Point Blank’s Guide to Sampling: History, Development & Techniques

The Eighties

Really, the story starts proper in the 1980s, with the availability of sampling to the average producer. Originally intended to execute similar jobs to the Synclavier and Fairlight, the Akai S-series of samplers were the size of a VHS player, used floppy disks to store their data instead of hefty on-board CPUs and were affordable to the average home studio musician.
Now, you could purchase any instrument you like, sampled onto disks, and you’d have that in your own productions. Importantly, you didn’t need to know how to play the violin, or saxophone to have one. You didn’t even really need to know how to play the keyboard!
It didn’t take long for the world of home sampling to cross over with the movements in hip hop, which had previously crudely looped ‘break-beats’ and other instrumental passages through the use of turntables. The invention of the MPC and EMU SP-1200 changed music forever.

People were beginning to sample anything, from the aforementioned goldmine of soul, jazz, motown and disco to rock, electro, classical and even spoken word, preachers, television. Anything. Here’s an interesting documentary from 1988 about sampling in its primitive years:

Hip-hop

In America, hip-hop was beginning to take off. Groups like Public Enemy, N.W.A, Slick Rick, Eric B and Rakim, A Tribe Called Quest and others were sampling the records they grew up with, and re-contextualising them, bringing the sound of their parents to a new generation.

Ice Cube’s ‘It Was A Good Day‘ famously samples The Isley Brother’s ‘Footsteps in the Dark‘. J Dilla’s ‘So Far To Go‘ lifts a brief instrumental section from another Isley Brother’s tune. And perhaps more recently, Dr Dre’s ‘Next Episode‘ is almost a direct lift of David Axelrod’s ‘The Edge‘.

Hip-hop is perhaps the genre most in debt to invention of sampling, and although it’s moved away a lot from the sound nowadays, sampling was a mandatory part of the history of hip-hop and finding samples (known as crate digging) was considered a skill in itself.

UK Hardcore/Jungle/Old Skool

Around this time in the UK British youths were creating their own homages to records they grew up with. Acid House was already in full swing (a genre also in-debt to technology in the Roland TB-303), and home sampling also meant the inclusion of non-synthetic sounds was possible.

Like the Americans, UK producers were sampling vocal hooks and break-beats, but were speeding them up, rather than keeping them at walking pace hip-hop tempo. Breakbeat hardcore, rave or oldskool (as it’s confusingly now known) was the sound of the M25, encapsulated in a counter-culture movement.

As the years went on, technology improved and people were doing more and more creative things with the chopping of their samples, slicing up breakbeats and re-ordering them to make super fast and frenetic rhythms, impossible to be played by drummers themselves. Jungle, was perhaps the genre to exploit this the most.

Whereas the Americans were sampling mostly American music, the Brits were sampling Jamaican music, most notably reggae, dub, dancehall and ragga, combining these sounds with the sound palette from the rave scene, big sound-system sub bass and the schizoid programmed breakbeats.

Jungle (and later drum ’n’ bass) were founded on hunting for breaks in songs, often funk records. A break is a section where the drums take a short solo, meaning it’s easy (or easier) to isolate the hits and grooves you want. Here’s WhoSampledWho’s list of the top 10 most used breaks in their database.

And from the same site, a list of popular vocal samples that you might not know the origin of.

About Luke Alex Davis

Luke Davis is a music producer and editor of music blog Sampleface. In his spare time, he enjoys watching tennis and football and reading.

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