The Art of Sampling

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What's the difference between a librarian and a hip-hop DJ? The answer is not as much as you think. Both are archivists, preserving and organizing the past, one through books, the other through music.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya and this is NEWS & NOTES.

What's the difference between a librarian and a hip-hop DJ? The answer is not as much as you think. Both are archivists, preserving and organizing the past, one through books, the other through music.

(Soundbite of song "Rapper's Delight")

THE SUGARHILL GANG (Rap Group): (Rapping) I said a hip hop the hippie the hippie to the hip hip hop, a you don't stop the rock it to the bang bang…

CHIDEYA: That's the seminal 1979 hit "Rapper's Delight" by the Sugarhill Gang. It's fueled by the sounds of another hit, "Good Times" by Chic.

(Soundbite of song "Good Times")

Ms. LUCI MARTIN (Vocalist, Chic): (Singing) Good times, these are the good times, our new state of mind…

CHIDEYA: Pulling a bit of audio from one song and inserting it into another is called sampling. It's got huge cultural and legal implications. Now, "Rapper's Delight" was so far back in hip-hop history that The Sugarhill Gang probably had to use reel tape to loop the sample.

Today, it's all done digitally. But in the three decades of hip-hop history, who owns and profits from samples has become very complicated. In 2005, funk master George Clinton won back the rights to some of his albums, which he said had been swindled out off by old managers and lawyers.

It was a victory for Clinton and the dozens of rappers who had sampled him, including Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre. Clinton's old managers had sued rap group NWA for using a snippet from Clinton's "Get Off Your Ass and Jam."

(Soundbite of song, "Get Off Your Ass and Jam")

Mr. GEORGE CLINTON (Vocalist, FUNKADELIC): (Rapping) Get off your ass and jam…

CHIDEYA: The managers won the lawsuit even though Clinton wanted to let rappers use his work. Before he won back the rights to his old albums, Clinton even named two new albums, "Sample Some of Dis" and Sample Some of Dat." It's all part of the ongoing controversy over copyright law.

You remember that whole thing with Napster? You know, file sharing? More recently, DJ Danger Mouse, now one half of Gnarls Barkley, mixed the Beatles "The White Album" with Jay-Z's "The Black Album." Danger Mouse didn't have the rights and his so-called "Grey Album" has been stuck in legal limbo ever since. The only way to get it is to download it illegally. And that means we can't play it for you.

(Soundbite of record scratching)

Unidentified Man: Fine, baby.

CHIDEYA: Sampling is on one level a form of file sharing, artist to artist. On another level, though, it's cultural history. Sampling of record documents and preserves its influence, passing the beat on to generations to come.

Sampling knows no boundaries either - not racial, not cultural.

(Soundbite of song "I'll Be Missing You")

Don't believe me? In 1997, Puff Daddy and Faith Evans sang a tribute to the Notorious B.I.G. called "I'll Be Missing You."

(Soundbite of song "I'll Be Missing You")

Mr. P. DIDDY (Rapper): (Rapping) Check it out, Seems like yesterday we used to rock the show, I laced the track, you locked the flow, so far from hangin' on the block for dough, Notorious, they got to know that…

CHIDEYA: It samples extensively from the 1983 hit, "Every Breath You Take" by The Police.

(Soundbite of song "Every Breath You Take")

Mr. GORDON MATTHEW SUMNER (Vocalist, The Police): (Singing) Every move you make, every bond you break, every step you take, Ill be watching you…

CHIDEYA: And it's not just about hip-hop. Take electronica artist Moby. On his hit "Natural Blues," he samples a 1940s era song called "Trouble So Hard" by Vera Hall.

(Soundbite of "Troubles So Hard")

MOBY (Singer): (Singing) Oh lordy, trouble so hard. Oh lordy, trouble so hard. Don't nobody know my troubles but God, don't nobody know my troubles but God, Oh lordy, trouble so hard. Oh lordy, trouble so hard. Don't nobody know my…

CHIDEYA: Moby sold millions of copies of his album as well as lucrative licenses to commercials and movies for songs like "Natural Blues," which brings us back to money.

Today, most people would sample and pay the original artist for those rights. Mainstream hip-hop artists can pay upwards of $50,000 for just a few seconds of another artist's sound.

(Soundbite of music)

So where does that lead lesser-known hip-hop artists? Often in a space where they can use the music they love and run the risk of a lawsuit or use only risks that other artists have chosen to share. Innovators like DJ Spooky, DJ Shadow and Dan the Automator sample extensively. And some, like DJ Spooky, also advocate for open sharing of music and information.

As part of our ongoing series on hip-hop, next week, we'll talk with some of the deejays who make innovative use of samples, and find out the joys and challenges of making new music out of old.

Until then, you can sample some series interviews we've already aired. Just go to our Web site npr.org/newsandnotes. And listen as much as you want. It's free.

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