“In music, the past is always our present.” On sampling.
Back to the Future
“Flight controllers are looking very carefully at the situation. Obviously a major malfunction.” These opening six seconds of audio from Beyoncé’s 2013 hit “XO” were overlooked by many, but the sample Queen B chose for her illustrious anthem of love was a painful trigger for a select few. Only seventy-three seconds into its takeoff in 1986, and NASA’s Challenger detonated, resulting in seven deaths. NASA employees and family members of the deceased protested that the use of this borrowed material, referred to as a sample, is insensitive and insulting to the sacrificed lives of their loved ones. In a statement, Beyoncé apologized, clarifying, “‘XO’ was recorded with the sincerest intention to help heal those who have lost loved ones and to remind us that unexpected things happen, so love and appreciate every minute that you have with those who mean the most to you” (ABC News). The use of the Challenger clip presents as a commodification of tragedy rather than a sonic memorial. These six seconds were not woven into the track’s rhythm or beat but left in their original state, an extraneous introduction to a pop song that procured millions for industry billionaires (Vogue). Sampling reveals the immense power that appropriated sounds carry.
Regardless of Beyoncé’s, or any artist’s, intention, a new layer of meaning is added on top of a sample and its original context. The adoption of the past also means adoption of its connotations. Many samples relinquish their origins once incorporated into a new song; they are treated purely as sounds and used with an eye toward maximum profitability and away from the sample’s historical significance. But maybe we should start interpreting borrowed rhythms through closer readings. What does it mean for an artist to take on another artist’s voice, incorporating it into her own music? Mrs. Knowles was not making a political statement on love, but with the introduction of the Challenger sample, “XO” immediately became politicized.
Music has always been political. It’s hard to divorce the extremity of today’s political and social climate from any genre. Considering that rap and hip-hop, since their origin, have been loaded with racial implications and calls for social justice, artists have to decide whether to privilege the message or the artistry. This same struggle now crosses over to popular music. Sampling, which originated in hip-hop, is used in a variety of genres, including pop. In the essay “Records That Play: The Present Past in Sampling Practice,” Vanessa Chang articulates that “although the sample is not a historical object (unless deployed for the purposes of parody or political gesture), the record from which the sample comes certainly is . . . The degree of transformation and reconfiguration performed on the sample erases the musical, cultural and social history of the original, even as its trace remains” (Chang, 154). Although Beyoncé’s track was not politically centered, because she is a pop industry staple, the pleasure-driven nature of her music has confused, even insulted, history. The political element that sampling introduces in music can be erosive to the past or progressive, depending on the sample’s new arrangement.
Beyond the case-by-case use of individual samples, since the practice of sampling comes from a politically driven genre, the appropriation of the practice itself into other genres politicizes popular music—despite the common thought that music is meant to be a distraction and fantasy for many. But, then, does music have any agency at all? Yes, musicians are musicians and not politicians, but what defines the validity of a musician’s position on such a charged issue? Does a musician separate herself from her politics and beliefs or embrace them at the risk of alienating certain listeners?
Sampling grants artists the ability to experiment with the fluctuation of instrumental power and narrative authority in the present’s voice and in the past’s. Technological advancement has allowed for contemporary music to connect with its predecessors. Sampling is life support for our ancestors, and it allows musicians all over the world to have a conversation with any recording artist of the past and to reinterpret his or her art. This aspect of historical connection is so vital to the progression and evolution of music. Producer Mark Ronson reveals the expansive power of sampling in the wake of the digital revolution in a Ted Talk: “[Through] technology and the innate way that I approach making music—I can sort of bully our existences into a shared event . . . I can hear something that I love in a piece of media and I can co-opt it and insert myself in that narrative, or alter it, even” (Ronson). Samples act as found objects that grant both nostalgia and ingenuity, allowing them to meet in the middle.
Is this alteration objectively good or bad? Chang’s “Records That Play” discusses “ideal authenticity over fakery, uniqueness over ubiquity,” of sampling in relation to the origin of the borrowed work (144). Drawing on Walter Benjamin, she asserts that the aura belongs to the original work. When used as a sample, the work loses its aura because the producer’s agenda is to create a new context, in most cases unidentifiable, for the sampled material. Chang writes that “for producers, originality has to do with a certain effacement of the origin” (146). The masking of the borrowed material is key to the finished product’s validity, marking a kind of authenticity or success for the producers, as it means they have crafted original material rather than something recognizable as pastiche.
But samples aren’t always unique and unrecognizable anymore. Songs that use readily identifiable clips are now huge hits that bait popular recollection. Yet, that the sample is easily recognizable to the public’s ears does not mean that the found sound is a good choice. Ronson claims, “You can’t just hijack nostalgia wholesale. It leaves the listener feeling sickly” (Ronson). There is not enough creative oxygen for the producer to breathe new life into the sample. It becomes stale and clichéd. This is why it is important to understand how easy it is to take from the past, commodify it, and then ignore its contextual impact. Sampling does not just act as a thrift store of sound, but is a vehicle for social and political implications.
Contrary to Ronson’s commentary, rapper Nicki Minaj has subverted this predicament of banality with her sample of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s 1992 single “Baby Got Back” in her 2014 single “Anaconda.” “Anaconda” is a destabilizing masterpiece of sexual imagery that empowers Minaj, while using a sample that is derogatory towards women. Sir Mix-A-Lot focuses on women as objects with big behinds, and Minaj’s use of his music inserts herself into a conversation that she could not possibly be a part of without sampling. Minaj cuts Sir Mix-A-Lot midway through his sample, establishing herself as a sexual subject, instead of object, and empowering herself by doing so.
When the music video for “Anaconda” first came out, many criticized Minaj for being explicitly sexy and overexposed. Emphasizing her curvy features, grinding her body, and having phallic relations with a banana, are all visual tropes of “sexy” that Minaj uses to her advantage. She is in control of them, thus humanizing herself, and she makes fun of her own imagery, as her performance of sexuality asserts subtle camp. In addition to the visual tropes that Minaj mocks, her use of “Baby Got Back” allows her to take a subversive stance, instead of falling into the routine sexualization of the music industry. Minaj is liberated by the use of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s sample, interpreting the constraints of sexuality and sexiness of women in music. Minaj is sampling Sir Mix-A-Lot’s song as a way to build on a popular hit and exploit the beat’s familiarity while transcending the role of sexy object into sexual authority. Minaj creates a conversation with the past in order to assert herself in the present.
When discussing the sociopolitical implications that music takes on through sampling, complete comprehension is almost impossible. Chang points out, “within the new song, the sample is the space of simultaneous play and rupture, where the past both defines the present and is effaced by it” (145). The act of sampling is a way for musicians to place themselves into a music narrative that inspires them, but this introduces the dilemma of manifesting something new versus preserving the initial muse. Nicki Minaj appeals to the sample’s aura, while simultaneously subverting the original’s stance. Sampling such that the original is clearly referenced can be argued to have less exploitative results. However, if the sample is meant to be hidden and destroyed in the name of a new creation, its political and historical impact is dismissed.
Three years after Beyoncé released “XO”—and instigated the trend of dropping albums seemingly on a whim—Bey released “Formation.” This song was social-media-breaking for good reason, and for many of them. “Formation” is not only a celebration of African American beauty, a call to action against police brutality and racial prejudice, and a shout-out to New Orleans, but also a layering of politicization through sampling. The track opens with the lines, “What happened at the New Wil’ins. Bitch I’m back by popular demand,” sampled audio from New Orleans Youtube personality Anthony M. Barre AKA Messy Mya. The addition of Barre’s vocals authenticates and enhances the shout-out to Louisiana by introducing a championed local. But what makes the sample controversial is that in 2010, Barre was murdered. The killer was never found, leaving his passing only as another anecdote of the rampant death that occurs in New Orleans, a city with a history of high crime. The sample in “Formation” also acts at once as a reintroduction to the pop star—“back” following her last album in 2013—and a sonic grave through which Messy Mya is remembered. Every time “Formation” gets played, so does Mya. Beyoncé also samples New Orleans musician Big Freedia: “I like cornbread and collard greens, bitch! Oh yas, you besta believe it.” This audio reinforces the sociopolitical nature of “Formation” through its playful ability to destabilize black tropes, while simultaneously embracing black beauty and culture.
Despite many similarities between Beyoncé’s use of audio from Messy Mya and the Challenger, the sample in “Formation” is more effective. Here, Beyoncé preserved the memory of the past with an outwardly political track. The reference to the Challenger, on the other hand, came off as offensive, since the historical context of the audio had nothing particularly to do with the song’s content.
Whether politically implied or not, sampling is political. By creating a new context for preexisting material, regardless of intention, the new song takes on the history of the past in relation to the conflicts of the present. Sampling matters, and how one samples matters. Although pop is not looked at as a political genre, sampling can be a way to discuss issues in the present through the voices of the past. Whether or not justice is given to the past varies depending on the clarity and relevance of the new song’s motives. When sampling fails it is an act of ventriloquism. When sampling succeeds, it is a progressive memorial. One could argue that this is an issue of authenticity. An issue of who has the right intention. Is their music listenable and is their “originality” believable? But as listeners, sometimes we don’t fully appreciate sampling because we just accept or ignore the particular questions the practice raises rather than criticizing and analyzing them. Music is allowed to make the past its future, but in order for it to succeed, we have to travel with it.
Chang, Vanessa. “Records That Play: The Present Past in Sampling Practice.” Popular Music 28.2 (2009): 143-59. JSTOR. Web. 19 Aug. 2016.
Ronson, Mark. “How Sampling Transformed Music.” Mark Ronson:. TED, Mar. 2014. Web. 19 Aug. 2016.
Sandell, Clayton, and Gina Sunseri. “Beyoncé Slammed for Sampling Shuttle Tragedy on New Album.” ABC News. ABC News Network, 30 Dec. 2013. Web. 19 Aug. 2016.
“Beyonce and Jay-Z Are Music’s First Billionaire Couple.” Vogue UK. Vogue, 17 Apr. 2013. Web. 19 Aug. 2016.