June 15, 2005

Sound Law, Sample Down

In the last post I argued that the Kim's raid marked the first time the police used IP law culturally rather then in a more traditional customs/border control sort of manner. And on the upside it looks like the Kim's employees where sent through the process and out quickly with slaps on the wrist (update: according to today's Times it seems the charges are still pending so we'll have to wait on that one), one hopes its a sign that police realize that busting mixtapes is none of their business. But its important to note that while the police haven't been busting cultural productions on IP grounds lately, there is a strong recent civil precedent in the form of sampling.

Hip hop fans have long realized that the early 90's lawsuits around sampling (notably the Turtle's v. De La Soul and Gilbert O'Sullivan v. Biz Markie) had a significant impact on how the music was made. But it wasn't until I took a look at Jess Kriss' "History of Sampling" applet that I got a firm grasp on the full extent of that impact. The traditional storyline on the sampling lawsuits, which established a legal need to clear any and all snippets of songs, no matter how small or distorted from the original, is one of economic privilege. Getting a sample is a matter of money, a cheap sample can get used, an expensive one can only get used by artists with large budgets and ones that the original artist will not license at all, don't get used. The best example of this effect in action is probably Kanye West, a talented producer, but one whose often obvious and high profile samples get made into records only because he is backed by Jay-Z and Rocafeller Records.

The deeper effect of the sampling lawsuits however is not as much economic but sonic. Looking at the History of Sampling Applet shows another effect at work, one apparent in the high water albums of the sample heavy production, Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and De La Soul's Three Feet High and Rising. Look at the samples in these albums and you'll find songs built not with just one or two samples, but with four, six, eight, ten samples. "Night of the Living Baseheads" is built off 16 samples. The traditional hip hop sample takes one or two grooves and loops them to infinity with some small additional chops for the choruses and breakdowns. And this form lives on, albeit constrained by the shear economics of certain samples. It generates great songs, and awful ones, pop hits and bombs, it is valid but expensive, a bit of a luxury. In the late 80's though, producers like the aptly named Bomb Squad, Eric B, Prince Paul and M/A/R/R/S where creating a radically new sound, the sample as raw sound, something not to be looped, but something to be mutated and exploded, layered and recombined.

Sonically this is obvious, and has been obvious from nearly the get go. It sounded like a revolution, and the music literature of the time knew it well. But just how did it die? Perhaps the Bomb Squad's sonic frenzy was never sustainable, perhaps their explosions where an echo of Jackson Pollack's, a spectacular dead end, one incapable of being followed and reproduced. But looking at that sample applet we can see their own bad albums following a general trend, less samples, one or two a song, maybe none. Legally they just couldn't make it work anymore, nor can anyone else. To make a record in that style requires being underground, below the legal radar. Economically off the map.

Money at its core, is the abstraction of energy, raw forces transformed into an easily transferable form. The circulation of money, the economy, is a circulation of energy. The sample overload style of music is legally cut off from the major economies of the world. It continues to exist only when energy is applied from other sources, mainly in the form of personal commitment from the artists themselves. There is a minor economy at work, mixtapes, 12" singles, DJ gigs, websites, but the amount of energy circulating stays small, their is little left over for social glue, for recruitment of fans, broadcasting and replicating. Economies like this live or die purely off the energy of the core individuals, they never reach the point of sustainability, never transform from one directional vectors of energy into complex machines. In order for a subculture to survive it must make this transition, it must either develop its own functional economy or integrate into an existing one.

Often subcultures fail to reach a critical mass necessary to become self sustaining, sometimes they just die, other times they cycle on the edge of existence, driven by a few devoted individuals personal energy. Perhaps this is the fate of the overloaded sample, but it seems unlikely that the legal forces of sample licensing did not produce at least some, if not all of the killing pressure. This is a form of music that is nearly impossible to produce legally now, and when possible it requires extraordinary amounts of cash... Of course its death is not necessarily all bad, the minimalist sampling of DJ Premier and the RZA and the synth driven sonics of Dr. Dre, Timbaland and Manny Fresh are clear legal and sonic counterpoints to Bomb Squad overdrive. In a world of free and legal samples would they have emerged the same? Somehow I doubt it, but whether the transformation would be for better or worse is utterly unknowable.

Posted by Abe at June 15, 2005 12:54 PM