Risky business

Seventeen years after its advent, sampling remains mired in legal and aesthetic controversy

The digital sampler, the most utilized musical-production tool of recent years, is the perfect invention for the here and now. The sampler is attuned to every hedonistic and automated whim; for many musicians and producers, a guitar is like a pinball machine in an arcade full of digital Playstations. With the push of a few buttons, samplers can copy and manipulate any sound, loop any beat, and sequence and sound endlessly. This may seem much too easy, but despite the cries of a generation that won't let go of the power chord, such devices have become real instruments.

As the sampler's most successful--and controversial--current user, Sean "Puffy" Combs, recently conceded: "I never played no instruments. I never programmed no drum machines. So if I was at a party and heard a record that I loved, I would figure out a way to bring that record to life."

Combs' technique often is reduced to what he unabashedly calls "beat jacking," but sampling succeeds in more subtle ways as well. These machines have gone so far as to fatten the sound of real drums in the studio and onstage. The regimented and rhythmic sounds they produce so well can be heard in almost every type of music, even that of fossils such as the Rolling Stones. And when they are not merely exploited as copy machines, samplers hold the key to unlimited resources in the hands of those who wish to create.

The way in which music evolved could explain just how powerful and indispensable samplers have become. During the disco-funk '70s, there was a demand for drummers who could play simple beats in perfect time; dance tracks were very long, and studio engineers soon found it easier to record segments of live drums and splice the tapes in a continuous loop. Then, European electronic groups such as Kraftwerk began to emerge, and the influence on pop music in the U.S. helped create a market for drum machines and synthesizers.

The runaway success of synth-pop had keyboard companies panting in an effort to keep up. At the same time, DJs in New York were attempting to extend the breakbeats on old James Brown records like "The Funky Drummer." With their hands, DJs had to alternate and synchronize two identical records on two turntables just to keep a beat going. The pause button on tape decks was also used in primitive attempts to loop grooves.

In 1981, the first machine dedicated to digital sampling arrived and was appropriately titled "Emulator." No longer would new sounds be limited to presets, and DJs could now loop their favorite beats all night long. The births of "electronica" and hip-hop owe a great debt to early sampler technology.

As hip-hop began, two turntables were the only "instruments" that creative DJs could afford. Consequently, sounds were lifted from records, and the new sounds that were created became known as hip-hop. MCs would rap over loops sampled from whatever was in a DJ's crate. For hip-hop enthusiasts, a new song that reinvented a favorite beat or tune was a way of paying tribute, a chance to bond the new and old.

But then the music became more popular, and regardless of origins, sampling of this type involved taking elements of someone else's music and making it your own. The increasingly popular process of production was making a good dollar, and the publishing companies of the original artists began to seek compensation. One of the first cases to come about was Castor v. Def Jam in 1987. Jimmy Castor sued the Beastie Boys' label over unauthorized use of drum beats and the phrase "Yo, Leroy" from Castor's 1977 hit "The Return of Leroy (Part 1)," which was sampled for the Beasties' song "Hold It Now, Hit It."

Then in 1989, De La Soul was sued for lack of permission to use a few seconds of the Turtles' 1969 hit "You Showed Me," on De La's "Transmitting Live From Mars." Both cases were settled out of court for an undisclosed amount. Two other artists down with O.P.P. (Other People's Publishing) were the much vilified Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer. In 1991, these salt-and-pepper hip-pop artists made millions by taking entire chunks of earlier hits. Vanilla's "Ice Ice Baby" nabbed Queen and David Bowie's "Under Pressure," and Hammer's "U Can't Touch This" looped Rick James' "Super Freak." Both of these artists steered clear of major legal problems by paying off the original artists.

Biz Markie was not so fortunate. The rapper was not only sued, but went to court for the use of Gilbert O'Sullivan's 1972 hit "Alone Again (Naturally)." Markie borrowed the title, looped eight bars of music, and even included the song's chorus, "alone again, naturally." In 1991, a judge quoted the Seventh Commandment, "Thou shalt not steal," and ordered all copies of Markie's album to be pulled from the shelves. Markie was quoted as saying, "I felt that I was made an example of." Like many hip-hop artists who sample archaic songs, Markie believed that "we just bringing it back to life. They ain't doin' nothing with it anyway, so why just let it sit?"

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