Roots of Electronica: “Sampling as Genre”
The history of sampling is as contested and complex as the history of electronic music itself. In fact, some of the first electronic music was sampling: found sounds manipulated and recontextualized to lend them new dimensions. Musique-concrete, a form of acousmatic experimental music that dates back to the 1940’s, is probably the first example of crude “sampling.” Sampling as it is commonly recognized today was largely forged by dub innovators like Lee “Scratch” Perry, hip-hop producers like DJ Kool Herc, and electronic outfits like Yellow Magic Orchestra.
Although sampling as a tool in music has a lineage far too vast for a single article. Sampling as a kind of genre is easier to examine. While many musicians have used sampling as a textural accessory in their song-craft, fewer have treated sampling as the entirety of the musical project. This form of intensive sampling produces music that is something like a sonic collage, with interest lying not only in the juxtapositions of collected sounds but also in the origins of these sounds, and the cultural implications of these origins.
The origin of “Sampling as Genre” is most easily affixed to composer John Oswald’s “plunderphonics” experiments, which he began in the mid-80’s. Oswald is far from the first musician to make songs entirely out of sampled material, but he was one of the first to give the practice a name, a form, and a philosophy. In his 1985 essay “Plunderphonics, or Audio Piracy as a Compositional Prerogative“, Oswald outlined his beliefs, which are, in very basic terms, that all sound is public domain, and since all music is made of sound, all sounds can and should be used to make music. To Oswald, plunderphonics were the future of music, the next frontier in a field that had evolved out of performed sound into recorded sound. Songs themselves were the new instruments for modern musicians, and the conceptual and legal restrictions that said otherwise were bullshit.
“If creativity is a field,” Oswald declared, “copyright is a fence.”
Oswald put his philosophy to the test by producing a wide array of plunderphonics works. His first two efforts, an EP, and an LP both entitled Plunderphonics. Both were released to immediate controversy thanks to a lack of authorization for sample usage, and ultimately neither one was put up for sale. Oswald’s knack for pilfering from popular musicians like Michael Jackson and The Beatles meant that serious commercial potential for his work was hopeless, but it also helped elevate his sonic experiments out of the purely avant-garde realm and into a broader cultural arena.
As YouTube comments are quick to point out, plunderphonics was something of a predecessor to “YouTube poop” and vaporwave. In the sense that Oswald’s “songs” were far more than musical experiments, they were also cultural pranks whose appeal was primarily derived from seeing the script flipped on familiar pop music with gleeful, and technically illegal, abandon. To listen to plunderphonics was to become an anti-consumer, to reclaim the music forced upon you and spit it back as something half yours.
Although the plunderphonics songs available online today remain trippy and fascinating, it does become clear after listening to several of them that they aren’t universally pleasant. Oswald’s compositions are all jagged edges and funhouse distortions; more mentally stimulating than sensual. It would take later musicians to inject Oswald’s ideas into a more accessible vehicle, to pull the anti-music Oswald had created full circle back into music.
DJ Shadow’s 1996 debut Endtroducing…, remains possibly the most iconic example of “Sampling as Genre.” Created entirely with a sampler, turntable, and tape-recorder, Endtroducing… was a direct descendent of plunderphonics in philosophy, but a unique entity in form. Where plunderphonics took popular songs and blew them up cubist-style, Endtroducing… pulled from obscure, forgotten songs and samples and ordered them into listenable and downright pretty music.
Though hardly a commercial juggernaut, Endtroducing… was, and remains, a critical darling, universally acclaimed by almost all major music publications and notably included on TIME’s 2010 list of the 100 all-time greatest albums. Listening to it today, it’s not hard to hear why: Endtroducing… is a remarkable fusion of the theoretical and the sensual, a futuristic music grounded in traditional form. It’s the kind of album you can really get lost in, a brooding, nocturnal, soundscape haunted by unknown voices out of TV shows and comedy albums and underscored by rumbling 90’s breakbeats. Unlike plunderphonics, it never feels parodic, and though a fondness for pop culture is evident in both Oswald and Shadow’s work, Entroducing… never feels critical; it’s an aesthetic experience that would still function in full even without context.
Post-Endtroducing…, many classic “heavy-sampling” works followed that managed to distill the whimsy of plunderphonics into pure musicality. Since I Left You, The Avalanches’ beloved 2000 debut. Wove even the most clownish of sound-bites (“you’re crazy in the coconut!”) into a woozy, majestic tapestry. And provided one of the best-known works of “Sampling as Genre” this side of the millennium. Since I Left You feels in some ways like a logical descendant of Endtroducing…, an interpretation of the world of samples through a dizzier, grander lens.
Outside of pure electronica, “Sampling as Genre” also found a comfortable home in many a hip-hop producer’s instrumental efforts. Madlib’s diverse Beat Konducta series, for instance, uses specified sample sources to build a new kind of concept album. A fusion of cultural/conceptual plunderphonics and traditional beat making.
But perhaps the most musically moving article produced in the “Sampling as Genre” medium is J Dilla’s elegiac Donuts, released in 2006, the same year J Dilla passed away.
Donuts was recorded almost entirely at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where the J Dilla had been hospitalized due to a rare blood disease. Though technically more of a traditional instrumental hip-hop album than a plunderphonics offshoot. Donuts takes much of its power from a constellation of ghostly samples marshaled into something that feels like a meditation on time and life. Ordering the music J Dilla loved into a form that conveyed the experience of his own experiencing. It’s heady, heavy stuff, but it’s also lush and listenable and remains a powerful totem of the genre: a modern-day Requiem for the DJ generation.
Sampling and “Sampling as Genre”
Sampling and “Sampling as Genre” are now so ubiquitous that it seems odd that it was ever considered conceptually daring. Artists like Kanye West embody much of what John Oswald predicted in the 80’s. But the style is now so recognizable that it hardly feels like a revolt. The evolution of “Sampling as Genre” has been quite interesting in this way. What began as a kind of rejection of traditional music, an inversion of traditional culture has merely replaced it. Anti-music has become music, and what might have been a postmodern affront to the staid prettiness of pop has served to reinforce it. “Sampling as Genre,” plunderphonics, sound-collage; like electronic music and all its affectations, with time, these have revealed themselves to be, ultimately, just music.