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Steinski Gives A Sampling History Lesson

Humphrey Bogart may not have known much about it, but he was part of a musical revolution in the 1980s: the sampling revolution. These days, it's not just music: Much of our culture is sampled, and digital technology is making it easier than ever to borrow from music, speech and even a movie like Casablanca.

After three decades of sampling, the musical technique has become increasingly mainstream, thanks to artists such as DJ Shadow — whose practice of digging for obscure albums to sample on the 1996 album Endtroducing... landed him in the Guinness Book of World Records — and music producer Girl Talk (a.k.a. Gregg Gillis), who specializes in highly involved mash-up remixes that rely heavily on samples of well-known hits, but may potentially land him in court.

One of the art form's pioneers, Steven "Steinski" Stein, created "Lesson 1: The Payoff Mix" with his musical partner Doug DiFranco (known as Double Dee) in 1983. Along with two follow-ups — "Lesson 2: The James Brown Mix" and "Lesson 3: The History of Hip-Hop Mix" — the two forced music and the wider culture to confront issues of sampling technology, intellectual property, fair use and creativity. The producer spoke with Soundcheck host John Schaefer about the way the art of sampling has changed music, as well as his new collection, What Does It All Mean? 1983-2008 Retrospective.

Lesson 1: Music Has Always Been Referential

"Music, and especially jazz, has always been referential, saying, 'I'll take a piece of that or I'll take a little piece of this,' " Stein says.

But because of the nature of instrumentation and the technology, it was always done through the person, through Dizzy Gillespie's trumpet or Charlie Parker's saxophone.

"When digital technology happened, Douglas and I, and obviously a number of other people, stumbled into it," Stein says. "All of a sudden, you could be referential by taking the thing itself. Instead of re-contextualizing it on your instrument in music as part of your own composition, you could then re-contextualize the piece by taking the actual piece and putting it in a new setting. It's always had questionable legality from the beginning, but its utility and ease is not a question."

Stein says there was sampling well before their "Payoff Mix," although it existed in a different form — namely, the popular Flying Saucer records, which were collages created by Bill Buchanan and Dickie Goodman. Known as "break-in" records and generally considered to reside in the novelty genre, the Flying Saucer records were "built around a narrative with an actor who played a reporter, or TV person, who asked questions or delivered jokes, the punchlines of which were hooks of popular songs," Stein says.

"What we did," Stein says, "was construct a five-minute piece completely out of other pieces, without any sort of narrative other than what we were able to stitch out of the pieces. We used a whole lot of samples — we didn't use one; we used 60 or 70, I think, in the first record. And that was probably among the first approaches like that, even though, of course, now that I think about it, it was all tape. It wasn't digital technology; it was tape and razor blades."

Lesson 2: No Mechanism To Clear Rights

The Steinski and Double Dee pieces — Lessons 1, 2 and 3 — were never originally released in stores because they never cleared rights for songs. Still, the mixes became huge, unintended pop hits in clubs and on radio. In fact, "The Payoff Mix" was conceived over a weekend as a contest entry.

Stein says that when "Lesson 1" first came out, they had difficulties clearing rights for the songs they used from the larger record labels. At that time, some didn't even know how to charge for samples. It wasn't until releases by De La Soul and The Beastie Boys that a system was created — although, he says, they still ran into problems.

"It turned into, 'Now you can't clear it, because it's wildly and prohibitively expensive,'" Stein says. "So only rich people can play. There is now a mechanism: If you can afford it, then definitely you're online. But it's strictly for basically one major label talking to another major label."

Lesson 3: Finding Creativity In The Process

Stein says that he finds creativity in the process, because "first of all, it isn't the original thing. You can listen to [Girl Talk's] stuff, you can listen to our stuff, and you know that it's not the thing that you are hearing. That is a piece of something else; it's a building block. Now, whether or not that's legitimate — whether it's an art form, whether it's even creative — that's going to be left, unfortunately, to the courts."

"You look at [visual artist] Louise Nevelson, you look at Joseph Cornell, or at any number of people," he says. "The difference is that those are one-of-a-kind pieces. And if someone buys it for three-quarters of a million dollars and installs it in their house, that's the end of it; you can see a picture. But with our stuff, you can duplicate it on a cassette or send MP3s to your friends, and that's what's so threatening about it."

When jazz musicians reference a lick or melody from a well-known song within another composition, it's considered "quoting," but many interpret sampling to be "copying." Stein says that such narrow legal viewpoints resist and miss the context surrounding the references.

"The truth of the matter is, the legality of this doesn't really make any difference to me," he says. "I mean, I'm gonna make the records no matter what. It's like saying, 'If you use that color blue in your painting, that's not legal.' Well, what does that have to do with anything? It would be great if it was legal, it's too bad it's not, and so what?"

Steinski's Sampler Of Sampling

By Steinski

The songs on this list run the gamut of sampling techniques and stretch across the years the form has been used. The style isn't limited to hip-hop, and the ways it's used can be very different. Sometimes, just one loop forms the basis of the rhythm. A riot of different samples, artfully layered, creates mad energy and even serves up voices for the chorus. Or the only sample in the song might be a bit of a vocal that gives context and emotion. An old, unexpected sample provides exciting contrast, and many different versions of the same song fit together to create something new.

Steinski's Sampler of Sampling

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

This dynamite remix adds dubbed-out production techniques to the Qawwali vocal track of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, then lays the result over a slowed-down sample of the classic hip-hop drum loop from "It's a New Day" by the Skullsnaps. Dreamy.

Beastie Boys

After the Beastie Boys' first LP -- a monster hit which set sales records in every direction, and which attracted much legal attention for unlicensed samples -- the Beasties changed producers and record labels. Working with L.A. production team the Dust Brothers, their second album used a dense, innovative mix of over-the-top samples. "Shadrach" wasn't a major hit, but it has the line, "I got more stories than J.D.'s got Salinger," and I love that.

Maceo & The Macks

The right amount of the right sample at the right time. This instrumental of "Soul Power" (the James Brown hit) features Maceo Parker's sax doing the heavy lifting with lyrical elegance. Partway through the song, they added a sample from Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, where he speaks about having been to the mountaintop. The perfect touch.

Vanessinha and Alessandra

Many elements are at play in this rocket from the Rio favelas: a deep electro track owing much to the style of Miami bass; two young MCs screaming Portuguese lyrics (which I suspect promote sex, drugs and violence); and, surprisingly, a chorus that samples "Night Train," an old James Brown R&B hit from long before his Godfather of Soul period, and a song rarely heard these days. The first time I heard this, I was driving, and I wound up pounding on the dashboard all the way home.


An early underground hit for this pair of West Coast indie hip-hoppers. Producers Chief Xcel and DJ Shadow constructed the song by sampling many versions of the same tune: "People Make the World Go Round," originally by The Stylistics. Beautiful rapping by Gift of Gab, with some atmospheric, perfectly placed scratching by Xcel and Shadow.

Copyright 2008 WNYC

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