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Sampling: it’s role in hip hop and its legacy in music production today

Producer and musician Jason O’Bryan joined the team at Abbey Road Institute London as a senior lecturer in 2015. After establishing a successful career working as an inhouse engineer his career shifted to focus on producing and engineering for the Dub Pistols. His music has always been heavily influenced by his early interest in hip hop and sampling. As it’s a subject that has a personal resonance with Jason we wanted to dive into its history, it’s influence on Jason and its relevance and legacy within the music industry today. 

let’s start with the basics. what is sampling?

Sampling in essence is when you include an element of a pre-existing recording by someone else in your composition. The sample can be anything that you’ve ‘sampled’ from another track; a rhythm, a melody, a beat, vocals or speech, which you then manipulate, edit, chop up or loop to fit creatively within your work.

How did you get into it and how did it influence you?

My first experience of independently producing my own music was when I was given an Atari computer by Pete Waterman (a prominent music mogul in the 80s) and I bought an Akai s1000 sampler to go with it. It was my first piece of musical technology. You could do so much with the sampler. You were suddenly liberated from needing a drummer or a guitar player. You could be completely independent, which is what I totally loved. 

When I was first getting serious about music, hip hop was making its way over from the US. It crossed over into England with this massive wave of artists in the late 80s. Around ‘87, it was artists like the Beastie Boys, L.L. Cool J. and Run DMC and Eric B and Rakim those were my main influences at that time.

The ethos of sampling, digging (searching) for samples and the whole Hip Hop culture that surrounded it was more than just the music, it encompassed various other elements such as graffiti, fashion and breakdancing. It was the equivalent of what punk rock would have been in the 70s, a movement or a lifestyle.

My favourite styles of music production are from that era and what is now considered to be the ‘golden age’ of hip-hop in the nineties. Later on, in my career, I was fortunate to work with many famous artists including Busta Rhymes, a seminal artist from that period, when, with the Dub Pistols, we co-wrote the music with him for the Hollywood movie ‘Blade 2’. 

What role did sampling play in your development as an artist and producer?

As it was such a major part of my background as a producer it’s really enjoyable to open students’ eyes up to the culture around sampling. When sampling was first introduced there was no internet. If you wanted to find samples, you literally went record shopping.  You would go and look for samples and dig in second-hand record shops all day long in obscure places, looking for forgotten records that might contain one little gem that no one else had used yet.

It’s hard to compare it to something that would be similar to it today. It’s kind of like trainspotting or I guess like Pokemon hunting now! So, for example, we would go to New York to track down that elusive undiscovered beat or track. That’s the extent of what it was like. Travelling to another country to go to record shops in order to find samples! It’s a concept that’s difficult to grasp now in the age of Spotify.

Another thing about sampling, which is really great, is it does actually enable you to discover lots of artists that you probably would not have been exposed to. You often find that there’s a sample you like from someone, look up the artist and then discover that you really like their catalogue of work, which you’d never have done otherwise.

Who are the pioneers? 

There are multiple artists. J Dilla was an incredible producer who really propelled sampling as an art form and helped define what the sampler could do. I love Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest, he’s amazing. DJ Premier from Gang Starr is also a massive influence and also artists like the Beastie Boys. They were also extremely influential on me growing up. So people like Adam Horovitz from the Beastie Boys who were not only rapping for the band but was also generating most of their beats using the EMU Sp1200. They would probably be my favourite producers from that era. 

There was a tribal dynamic in hip hop in the mid to late 90s, with fans and artists being divided by the different scenes in the US. East Coast versus West Coast which was a massive thing. I wasn’t so much into West Coast hip hop back in the day. So all my favourite artists were predominantly from the East Coast. It was more raw and relatable for me. West Coast was a little bit more based on P funk and synthesisers and stuff like that, like Dr. Dre and Snoop and Ice T. I could relate more to the gritty New York style, which was generally more classic sample based.

How does the history of sampling come through in what you teach on the course?

We start with the very earliest samplers and then work through chronologically. Starting with tape-based instruments like the Chamberlain, which was from the late 1940s, and preceded the Mellotron, which was basically the English version of the Chamberlain. The Mellotron was made famous by The Beatles being used on things like Strawberry Fields Forever and other groundbreaking tracks, we talk about Radiohead’s use of it on OK Computer or Bowie’s use of it on Space Oddity etc.

We look at all kinds of classic samplers and ways of integrating the ethos and sound of those into the modern workflow. Either by using samples of original items of hardware to create emulations using modern digital technology or by using instruments that already provide those aesthetics such as the Arturia plugins or Pro Tools and Logic stock plugins. 

The great thing is that with the advent of all these new amazing simulations that students have access to at Abbey Road Institute, we can actually discuss historically the development of sampling and then stop and actually look at one of the emulations and show students how to use it and listen to examples of the music that was created in that period of time which was completely driven by this technology. 

When we get to the 70s we look at the incredible Synclavier, which was a very, very expensive piece of equipment when it was produced. It was up to half a million dollars to buy one at the time and it was the staple of a limited number of very successful musicians. It wouldn’t have been available to most people who were making their living through music, but now through the modern emulations, we can access and enjoy this unique instrument in the classroom.

We also cover the Fairlight CMI from 1975, which is probably one of the most iconic samplers, it was used by people such as Kate Bush, Herbie Hancock, Peter Gabriel, Art of Noise and Trevor Horn. A lot by Trevor Horn! It’s almost Trevor Horn’s signature sound!

Moving onto the 80s we discuss the Emulator 1 which came out in 1982, then the Emulator 2 which succeeded it and then the advent of sequencing and sampling machines. So the early ones would again be from EMU Systems, instruments like the SP12  from 1985 and the SP 1200 from 1987. The SP1200 is an extremely iconic and desirable sampler because this was pretty much the key bit of kit used by many original hip hop producers. It’s like the holy grail of samplers in a way. They are now extremely sought after and fetch huge amounts of money on the second-hand market. So we look at the SP 1200 and investigate its use by artists and producers like the Beastie Boys, Dr Dre, Pete Rock and lots of other old legendary hip hop producers.

Jason and the Akai MPC 2000 '808 custom'

Jason and the Akai MPC 2000 ‘808 custom’

you cover J Dilla as an important figure in your teaching. Could you talk a bit about his work?

We start by looking at historical footage and documentaries which demonstrate the scale and importance of Dilla’s contributions to music and sampling. We then listen to his music and think about it aesthetically. Then, to put it into practice, the students start experimenting to see how they can emulate the vibe of J Dilla based on what we know about him, the technology he used and how he worked. J Dilla is historically one of the most famous producers to use an Akai MPC sampler. And in my opinion, he is completely unique in how he interacted with the instrument.  

We look at ways of integrating the ways of working on a vintage MPC type sampler, which includes using a step sequencer, which is quite different from using a piano roll or a modern MIDI Editor. A step sequencer basically makes you write in a certain way, as it’s a very regimented way of working. It’s much more suited to working with music like hip hop and dance music, which also originally relied heavily on sampling. 

When I’m teaching, I always try to show students a way to achieve what we’re trying to do, using something they already have. I try to avoid demonstrating tools that students can’t afford or that are beyond their reach. So, for example, in Logic there is a stock sampler that no one really gives much attention to, it doesn’t give you the appearance of a sampler. When you open it up and it sounds like a bad drum machine! But it’s not until you realize that you can load your own sounds into it. Then it becomes really useful. So you can use it in a very similar way to an MPC or SP 1200 in terms of the way of sequencing the sounds. And it’s got really nice swing functions built into it, which give your drums more of a groove, more of a kind of lazy feel, which is fundamental to the sound.

We then look at other aspects that make J Dilla’s work unique and authentic, for example, the sense of timing that he had, he was generally playing stuff in live without any kind of timing correction added. So we look at ways of triggering samples from keyboards so we can put them in with feel and without any quantization. And we also look at ways that we can get Logic to do that for us so we can have Logic randomly humanise our beats by applying certain programming techniques into the software. 

Finally, we look at replicating the limitations of vintage technology, for example, the 26.04 kHz sampling rate of the SP1200 paired with 12-bits of resolution to create an authentic emulation sonically. We consider how the memory limitations of the time, only 2.5 seconds of sampling time on the original SP1200, forced producers to sample 33⅓ rpm records at 45 rpm to get more into the machines and then pitch the samples back down internally, which also played an integral part in that iconic lo-fi sound of the era. 

What are some of the legal considerations you need to be aware of when sampling?

Back in the days when sampling was developed as a technology, there was no legal benchmark for it. It wasn’t included in law because the technology didn’t exist. So there was no precedent for what sampling meant legally. 

There were a lot of albums made in the 80s that would never be made now because of the copyright issues and the complications and the expense of clearing samples. An album like ‘Pauls Boutique’ by the Beastie Boys from 1989 would be a prime example. Early Hip-Hop records could feature samples from The Beatles or Michael Jackson and there was nothing really in place legally at first to stop them. 

Basically, when you’re sampling, you are including a recording that someone else owns in your recording. So you need to pay whichever label owns that recording, normally a fee upfront, and then normally you end up having to give away some of your songwriting publishing royalties as well. 

There are a lot of legal implications. And there are many landmark cases. There was a very famous case with Gilbert O’Sullivan in 1991 versus Biz Markie, which was the first sampling lawsuit to go to court. This forever altered the history of sampling. Another landmark was De la Soul being sued by the band The Turtles, which was settled for 1.7 million dollars. Nowadays the legalities have certainly made sampling far more difficult!

What software or gear would you recommend for someone starting out?

You can do a lot of what we’ve discussed, using the DAWs that most producers starting out would be working with. For example, Logic’s EXS24. If you wanted to get something that’s a little bit less clunky than the Logic stuff, you could get Kontact. Kontact is actually free as a sample player. If you use their sample libraries you pay for it but if you use it as a bespoke sampling instrument that you put your own stuff into it’s free!

If you want to embrace sampling as a major part of your creative workflow, I would definitely suggest getting a piece of hardware because it’s just a different workflow. A vintage sampler would be a great investment, there are so many different models but unfortunately, you should expect to spend a lot of money! 

My tip and the modern sampler that I love right now has to be the new Isla Instruments s2400, which is a faithful recreation of the iconic EMU Sp1200 with loads of additional modern features and at a considerable fraction of the cost of the original unit.

Having said all that I started off using hardware, but most of my most recent albums were made purely in software. So, you know, you can do it that way as well for sure.

What do you think is the legacy of sampling on musicians and producers recording today?

I think that the golden era of sampling has left a massive legacy for today’s producers, primarily its DIY ethic, a punk rock attitude of anything is possible, its rebellious and illegal nature and willingness to explore, appreciate and reimagine obscure artists. It demands you mix and match genres and enables you to be independent and liberated musically. 

As a producer, it also exposes you to recreating recording techniques to emulate old recordings and encourages you to add dirt, vibe and feel to your music, something that can be lacking in music today! In my opinion, the flaws and limitations of early sampling technology are exactly the reason why the music of that period continues to inspire and resonate today.

Top Trumps, Mix-tapes and more

Curious to know more about the vintage samplers that were discussed in the blog? We LOVE these sampler top trumps that Jason has created, featuring the much loved EMU SP 1200, CMI Fairlight, Ned Synclavier 11 and many more!

If you want to check out some highlights from some of the pioneers of sampling listen to the mix-tape Jason has created on Mixcloud. Artists featured include Gang Starr, NORE, Erick Sermon, Rakim and Redman. Parental Advisory Recommended – Explicit content included within the playlist. Listen on MixCloud here

Find new artists and ‘who sampled who’ on www.whosampled.com

And you can find out more about Jason on his staff profile.

Image Credits: Phil Klein photographed at Bass Junkie Studios