The importance of music samples

The importance of music samples

Photo Credits: KATHERINE FRANKS / AGGIE

Sampling is more than just an artistic choice

A little birdie by the name of Mark Twain imposed an idea about originality on us all. Maybe you’ve heard it uttered as you walk through the Quad, unintentionally eavesdropping on the debates of impassioned college students: There is “no such thing” as an original idea. 

Many use this idea to bemoan the repetitive nature of society. The resurgence of ‘90s fashion (crushed velvet and bucket hats) and our newfound obsession with retro-style television shows like “Stranger Things” are prime examples of this recycling.

Musical artists have lifted motifs and melodies from other works for decades. The practice of reusing and sometimes repurposing audio clips is known as sampling, and it has become foundational to the music we listen to today. 

Many people perceive the resurgence of past trends as a testament to modern society’s lack of originality. 

A famous case is Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby.” The song’s blatant use of Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” bass line sparked a debate between creative uses and artistic theft.

But sampling was a crucial component to hip-hop before this, with N.W.A.’s sample-heavy “Straight Outta Compton,” in which individual tracks would include four or five samples. Most notably, the 1988 track “Express Yourself” resulted in a skirmish between N.W.A. and Charles Wright, as Wright was not initially aware that his 1970 song “Express Yourself” was the main motif for the group’s track. 

A majority of these legal battles operated under the guise that sampling is an unoriginal and cheap way to create music. 

We’ve come to fully embrace sampling, conceiving it as more than an artistic choice. Sampling is transformative not only in its integration of past musical themes but also in strengthening the messages that artists implement in their music. 

The manipulation of samples is key in creating the “mood” for a song. For example, Tyler, the Creator’s “GONE, GONE / THANK YOU” samples “Cozy,” a song by Japanese city pop artist Tatsuro Yamashita. In “Cozy,” Yamashita is thanking a significant other for being part of his life and making it better. 

Tyler, the Creator repitched and slowed a portion of Yamashita’s song and, as a result, changed the mood of the song through his manipulation of the sample. Now, Yamashita’s “thank you for the love, thank you for the heart…” is a reflection on a past relationship with a broken heart. 

The way that Tyler altered Yamashita’s track strengthened the creative ideas and emotional impact of “GONE GONE / THANK YOU.” 

Sampling has also evolved to where artists use samples to create messages that transcend simple lyrical implications. Beyoncé’s “***Flawless” was an expansion on an older song snippet called “Bow Down, I Been On.” The original clip had feminist intentions but was misinterpreted, as some people (Rush Limbaugh) believed she was encouraging women to “bow down” to their husbands and, in turn, patriarchal authority. 

The track evolved into “***Flawless” when Beyoncé’s self-titled album was released. In order to clear up her message, she added a portion of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “We Should All Be Feminists” TedTalk speech. By including Adichie’s speech, Beyoncé solidified her feminist intentions. 

Jay-Z’s “The Story Of O.J.” samples Nina Simone’s “Four Women.” Jay-Z’s musing on financial independence can be seen as a personal reflection on his own come up, but the inclusion of the sample stretches the meaning to African-American youths through the repetition of “my skin is black.” It strengthens Jay-Z’s argument and allows the audience to attribute their own meanings to the track.

Nina Simone’s impact on hip hop sampling can’t be discussed without referencing Kanye West’s “Blood on the Leaves.” In this track, West samples Nina Simone’s cover of “Strange Fruit.” The choice to include this song is two-pronged: “Strange Fruit” contains a famous anti-lynching message, and Nina Simone’s performances are rooted in civil rights. 

Considering these instances, it’s obvious that sampling has been transformed from a simple musical tool to an integral part of the music community. Samples that offer a window into the social perspectives and issues of the past are crucial to developing nuanced pieces of music. 

Written by: Isabella Chuecos –– ifchuecos@ucdavis.edu 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie