The Art of Sampling

The aim of this article is to discuss ‘sampling’ which over the past 40 years or so has become an increasingly popular method of producing music. As sampling has become the basis for various popular genres such as Hip Hop, critics have let it been known that they regard the production form to be unimaginative and uncreative, with some simply viewing it as theft.

Bob Clearmountain – ‘It’s so easy to do now, any kid in their basement can do that with their sampler and it doesn’t seem quite fair, because it really is stealing’.

Although there have been major artists that have had cases filed against them for the use of sampling, it continues to remain a heavily used technique in music production both within and outside of mainstream music.

What is Sampling?

Sampling refers to the act of taking a portion, or sample, of a recorded sound and utilising it as an instrument in a different song or musical piece.

Andy Partridge, XTC – “Sampling to compare it to another art form is almost like photo collage.”

Hip Hop was the first popular genre of music that was recognised for its heavy use of sampling. DJs in the 70s would manipulate vinyl tracks on two separate turntables and a mixer, employing techniques such as beat juggling and scratching in order to create something new and something fun.

The process of sampling is something that has spread as a production technique over the past 40 years due to the rise in popularity of electronic, disco and industrial music. Sampling was often done with a piece of hardware called a sampler where only a short portion of sound could be recorded due to the processing power and space, however longer portions of a sound could be sampled at the cost of sacrificing the quality of the sample; The Wu-Tang’s ‘36 Chambers’ is an example of where the tracks were composed of longer samples at the expense of the clarity of sound.

Today sampling is often performed with computer software, however vinyl recordings are still preferred amongst many producers, specifically within Hip Hop because of the authentic and rich sound it provides.

Methods of Sampling

Samples are typically one part of a song, which are then subsequently used to construct the main sound for another song. Instruments and rhythm breaks can also be sampled and used to lay down a drumbeat. Early DJs laid the foundation for Hip Hop by repeating the breaks from songs to extend the time people could dance, giving rise to the culture of B-Boying or ‘Breaking’. Samples can mean anything to include drums, song bites, spoken word or even sound from contemporary media such as movies, TV shows and advertising.


Sampling is a topic that has become controversial both legally and musically. Pioneers of the production technique often did not receive permission from the original artists or copyright owners before creating a piece from their sounds, however due to the fact that Hip Hop in the 70s was confined to local ‘block parties’, it was unnecessary to obtain copyright clearance in order to sample recorded music at these parties, but as the genre progressed to the mainstream, it became necessary to pay to obtain legal clearance for samples. A difficult feat if you weren’t a successful DJ, producer or rapper. As a result, a number of recording artists including Biz Marketand the Beastie Boys ran into legal trouble for uncredited samples. Additionally, the restrictiveness of current US copyright laws and their global impact on creativity has also came under increased scrutiny.

Hip-hop DJs today take different approaches to sampling, with some critical of its obvious use. Some critics have expressed the belief all sampling is lacking in creativity, while others say sampling has been innovative and revolutionary.

Will Smith – ‘ They say that sampling and imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, let’s take James Brown for instance, James Brown was finished, James Brown was old, sampling and rap made James Brown new again.’

Those whose own work has been sampled have also voiced a wide variety of opinions about the practice, both for and against sampling. Sampling amongst producers today has become somewhat of a unclear subject regarding it’s legality and requirements. To clarify a couple of points:

• Samples do not necessarily have to be cleared. For example, if the sample is in the public domain then it does not need to be cleared.

• Regardless of the sample’s length, it is intellectual property and it needs to be cleared (Contradictory I know).

• It depends on who the producer /artist is. If the artist is popular than it is more likely that they will face legal charges if a sample is not cleared. If a producer is unsigned and not someone that people are aware of then it is unlikely that departments will expend legal resources to build a case against them.

Below is video that explains the topic in a little more detail.

Despite its critics, sampling is still a form of production that is widely used amongst producers and recording artists. Where some regard the method as uncreative, those who are well versed in the technique claim that the process requires a unique and good ear for music in order to select the correct samples and subsequently rearrange and add more elements to create something completely new. Regardless of its surrounding controversy Sampling remains a core technique in many contemporary genres of music.

Words: Kitan Ogunfeibo

Image source: Attack Mag

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