The act of sampling, or using a piece of an existing recording as part of a new recording, has been essential to Hip Hop musicians and producers since the genre’s inception in the 1970s. First in the Bronx, and soon after in other boroughs of New York City, DJs used turntables to spin records, combine songs, and scratch rhythms entertaining audiences in public spaces as well as dance clubs. Pioneering DJs such as DJ Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash noticed that, among other things, dancers preferred the instrumental breaks—sections that usually featured just drums and bass—in certain records, so they developed techniques using two turntables to extend these sections. These breaks also provided the background music for early rappers, the MCs. In 1979, the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” became the first popular song to contain rapping and, in some form, sampling. Hired by veteran musician and pioneering rap producer Sylvia Robinson, the Sugar Hill Records house band performed a break live by extending a short section of Chic’s “Good Times” as an instrumental backdrop for the Sugarhill Gang’s raps. Over the early 1980s, as Hip Hop became a fixture in American popular music, producers made use of live bands but, more often, began to incorporate the emerging digital technology of drum machines and samplers.
By the mid-1980s, drum machines and digital keyboards were embraced wholeheartedly by Hip Hop producers, for whom building tracks with these devices largely replaced recording with live bands. Early digital samplers were large, difficult to use and prohibitively expensive to most Hip Hop producers. New, more affordable, smaller samplers arrived in 1986-7 and were embraced by producers, quickly leading to a conceptual shift in what it meant to play a break. Machines such as the E-mu SP-12 allowed users to sample up to 1.2 seconds of existing recordings and then play them back in new ways, often “looping” those short segments into something longer. Though samplers were introduced initially as a means to record short sounds for digital keyboards, Hip Hop producers discovered they were useful for something different: snatching bits of existing records—drum beats, vocal lines, spoken words—to be reconfigured in sonic collages. Sampling became the centerpiece of Hip Hop production—albums such as Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and The Beastie Boys Paul’s Boutique are layered with dozens of samples—and a major facet of what many consider the genre’s Golden Age in the late 80s and early 90s. Much as they had done with turntables a decade earlier, Hip Hop creators turned a technology on its head, using it creatively in a way its makers never fully intended.
When Hip Hop was something mostly confined to the nation’s inner cities and not the commercial force it would become, the practice of sampling bits and pieces of music from copyrighted recordings was largely ignored by record labels and their legal teams. But as rap recordings and the broader culture of Hip Hop gained popularity and began to generate sizable revenue in the US, inevitably the questions of rights and remuneration arose. In 1989 members of The Turtles filed suit against rap group De La Soul and their Tommy Boy record label for the use of several seconds of the 1969 recording “You Showed Me.” The case, which was settled out of court but resulted in a $1.7 million dollar payout for The Turtles, established sampling as big business and led many people to ask the question: “What makes something original?” To some ears, De La Soul had created something altogether new with the Turtles’ recording. Others felt differently.
As it relates to art and music, originality has come to be viewed by many as a slippery concept. There are those who argue that no artist creates in a vacuum; musicians, writers and painters have always been influenced by other artists, drawing on their work as source material. Some have argued that musicians like Led Zeppelin were “stealing” because of their appropriation of American Blues riffs and vocal themes. And again, though De La Soul used a digital copy of a section of The Turtles’ “You Show Me” in their recording “Transmitting Live From Mars,” many would argue that The Turtles’ recording was transformed and thus the De La Soul recording is “original.”
In this lesson, students use examples from visual art as well as rap to enter into a structured academic controversy that explores the concept of originality.
What makes a work of art original, and how does the use of “sampling” technology in Hip Hop challenge perceptions of originality? Upon completion of this lesson, students will:
- Know (knowledge):
- Key terms and concepts of U.S. Copyright Law
- What sampling is as both a musical and technological practice
- How people assimilate and disseminate cultural information
- About visual artist Richard Price
- About the concept of appropriation
- About the social history of Bronx, NY at the time of the creation of Hip Hop
- Be able to (skills):
- Make connections between artistic movements and the social and economic conditions from which they emerge
- Consider the complexities and ambiguities of controversial issues
- Identify and consider both sides of a debated issue
- Integrate information from texts and videos to make thematic connections and create deeper understandings
- Make connections between the history of sampling and their own musical experiences
- Question and analyze concepts of originality in music and other art forms
- Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions on topics, texts, and issues, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
Sampling as Natural Human Practice - Video
“Can It Be All So Simple” - Video
The Bronx in the 1970s - Video
For additional lesson plan materials, please visit the Lesson Resources at TeachRock.
- Ask students:
- Have you ever heard of digital sampling? What is it?
- Who are some of your favorite contemporary musicians? Do you think they use sampling at all?
- Do you think any of your current favorite artists are influenced by any other artists? If so, can you hear who they are influenced by?
- In what ways was the idea of a sample explained in this clip?
- Esperanza Spalding suggests that musicians assimilate information and then disseminate it again, but it comes out as “their bag.” What do you think Spalding means by this?
- Do you assimilate information or inspiration in your life? How?
- In what ways might you then “disseminate” that information or inspiration again?
- This lesson utilizes a structured academic controversy format in which students break into two groups, each of which represent one side of a courtroom-style hearing. After breaking your class into groups, distribute Handout 1: Pre-Trial Research for All Groups and have the groups follow the prompt on the sheet.
- Now distribute Handout 2: Case A, The Marlboro Man and Richard Prince. Explain to your students that Richard Prince is an artist known for appropriation, the act of using outside source material to create one’s own art works. This handout includes a Marlboro cigarette advertisement and the artwork Prince made from it. Follow the prompts on Handout 2 and have students observe the visual examples, gather their pre-trial research using Handout 1, and then proceed with the three phases of trial and discussion as outlined in the “Courtroom” section of Handout 2.
- Now explain to students that in the 1980s, the digital “sampler” allowed musicians to appropriate music by chopping out sections of recorded tracks with which they could create new recordings. Play Clip 2, Soundbreaking - “Can It Be All So Simple” by the Wu-Tang Clan. Distribute Handout 3: Case B, The Wu-Tang Clan, “Can It Be All So Simple” and have students follow the prompts from Handout 1 to gather their pre-trial research. Then proceed for a second time with the three phases of trial and discussion as outlined on Handout 3.
Show Clip 3, Soundbreaking - The Bronx in the 1970s and have your students take notes, focusing on the origins of rap and the people who created it. Ask your students:
- In what ways do you think that rap might have been a product of the assimilation and dissemination of various cultural practices, even before sampling evolved as a technology?
- Is there anything completely original in our lives?
- Are there other aspects of life in which you see a form of sampling? For instance, consider the idea of sampling as it could apply to the way you dress or speak, or how movies and television shows get made?
- Sampling can take bits and pieces of existing songs (or other sounds) and recombine them to create a new piece of music. In this way, sampling is a metaphor for a key aspect of American culture that is repeated throughout our nation’s history: the combining of elements from different cultures to create something new. Describe another example of this phenomenon, whether in terms of food, music, language, etc. How is your example similar to or divergent from sampling?
- Ask students to select a song they personally enjoy listening to with a recognizable sample and, if possible, do a little research to identify the origin of the sample(s). (If they can’t identify the source(s) on their own, the website whosampled.com is helpful for this research). Then have them respond to the following prompts in writing:
- What is the name of the song you selected?
- What is the song (or other medium) that is sampled?
- How does the sample contribute to the song—in terms of mood, or rhythm, or style, etc.? How might the song sound or feel different without this sample?
- Why do you think the song’s producer(s) selected that particular sample?
If students have trouble selecting a song on their own, you can suggest they listen to and research any of the following songs:
- “Famous” by Kanye West feat. Rianna and Swizz Beatz. (Samples Nina Simone’s “Do What You Gotta Do” and other songs.)
- “Hold Up” by Beyoncé. (Samples Andy Williams’ “Can’t Get Used to Losing You” and other songs.)
- “One Dance–Crazy Cousins Remix” by Drake, feat. Wiz Kid and Kyla. (Samples “Do You Mind” by DJ Paleface feat. Kyla)
For further exploration of sampling, open the Soundbreaking Sampler TechTool. Follow the prompts from Handout 5 of Sampling: The Foundation of Hip Hop, experimenting with sampling pieces of music and then sequencing them in time.