‘Music Sampling’ – Criminal or a Creative Technique?


Ever listened to a song and made a comment such as “this sounds exactly like the melody from another song”? Well, what you would have encountered is an artist using the technique of ‘Music Sampling’. Music sampling is known as the act of utilising or reusing a segment of a previously recorded track and implementing it into a current artists’ work. Within the current popular music scene, this technique is appearing to take a more prominent role amongst artists. The question is how one considers the true meaning behind using music sampling. Is it a complication due to the numerous lawsuits that it has caused alongside creative differences with the original artists or a technique that influences and develops music across all genres?

Although music sampling has been branded with legal controversy and the idea of ‘laziness’ amongst artists, it has paved its way into transforming creativity. The renowned English DJ, Mark Ronson described sampling in his Ted Talk, How Sampling Transformed Music, as not “hijacking nostalgia wholesale” but instead artists “hear[ing] something in these [old tunes] that speaks to them”. He further goes on to say that “in music, we take something that we love, and we build on it”. For example, Ronson co-produced Amy Winehouse’s critically acclaimed album Back to Black, sampling vintage soul records for the production of her songs. For one of the songs, “Tears Dry on Their Own”, Salaam Remi’s produced this particular track which features sampling of the same chord progression as featured in Marvin Gaye and Tami Terrell’s 1967 single “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”. This song clearly demonstrates the revitalisation of an existing track with emphasis on the new meaning provided by Winehouse’s lyricism.

Image Credit: Mark Ronson at NH7 Weekender by OML Entertainment via Wikimedia Commons

Another track that needs to be taken into consideration when discussing music sampling is Doug E. fresh and Slick Rick’s 1984 single “La Di Da Di”. This track has been used countless times and adapted to be utilised in current musical trends through the decades. The Notorious B.I.G sampled the melody in his number one single “Hypnotize” and more than a decade later, Miley Cyrus injected aspects of this original melody into her 2013 song “We Can’t Stop” which achieved the second spot in the Billboard Top 100 that year. The fact that this sample was used within two generations demonstrates how timeless this melody is and that through an artists’ creativity and vision, depending on the musical trends, they are still able to produce popular tracks. Overall, Ronson and other modern music producers demonstrate that the sampling of classic songs in a modern, musical context spark an artists’ inspiration and interest in these timeless characteristics and further emphasises the creativity through the expression of giving a new essence of life to these old tracks.

“The question is how one considers the true meaning behind using music sampling.”

On the other hand, one of the biggest complications to arise from the use of music sampling in the industry came from The Police’s 1982, Grammy winning, hit “Every Breath You Take”. The captivating melody led to other artists re-using it for their own creative purposes, with P. Diddy being one. The chorus of his 1998 Grammy-winning hit, “I’ll be Missing You”, demonstrates the clear use of music sampling from The Police’s track. The complication that came from this was Puff Diddy’s and his record labels’ failure to request permission from the band to re-use their melody or even credit them at all. Andy Summers from The Police described the remixed song as “the major rip-off of all time”. This dispute overall led to the lead singer, Sting, filing a lawsuit against P. Diddy, resulting in him receiving 100% of the remix’s royalties. Another similar situation occurred with Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby”, where he failed to give any credit to Freddie Mercury and David Bowie for sampling their “Under Pressure” bassline. To avoid a lawsuit, Vanilla Ice ended up paying the artists and providing song-writing credit. In the cases presented, they demonstrate how the use of sampling causes consequences with the artists reputation being tarnished. Combined with these lawsuits, there are further arguments claiming that sampling demonstrates the artists’ ‘lack of creativity’. This is because of the modern artist featuring a hardly altered which to a listener can be interpreted as a complete copy of the original with the only exception being the altered lyrics as demonstrated with “I’ll Be Missing You”.

Overall, the question remains of whether music sampling is a creative approach to producing popular music tracks or if it is criminal. One might even go as far to say that all music is in some way sampled due to artists using the chord progressions and melodic writing that share similarities with the Classical or Baroque era. The idea of revitalising music is crucial in the case of sampling as with P. Diddy, although he sampled The Police’s track without permission, the meaning behind the lyrics led him to winning a Grammy 14 years after the original track was released.

Image Credit: Music Engineering via pxhere

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