard-setter for sampling doesn’t buy into the idea of “lazy sampling”

Producer Hank Shocklee of Public Enemy poses in the press room at the 28th Annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction CeremonyPhoto by Frazer Harrison/WireImage.

There are certain producers who have set the standard for sampling as artistry. Hank Shocklee and The Bomb Squad introduced one of the most innovative sample-based production styles into popular music with their dense, funky sound collages exemplified on classic Public Enemy albums. It’s often said that The Bomb Squad’s approach is almost impossible to pull off today because of clearance issues. But the crew’s brand of noisy grooves was unlike anything heard before, defining and redefining what audiences and critics considered creative sampling and elevating the approach. But Shocklee doesn’t buy into the idea of “lazy sampling.”

“People say what’s ‘lazy.’ But I think it’s very difficult to sample,” he said. “A lot of the work is done in just finding the piece that you want to sample. And then there’s a reason why you’re using it. For example, if somebody is using something — what I call ‘straight up’ — that’s cool. You’re just taking a four bar loop and looping it. Or [if] you take that four-bar loop and you break it up in sections and sample it? That’s cool, too. Or you just take a little tiny piece of it. The question is: what does the creativity yield you?”

So many of hip-hop’s most beloved songs are built around samples. In the late ‘90s, hip-hop solidified its mainstream takeover on the backs of glossy hits that featured recognizable loops. Wyclef Jean’s “We’re Trying Ta Stay Alive” was built around “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees. Similarly, Missy Elliott’s “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” prominently featured Ann Peebles’ “I Can’t Stand The Rain.” A generation ago, those artists were often criticized for not doing anything more than reworking the familiar in a way that felt obvious.

“To me, it’s just bringing different kinds of songs from different kinds of genres with different kinds of history and reimagining that,” Goldstein said.

It’s all about what you sample

Another producer who has drawn acclaim for decades with a gifted ear for samples, Diamond D cut his teeth as part of the famed Diggin’ In The Crates collective, and came from the record shop nerd fixation that defined early ‘90s East Coast crate diggers. Like contemporaries Large Professor, Pete Rock, and Q-Tip, D made a priority out of finding samples that were anything but obvious.

“Some people call loops ‘lazy sampling’ — and it might be,” D said. “But it’s what you sample. What you sample is as important as how you chop up and loop it. If somebody is just sampling what’s been used a thousand times, then [that’s] lazy. But if somebody loops up something that people have never heard before, then it becomes special.

“Taking a loop straight up, there’s a reason why you do that: because you want to get across an idea that that loop represents,” he continued. “So, if you want to get that across — because keep in mind, you’re trying to make an emotional connection to the listener — sometimes you have to hit them over the head with something that’s very obvious that they’ll understand. And that’s when, to me, it’s obvious to use something like a four-bar loop and be repetitious about it.”

For Shocklee, it’s all about your objective, and he has no issue with anyone trying to reach far and wide — even if that hasn’t always been his objective.

“The stuff that we were doing, I wanted to make an emotional connection to the creative cats,” he said. “When you’re looping a four-bar loop, you’re trying to reach the masses. The masses will be like ‘Oh, I remember that’ or ‘My mother played that for me when I was younger.’ You’re targeting a wider audience. The stuff that we were doing was more sampled bits. Taking the smallest amount of sample and reworking that with other samples to create that four-bar montage. That, to me, is speaking to a smaller set of people. People who are future producers, so to speak. That was the mindset of the stuff that we were doing. I’ve heard and I’ve collected all the records from the past and the present and I’ve looked at them and asked, ‘What is everybody doing? What are they trying to get across?’”

The nostalgia of sampling beloved classics

Derrick Aroh, John Fleckinstein, Latto and Mark Pitts celebrate Latto's 2x GRAMMY nominations at Catch Steak LA.Derrick Aroh, John Fleckinstein, Latto and Mark Pitts celebrate Latto’s 2x GRAMMY nominations at Catch Steak LA.Photo by Jerritt Clark/Getty Images for RCA Records.

The surge in sample-heavy hits indicates that producers and artists are doing exactly what Shocklee said — trying to reach a wider audience. Nostalgia for familiar songs plays a part in that, too, according to Rasheed.

“Kids and producers are discovering music that…may not be old, but they’re flipping records that were pretty big but novelty-type of records. It’s more of a nostalgia thing for the audience,” he said. “Drill artists who make hardcore gangsta-leaning drill records [will] sample something that the parents like and that expands the audience to a radio audience. [There’s] an uptick because of how quick and easy it can work to a mainstream audience.”

Derrick Aroh, Senior Vice President of A&R for RCA Records, seconded this.

“Yeah, there is an uptick in sampling simply because the creative community is trying to get fans to feel something familiar but also new and fresh at the same time,” he said. “Everything happens in waves, and right now the wave is grabbing old material and flipping it.”

So often, hip-hop’s past is shared like a history lesson. The “rap social studies” approach treats artists, albums, and songs of yesteryear like simple historical signposts that younger artists are lectured about, rather than great music that can actually inspire them. But the greatest benefit in sampling — whether “lazy” or not — has always been the way it connects music of the past to current tastes and formats of the present.

“That’s the magic of sampling,” Goldstein said. “It’s always cycles. When I was young, it was always amazing to me to see the stuff that Dr. Dre sampled is the stuff that he grew up on. He grew up on that music. And with every generation, it’s like that. You’re creating music and your inspiration is usually the stuff that you grew up on. That’s life. For me, the early 2000s — that’s my shit.”

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Todd “Stereo” Williams is an award-winning, NYC-based entertainment journalist and cultural commentator, whose work has been featured on SPIN, Rock The Bells and Billboard and more. Williams has produced documentaries and short films like “2AM,” while extensively covering popular culture and social topics of our times.

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