Interview: Mark Ronson On Sampling, 'Jacking' And Originality Sampling music isn't about "hijacking nostalgia wholesale," says DJ Mark Ronson. It's about inserting yourself into the narrative of a song while pushing that story forward.
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Why Would More Than 500 Artists Sample The Same Song?

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Why Would More Than 500 Artists Sample The Same Song?

Why Would More Than 500 Artists Sample The Same Song?

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GUY RAZ, BYLINE: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, what's original? How every idea, every invention, every song is built on something that came before it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA DI DA DI")

SLICK RICK AND DOUG E. FRESH: (Singing) OK, party people in the house. You're about to witness something you've never witnessed before.

RAZ: And this song will make you wonder about this whole idea of originality because this song is one of the most sampled songs of all time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA DI DA DI")

SLICK RICK AND DOUG E. FRESH: (Singing) Doug E. Fresh and his partner...

RAZ: The track is by the rappers Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick. They released it in 1984, and the story behind the song, we heard about it from this guy.

MARK RONSON: My name is Mark Ronson.

RAZ: He's a DJ, record producer and kind of a big deal.

RONSON: I guess the thing that I'm most known for is production on Amy Winehouse's album "Back To Black." I produced records for Lily Allen, Paul McCartney's last album. I just sound like I'm name dropping. I'm just trying to grab onto the things people might've heard of.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA DI DA DI")

SLICK RICK AND DOUG E. FRESH: (Singing) Ah, yeah.

RAZ: OK, so back to this track.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA DI DA DI")

SLICK RICK AND DOUG E. FRESH: (Singing) You know what? La di da di.

RAZ: It's called "La Di Da Di"...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA DI DA DI")

SLICK RICK AND DOUG E. FRESH: (Singing) La di da di.

RAZ: ...And back in the early 1990s, if you were a DJ in New York, like Mark was, it was a staple of your set.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA DI DA DI")

SLICK RICK AND DOUG E. FRESH: (Singing) La di da di, we like to party. We don't cause trouble. We don't bother nobody. We're just some men that's on the mic.

RONSON: It's literally like Chapter 1 of the hip-hop DJ Bible. And it's an incredible song because it's just a beatbox and a rap over it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA DI DA DI")

SLICK RICK AND DOUG E. FRESH: (Singing) But that's true. That's why we never have no beef.

RONSON: Yet can play all five minutes of it on a dance floor and have the entire dance floor sing every word of that song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA DI DA DI")

SLICK RICK AND DOUG E. FRESH: (Singing) ...For my fingernails. Chew to the...

RAZ: But what makes "La Di Da Di" more than just a really good rap song and why so many artists have borrowed from it in their own music is that it's full of these little, lyrical moments. And those moments, those samples will become the building blocks of hip-hop for years to come.

RONSON: Especially 'cause Slick Rick's voice is so iconic and has these little kind of, like, sing-songy turns of phrases. All these little, like, tick-tock you don't stop. As we go a little something like this, hit it. All those soundbites sort of become like...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HERE COMES THE HOT STEPPER")

INI KAMOZE: (Singing) Hit it. Na nananana nananana nanana...

RAZ: And that hit it - just that moment has been sampled in hundreds of songs from...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HERE COMES THE HOT STEPPER")

KAMOZE: (Singing) Hit it. Na nananana nananana

RAZ: Ini Kamoze in 1995.

RONSON: They used the hit it.

RAZ: Way back to the Beastie Boys in 1986.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLD IT NOW, HIT IT")

BEASTIE BOYS: (Singing) Hit it.

RONSON: They used the hit it.

RAZ: And it's not just this one line that's been sampled over and over again since 1984, as Mark explained from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

RONSON: Over the next 10 years, "La Di Da Di" continues to be sampled by countless records, ending up on massive hits. Snoop Doggy Dogg covers the song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LODI DODI")

SNOOP DOGG: (Singing) Lodi dodi, we likes to party. We don't cause trouble. We don't bother nobody.

RONSON: On his debut album, "Doggystyle," and calls it "Lodi Dodi." Copyright lawyers are having a field day at this point.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA DI DA DI")

SLICK RICK AND DOUG E. FRESH: (Singing) Ricky, Ricky, Ricky, can't you see, somehow your words just hypnotize me.

RONSON: And then you fast-forward to 1997.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HYPNOTIZE")

NOTORIOUS B.I.G.: (Singing) Biggie, Biggie, Biggie, can't you see, sometimes words just hypnotize me.

RONSON: And The Notorious B.I.G., or Biggie, reinterprets "La Di Da Di" on his number one hit called "Hypnotize." So if we come all the way out to the present day now, the cultural tour de force that is Miley Cyrus, she reinterprets "La Di Da Di" completely for her generation. And we'll take a listen to the Slick Rick part and then see how she sort of flipped it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA DI DA DI")

SLICK RICK AND DOUG E. FRESH: (Singing) La di da di, we like to party. We don't cause trouble. We don't bother nobody.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE CAN'T STOP)

MILEY CYRUS: (Singing) La da di da di, we like to party

RAZ: (Singing) La di da da di. We like to party.

RONSON: Right, exactly.

RAZ: You know, I did the backing vocals for it.

RONSON: You did, I can tell.

RAZ: I didn't want to tell you before this began.

RONSON: That's very humble of you. I appreciate it.

RAZ: And there are so many more.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA DI DA DI")

SLICK RICK AND DOUG E. FRESH: (Singing) OK, party people in the house.

RAZ: That 'party people in the house,' sampled by Beyonce and Kanye West on this track.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PARTY")

KANYE WEST: (Singing) You a bad girl, and your friends bad, too.

RAZ: Even by the indie rock band Spoon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FINER FEELINGS")

SLICK RICK AND DOUG E. FRESH: (Singing): OK party people in the house.

RONSON: It's like a grunt from James Brown or, you know, a saxophone blurt from Jr. Walker. It's, like, it will sound good over everything, and it will always make your track sound more legit and more real and hip-hop.

RAZ: And the other thing about sampling, it's like reinventing something to such an extent that it becomes something new.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

RONSON: See, 30 years ago, you had the first digital samplers and they changed everything overnight. All of a sudden, artists could sample from anything and everything that came before them, from a snare drum from the Funky Meters, to a Ron Carter bassline, you know, the theme to "The Price Is Right." Albums like De La Soul's "3 Feet High And Rising" and the Beastie Boys' "Paul's Boutique," looted from decades of recorded music to create these sonic, layered masterpieces that were basically the Sergeant Peppers of their day.

But the thing is they were sampling those records because they heard something in that music that spoke to them that they instantly wanted to inject themselves into the narrative of that music. They heard it. They wanted to be a part of it, and all of a sudden, they found themselves in possession of the technology to do so, not much unlike the way the Delta blues struck a chord with the Stones and the Beatles and Clapton, and they felt the need to co-opt that music for the tools of their day. You know, in music, we take something that we love, and we build on it. That's just how it goes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "4 CHORDS")

AXIS OF AWESOME: (Singing) Forever young, I want to be forever young.

RAZ: So the idea here is that a lot of songs...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "4 CHORDS")

AXIS OF AWESOME: (Singing) I'm your biggest and I'll follow you until you love me, up a, up above me.

RAZ: Come from other songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "4 CHORDS")

AXIS OF AWESOME: (Singing) I can't believe.

RAZ: And of course is not just true for music. It's the same for film or novels or technology - pretty much every idea out there. Like, we sort of celebrate things that seem original, but, like, what is original?

RONSON: What's the quote which is the T.S. Eliot quote - isn't it? - which, apparently, he even stole from Picasso about, you know, genius steals great artists...

RAZ: Good artists borrow or copy, great artists steal...

RONSON: Yes.

RAZ: ...Something like that.

RONSON: Yes, we all - whether we steal or we borrow - it's impossible, even if you're telling yourself you're not stealing, subconsciously, you are influenced whether you like it or not.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "4 CHORDS")

AXIS OF AWESOME: (Singing) Can you feel the love tonight?

RAZ: We'll hear more of this song throughout show, by the way. Its from a group called Axis Of Awesome, and the song is called "4 Chords."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "4 CHORDS")

AXIS OF AWESOME: (Singing) Oh, country road, take me home.

RAZ: OK, so in music, there is a fine line between sampling, borrowing, paying homage and just plain ripping off. Here's more of Mark Ronson from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

RONSON: Since the dawn of the sampling era, there's been endless debate about the validity of music that contains samples. You know, the Grammy committee says that if your song contains some kind of prewritten or pre-existing music, you are ineligible for song of the year. Rockists, who are racist but only about rock music, constantly use the argument...

(LAUGHTER)

RONSON: That's a real word. That is a real word. They constantly use the argument to devalue rap and modern pop, and these arguments completely miss the point because the dam has burst. We live in a post-sampling era. We take the things that we love, and we build on them. And when we really add something significant and original, and we merge our musical journey with this, then we have a chance to be a part of the evolution of that music that we love and be linked with it once it becomes something new again.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REHAB")

AMY WINEHOUSE: (Singing) They tried to make me go to rehab, I said, no, no, no.

RONSON: Which was something that I learned when I was working with the late, amazing Amy Winehouse on her album "Back To Black."

WINEHOUSE: (Singing) Yes, I've been black, but when I come back you'll know, know, know.

RONSON: A lot of fuss was made about the sonic of the album that myself and Salaam Remi, the other producer, achieved, how we captured this long-lost sound. But without the very, very 21st-century personality and firebrand that was Amy Winehouse and her lyrics about rehab, the whole thing would have run the risk of being very pastiche, to be honest.

WINEHOUSE: (Singing) I ain't got 70 days.

RONSON: I mean, there is no doubt that Amy and I and Salaam all had this love for this gospel, soul and blues and jazz that was evident listening to the musical arrangements. So it was - she brought the ingredients that made it urgent and of the time.

WINEHOUSE: (Singing) Didn't get a lot in class. But I know it don't come in a shot glass.

RAZ: When you sit down to, like, write or produce something, and you've been listening to all of this music and you always listen to music, how do you sort of separate yourself from what's in your head or put your own spin on a sound that's just been swirling around inside of you?

RONSON: Well, you know, I DJ a lot as well. I still DJ, like, at, you know, clubs and all these festivals in the summer. And when it's time for me to make my own record, I really do have to just stop doing all of that 'cause you never know. You know, you've playing all this other music for an hour and half the night before you get in the studio. You're like - you don't want that to sort of filter into you. I mean Prince - I used to read interviews where he said he never listens to anyone else's but his own music. I mean, I guess if the songs I wrote were as good as Prince's, maybe that would apply to me.

RAZ: (Laughing).

RONSON: But so, you know, when it's time to work on the record, I kind of put the blinders on a bit more and make sure that, you know, I'm not too much listening to something - especially if it's something everyone is making a big fuss about 'cause that's last thing that you want to do - have that filter into your work. And by the time you put out this record you've worked for a year and a half and, someone says, like, oh, yeah, it sounds like Arcade Fire. And you just want to go jump out a window.

RAZ: (Laughing) Has that happened to you before?

RONSON: No, it hasn't. But it's like it's something that I'm, you know, wary of because, you know, at the end of the day, like, I think you'd be really hard-pressed to listen to something today and not be able to at least find four bars of it that's completely derivative of something else. Like, and that's why when I see young producers today, like kids who are 19, 20, they stay up all night just sampling straight from YouTube, which is dangerous in the kind of, you know, there's troubled lines there 'cause credit needs to go to the people who created the stuff in the first place, but it does make for some incredible, exciting art and, you know, it does mean that some little kid sitting in his basement in Ohio with a laptop can be making some of the most interesting music around.

RAZ: DJ and producer Mark Ronson. We asked him what he's borrowed for his own music. He mentioned a song called "Bang Bang Bang" that uses this 19th century nursery rhyme.

(SOUND BITE OF SONG, "BANG BANG BANG")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in French).

RAZ: "Alouette." A very interesting choice.

RONSON: Yes, that was a song that I had given to this singer named MNDR.

RONSON: You know, a lot of the singers that I work with, they just get on the mic and they kind of freestyle and the first thing that comes out - so I think what she sang the first time sounded a lot like abu datt ta or something like that, and she was like, oh, what if I - can I make it alouette? Yeah. It's kind of a French-Canadian nursery rhymes - anything's game.

RAZ: Mark Ronson's TED talk on sampling is at ted.com. Stay with us for more ideas about what's original. I'm Guy Raz and this is the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "4 CHORDS")

AXIS OF AWESOME: (Singing) Save tonight. Gonna take a lot to drag me away from you. There's nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do.

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