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, HOST:

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: 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: ...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.

RONSON: He's a deejay, 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."

RAZ: Or, more recently, this track...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UPTOWN FUNK")

BRUNO MARS: (Singing) Don't believe me - just watch.

RAZ: ...With Bruno Mars.

RONSON: 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 that people might have heard of.

RAZ: (Laughter).

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

SLICK RICK: Oh, yeah.

RAZ: Anyway, back to that first song.

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

SLICK RICK: La di da di.

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

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

SLICK RICK: La di da di.

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

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

SLICK RICK: (Rapping) 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 deejay 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: (Rapping) But that's true. That's why we never have...

RONSON: Yeah. You 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: (Rapping) ...For my fingernails due to the night and on my behalf...

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 - would become the building blocks of hip-hop.

RONSON: Especially because Slick Rick's voice is so iconic and has these little kind of, like, singsongy turns of phrases. Oh, these are, like, tick tock - you don't stop. And we go a little something like this. Hit it.

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

SLICK RICK: (Singing) Tick tock - you don't stop. And we go a little something like this. Hit it.

RONSON: All those soundbites that have become, like...

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

SLICK RICK: (Singing) Hit it. Na, na, na, na, na. Na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na (ph).

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

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

SLICK RICK: (Singing) Hit it. Na, na, na, na, na...

RAZ: ...Ini Kamoze in 1995...

RONSON: They used the hit it.

RAZ: ...Way back to the Beastie Boys in 1986.

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 (ph). We likes to party. We don't cause trouble. We don't bother nobody. We...

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")

SNOOP DOGG: (Singing) Oh, 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")

THE NOTORIOUS BIG: (Singing) Biggie, Biggie, Biggie, can't you see? Sometimes your words just hypnotize me.

RONSON: And The Notorious B.I.G., or Biggie, reinterprets "La Di Da Di" on his No. 1 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's sort of flipped it.

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

SLICK RICK: (Rapping) La di da di. We like to party. We don't cause trouble. We don't bother nobody. We're...

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

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

RAZ: La di da da di. We like to party. Is that one right? Yeah. You know, I did the backing vocals for her on that.

RONSON: You did. I could tell.

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

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: 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 friend's bad, too.

RAZ: Even by the indie rock band Spoon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FINER FEELINGS")

SLICK RICK: (Singing) OK, party people in the house.

RONSON: It's like a grunt from James Brown or, you know, a saxophone blurt from Junior Walker. It's like it will sound good over everything, and it will always make your tracks 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 or a Ron Carter baseline - 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 Sgt. 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")

THE 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")

THE AXIS OF AWESOME: (Singing) I'm your biggest fan. I'll follow you until you love me.

RAZ: ...Come from other songs. And, of course, this 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: We all - whether we steal or we borrow, it's impossible even if you're telling yourself you're not stealing, subconsciously, you're influenced whether you like it or not.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "4 CHORDS")

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

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

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "4 CHORDS")

THE AXIS OF AWESOME: (Singing) Country road, take me home...

RAZ: OK. So in music, there's 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 pre-written or preexisting music, you're ineligible for Song of the Year. Rockists (ph) - who are racists but only about rock music - constantly use...

(LAUGHTER)

RONSON: ...The argument to - that's a real word. That is a real word. They constantly use the argument to devalue rap and modern pop.

(LAUGHTER)

RONSON: And these arguments completely miss the point because the dam has burst. We live in the 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 become 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 had learned when I was working with the late, amazing Amy Winehouse on her album "Back To Black."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REHAB")

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 ran the risk of being very pastiche, to be honest.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REHAB")

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

RONSON: I mean, there was 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 arrangement. So it was - she brought the ingredients that made it urgent and of the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REHAB")

WINEHOUSE: (Singing) ...Didn't get a lot in class, but I know we don't come in a...

RAZ: When you sit down to - like, to write or produce something, and you've been listening to all 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 deejay a lot as well. I still deejay, 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 that because you never know. You know, you've been playing all this other music for an hour and a half the night before you get in the studio, you're, like, you don't want that stuff to sort of filter into you. I mean, Prince - I used to read interviews where he said he never listens to anyone else's music but his own. I mean, I guess if the songs I wrote were as good as Prince's...

RAZ: (Laughter).

RONSON: ...Maybe that would apply to me. But so I - 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 because that's the 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, someone says, like, oh, yeah, it sounds like Arcade Fire.

RAZ: (Laughter).

RONSON: And you just want to go jump out a window.

RAZ: 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 kind of, you know, there's troubled lines there because credit needs to go to the people that created this 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: Deejay 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALOUETTE")

THE HIT CREW: (Singing) Je te plumerai la tete. Je te plumerai la tete. Je te plumerai (ph)...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BANG BANG BANG")

MARK RONSON AND THE BUSINESS INTL: (Singing) ...La tete. Je te plumerai la tete.

RAZ: "Alouette" - a very interesting choice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BANG BANG BANG")

THE HIT CREW: (Singing) Alouette (ph).

RONSON: Yes. That was a song that I'd given it to this singer named MNDR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BANG BANG BANG")

MNDR: (Singing, unintelligible).

RONSON: And 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 Dahdah (ph) or something like that. And she was, like, oh, what if I - can I make it alouette? And then...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BANG BANG BANG")

MNDR: (Singing) Je te plumerai la tete.

RONSON: Yeah. It's kind of - French Canadian nursery rhymes - anything's game.

RAZ: Mark Ronson's TED talk on sampling is at ted.com.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARK RONSON SONG, "BANG BANG BANG")

RAZ: Stay with us for more ideas about what's original. I'm Guy Raz, and this is the TED Radio Hour...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "4 CHORDS")

THE AXIS OF AWESOME: (Singing) Mother Mary comes to me...

RAZ: ...From NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "4 CHORDS")

THE AXIS OF AWESOME: (Singing) Save tonight. Going to take a lot to drag me away from you.

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