Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Borrowing From the Past to Make the Music of Today

WhoSampled has turned my understanding of modern music upside down, inside out, and round and round. At WhoSampled, dedicated volunteers identify borrowed and interpolated beats, lyrics, and melodies. When I first discovered WhoSampled, I had no idea that the tapestry of modern music was so rich and entwined. I was both amazed at how much musical knowledge and mental playlists producers must have in their heads, and equally dismayed that many songs that I thought were original creations were borrowed from the past - sometimes by delicate inspiration, other times by outright copying. I was also astounded to learn that music from generations ago is often still with us today in a reincarnated form.

For example, it turns out that Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg's "Nuthin' but a G Thang" directly samples Leon Haywood's "I Wanna Do Something Freaky To You." Sure, this kind of information is available in an album's liner notes, but it's an entirely different experience when you can compare the songs side-by-side.

Link: "Nuthin' But A G Thang" vs. "I Wanna Do Something Freaky To You" on WhoSampled

(In 2001, Dre and Snoop sampled a different part of "...Freaky..." for their song, "The Wash", for the movie of the same title)

I was shocked when I heard this! I had no idea that sampling was as prevalent as it is. 1970-era funk has influenced rap and hip hop for nearly 30 years; in fact, rap and hip-hop are an evolution from the funk world.

When I discovered WhoSampled, I spent several evenings entering songs I knew, each time thinking, "Well, this one's got to be original, right?" - and frequently finding I was wrong. Here's a song that bit me three times:

Link 1: Tupac Shakur's "California Love" (1995) vs. Joe Cocker's "Woman to Woman"(1972)
Link 2: Tupac Shakur's "California Love" (1995) vs. Ronnie Hudson & the Street People's "West Coast Popluck" (1982)
Link 3: Tupac Shakur's "California Love" (1995) vs. Zapp's "Dance Floor" (1982)

I was also surprised at the obscurity of some of the sampled songs. For example, Eminem's "Crack a Bottle" (2009) samples Mike Brant's "Mais Dans La Lumière" (1970) ("that's got to be original, right?", I thought).

So far, 50 Cent's "In Da Club" (2000, produced by Dr. Dre) is one of the few songs of this genre that I can find that seems to be entirely original.

Through all of this, I'm also getting another sense of what sampling enabled: it allowed generations of music artists to produce their own music with nothing more than a turntable. No fancy, expensive, non-portable instruments. I guess this is obvious if one thinks about the composition of a group -- a DJ and some lyricists, no drummers or horn players. But I'm getting that now.

And, of course, relevance to generative music: Does it all need to be original? Valid generative music could borrow from the sounds of the past.

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