Does sampling mean the end of pop civilization as we know it? LOUISE GRAY steals the thoughts of the sonic smash-and-grabbers.

Fil Chill (The Three Wise Men): “Computers are the sound of the future. Computers will change the sound of the music industry. Very soon, everybody will be able to make records.”

We are here to mourn the death of the song and the death of that fleshly trace the song inevitably bears the figure of the singer/songwriter, closeted alone in his room, the inventor of all meaning and the Centre of all angst I’m talking to you, Mr Morrissey, the sensitive and solitary artist, to you, BonoVox, rock prophet, and to you, Mr Springsteen, the last prole in town!

For we are witnessing the birth of a new generation, the pop children of the new technology. They reject your Luddite ways, deal not in songs but soundscapes, don’t create, but assemble. Computer-generated music is poised to challenge your every practice; I don’t mean synthesiser bands (who both looked and sounded like automatons), I mean sampler-musicians/creators/producers who seize from the library of recorded sounds, not history, but moments.

Punk made to us the election promise that ‘anyone can do it’, but lacked the technology to back the rhetoric. It was a new idea in old clothes, still dependent on drums and wires, even Sid Vicious bad to play bass. Punk was the
anticipation of sampling.

This new, usable technology will erode away the privileged position of the artist, of the musician, who, too often, is revered not for what he can do, but for what others can’t. An increasing familiarity with machines has shed technology of its mystique. Sampling, by turning the studio into a compositional tool, gives talent an infinity of new voices. Future shock, or what? Think of the sampler as a recorder attached to a keyboard; substitute floppy computer disks for cassette tape, and you’ll get an idea of its possibilities. Samplers invariably come in the form of keyboards, for the new technology must ape the forms of the old, with an input socket for your sound source, be it a ‘live’ sound or a previously recorded one. The machines differ in the length of the sample they can, at peak recording, take. The cheapest Casio SK-1’s sample limit is 1.4 seconds; the mighty Fairlight Series 3 has a limit that stretches into minutes.

Take that sound ‘naturally’, or treat it, bend it, reverse it, stretch it. Sample two seconds of The Smiths and skank them up! Sample a scale from Nico and make her play ‘Happy Talk’! The history of recorded sound is at your fingertips.
A synthesiser uses sounds that are located within its circuits, an electric guitar makes noise via vibrations, but a sampler ‘takes’.

When the Musicians Union and BPI between them came up with those slogans on a thousand guitar cases “Home taping is killing music” and “Keep music live” —they hadn’t considered the sampler. But the true significance of this development is not so much in what it does, but what it implies. When it’s cheaper to sample than buy a guitar (the SK-1, bought by buskers, parents and the curious as the ultimate coffee table toy, starts at £69; the Fairlight 3 at £60,000, but there’s a myriad of points between the two) why sweat? Why try to play like Hendrix when you can rip him off?

Like it or not the silicon implants of computer technology have co-existed peacefully with the strings and wires of the Pop Group for a handful of years. Through a laborious diligence, you would learn your guitar chords, single out middle C, kick your bass drum, drag the lot to a recording studio, and let the engineer get on with it. He may use banks of strange machines that look like the Enterprise flightdeck, but that’s no problem. After all, a technician is not a musician. Anyone can see the clear division of labour. Look towards the horizon more closely; those rosy days are all but over.

A new technology has entered pop as previous technologies have never done before. Ten years ago, no ordinary-incomed band could afford a synthesiser. Ten years ago, using a synthesiser was sufficiently complicated to ensure that the end product was either mundane pomp-rock of the Magazine variety or the minimalist one-finger chord oceans of Numan and early Human League. It was only those bands with technological backgrounds—the Kraftwerk engineers being the prime example that seemed truly at ease with their machines.

You could say that microchips have democratised that access to
technology (and the music itself), and opened that road previously blocked by income or education. Of these pieces of hardware drum machines, synthesisers, sequencers nothing is more important than the sampler. Sampling has brought technology down from the studio and onto the street.

Sampler-musician John Oswald is an interested participant in the arena where machines meet music. Introducing his essay,
plunderphonia, he writes:

‘A digital sampler is, in its most common form, a tape recorder which looks and acts like an electronic organ. Samplers have become prominent in modern music making and are receiving the sort of publicity in the popular press that synthesisers did two decades ago. Musicians once again fear their impending obsolescence.”

“A sampler, in essence
a recording transforming instrument, is simultaneously a documenting device and a creative device, in effect reducing a distinction manifested by copyright.”
(Recommended Records, Volume 2, Number 1, Spring 1987)

Or, in the words of Mixmaster Morris, the sampler behind both The Rhythm Method and ‘The Mongolian Hip-Hop Show’, of London’s pirate radio station, Network 21, fame: “Sampling doesn’t theoretically offer you anything that you can’t do with a razor blade and a spool of tape, it’s just that you’re less likely to cut your fingers, it takes a lot less time and the process is reversible.”


All but the most tenaciously manual bands do it. The chart residents (though coy in admitting it) do it too.
The engineers behind Mel and Kim sample; Mirage sample Mel and Kim, Kraftwerk, Farley ‘Jackmaster’ Funk; hip-hop—the most upfront form of music in admitting its sources
relies on them. The indie charts, clinging onto guitars and (real) drums for grim death, are Luddite by comparison. The more the charts rely on seamless studio sounds, the more acoustic the indies become, in some vain assertion of rock ‘n’ roll authenticity. The very people who welcomed punk’s gatecrashing of the music industry now fear the death of pop. If there’s such a thing as a conventional pop format it’s one based on standard instruments. You don’t have to play them as nature intended. Pete Townsend still got sounds out of his guitar when he smashed it, or Little Richard tones from his piano when he walked on it.

In the theatre of pop, the instruments were there to be seen, the means of sound production had to be
visible. Thus, we get the spectacle of Paul HardcastIe dancing across our Top Of The Pops screens, a keyboard dangling from his neck. If he hadn’t been miming it was an unlikely way to ‘play’, but at least there was no need to question authorship of the music.

Whether or not sampling de-skills the musician isn’t the question. It allows non-musicians the possibility of performance by
all sounds musical. Peckham-based rappers The Three Wise Men, are a case in point. Contained in their ‘Urban Hell’ collage are sampled glass, motorbikes, traffic, the sounds of the inner city.

Jemski “Metal is an urban sound. It reflects our environment. We get our sounds from everywhere like that revving up sound. We took two good mikes onto the Harrow Road and chanced upon this motorbike that was starting up, we just recorded
it into a digital recorder”.

In Chicago, House producer and Bang Orchestra maestro Vince Lawrence is likewise sampling the sounds of the city, his city...

“Trax, the studio I work in is in a gay community. Round the back car park, we came across two guys sort of going at it. Their sounds were so natural, me and a buddy grabbed a couple of mikes and recorded it, then pulled samples off it.”

It’s the artist-in-a-garret scenario updated. No longer will generations need to closet themselves with Bert Weedon guitar- tutors; their act of rebellion will be sampling.

Curtis Mantronik, creator of the first completely sampled album, ‘Music Madness’, started out in the bedroom with a drum machine; now he lives in Manhattan surrounded by three samplers and a pile of secret ingredients. Taking the ease of sampling to its logical conclusion, allying it with other equally cheap, equally accessible technology
portastudios, televisions used as computer monitors, and a bit of software the sampling revolution’s set to take on the quantifiable profits of studios; the cost of studio-time has always been the deciding factor to anyone attempting to break into records.

Jemski: “When for two grand you can have a computer (The Wise Men use Atari with a Steinberg sequencing software package) that can do the best that a 24 or 48-track studio can do in your home
£2,000 would normally pay for a couple of days time in one of those places— it’s going to make the studios redundant”.

“And,” adds drummer, Fil Chill, “kill the record companies”.

“There’s a lot of people who want to make music,” Jemski continues “but they couldn’t generate the funds to do it. With
this technology, everyone will be able to do it and just pay for the master cut. At the end of the day, it’s going to be the people who’re good that sell the records, and the people who ain’t, won’t. At least it’ll be the public who decides. A situation of complete freshness is happening."

Reading between the lines of Jemski’s rhetoric, the corollary of the demise of studio tyranny is the destruction of the constraints that control musical talent.

Contained in the accessibility of a sampler is the creation of new talents free of the notions of musical technique. As the roles of producer and musician merge into one, no longer will your ‘musicianship’ be defined by your instrumental ability, only your imagination. That’s where the buck stops.

For every ten people who come to the sampler with ideas, there are a thousand without them.

Mantronik: “These hip hop kids go into the studio because there’re certain people they’ve followed, but they don’t fully understand how that process works. If you hear most of the hip-hop records, the samples that they do are very poor, poor quality, just because they don’t know know what’s going on. It’s real easy to do a sample, real easy to put something in a machine and sample it, but to make a good sample, make it work, it takes something else.”

House music is the ultimate producer dance language. The musicians who made the original snatches of sound are faceless and uncredited; the producer-cum-DJ is the vital element in the mix. Who plays piano for JM Silk or Jackmaster Funk? Who cares? The authorship of the record lies not in its origins (in the playing) but in its sonic splicing. Vince Lawrence, originator of ‘Sample That!’, moved into House from a producer background. He’s not threatened by the Wise Men’s apocalyptic view of the studio culture— “Burn them down, burn them down! Burn the f*ckers to the ground!”

“I say that if a kid with $500 can go and make a record, contribute his art to the world, that’s fine,” says Lawrence. “As a musician, he’ll be more talented, he’s going to get more edge. Kids banging in the garage are going to be kids. Professional bands are going to be professional bands.”

How do you define yourself, then, Vince? Are you a producer or a musician?

“Me? I’m an artist.”


The Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu (sampling duo King Boy D and Rockman Rock) have come from production backgrounds and started kicking the notion of copyright where it hurts most
— the wallet. Their ‘All You Need Is Love’ 45, and debut LP, ‘1987 What The F**k’s Going On?’, steal relentlessly the single, notably from Sam Fox’s ‘Touch Me’.

King Boy D: “We were aware of copyright, but it was only once we’d done ‘All You Need Is Love’ and finished our album, and been told that we couldn’t do this sort of thing, that we come out with KLF
the Kopyright Liberation Front. It’s like it’s 1955, and you’ve got yourself an electric guitar, and then somebody from the Acoustic Guitar Society comes around and says ‘I’m sorry, you can’t do that; it’s against the law to use electricity in instruments’. And that’s what it feels like; we’ve got these samplers, how are we meant to use them?"

“We thought everyone was going to sue us, but it hasn’t happened. A solicitor told us that
if we got caught it’d cost us a minimum of £10,000— and that’s just withdrawing the record not fighting it in court. All my neat lines of how we weren’t taking, but creating something new, just didn’t wash. In a couple of sentences this solicitor just ripped us apart. However, Jive Records Samantha’s label have approached us for a record deal”

Rockman Rock: “They should be sueing the bollocks off us.”

Wait until Abba hear the album; with ‘Dancing Queen’ used in its entirety as a backing track on one song, they’ll be sending the longboats over.

So, everything may be found, but it’s not free. The courtrooms are set to reverberate with the echoes of the George Harrison ‘My Sweet Lord’/Chiffons ‘She’s So Fine’ lawsuit, sample-style. No legal precedent exists yet as to who owns the sonic airwaves; the arbitrary figures of seven seconds or four bars have been mentioned, but nothing’s definite. The Beastie Boys sued British Airways for quoting a tune, then settled out of court over their Led Zep habit. It may be fashionable to take a Cameo drum beat or a James Brown riff, but if anyone’s tempting fate in Britain, it’s the Justified Ancients
Of Mu-Mu. ‘All You Need Is Love’ not only quotes but references chunks of The Fab Four, MC5, Abba and our Sam. Is this a naughty debunking of copyright or musical madness?

King Boy D “No, the naughtiness came about afterwards. We made that record out of what excited us, out of what we had lying around. When we came to getting it released, nobody would distribute it for us, not the Cartel, nobody. They didn’t want to go to prison, be sued, go to court. It wasn’t like one of your import hip-hop records with a bit of James Brown on nobody’s worried about that. We were a British group wanting it distributed by British distributors, so it was more upfront”

Theft is a form of flattery, even though the Master of the Drum Rolls may decide differently, but is there a difference between quotations and plagiarism? As befits
a classicist, burdened with the concerns of authorship, Roger Bolton (main man of Syco Systems, Fairlight’s UK distributor) tells the musicians that he samples from what he’s doing, and pays double the going rate. And will he credit them?

“I’m negotiating with Fairlight a slightly new contract that we will give to every new user; it says that if they do any sampling, they make sure they get the name of the musician and credit them every time they use the sound. It
gives the musicians more publicity, and hopefully, more work.” That’s a predictable, traditionalist response. Isn’t sampling a freedom from all that?

“The whole idea of sampling is to generate new sounds from combining old ones and manipulating them. God, I’ve stolen snare drum sounds before. But the point is, that I won’t just play them back, I’ll put my fingerprint on it somehow.”


Sample that! The entire history of recorded sound is available for restructuring, retransmission, for causing a revolt in the museum. Music has always relied for its justification on a theory of roots; it has always referred back to the past. Not for nothing does the question, rephrased and repeated, ‘Where’re you coming from?’ exist.

The possibility of sampling is the removal of all historical reference points, the production of an ahistorical amnesia. And an infinity of new musical meanings. By severing some sound from its origins for your own sampling purposes, you’re not merely vivifying history, you’re
through collage, quotation, pastiche, bricollage remotivating fragments with these new meanings. A sampled sound becomes fraught with meaning.

King Boy D: “There’s not much of ‘Touch Me’ on ‘All You Need Is Love’, but it’s putting Sam Fox in a context. Whereas she tries to portray herself as good clean fun, part of the British way of life – happy Samantha! – we’re putting her in another context, exposing her double standards. We’ve inserted “touch me” between “shag, shag, shag” and lots of (male) deep breathing...If I was Samantha’s dad, I wouldn’t be too happy.”

Rockman Rock: “The record was loosely about AIDS; there’s no intellectual thought behind it, just a series of images.”

Stripped of its roots, all the music in the world has already been written. There’s nothing left to discover, only things to reinvent; there’s no pure, raw music, only the prepared.

Mixmaster Morris: “I often sample off records but distort it in such a way that I can never find the sample again. There’s a lot more to sampling than just name-dropping. It’s a perfectly valid technique, but I like to go a lot further and make something completely new out of samples. I use the cooking analogy: you can be a great cook without inventing new ingredients, you just mix the old ones in a new way. In the same way with music; by crossing unusual things you’ve created something original.”

Sampling means cannibalism, chewing your chosen musical morsels just as much as you want, swallowing them whole, throwing up and rearranging. Pop eats itself.