Guest Op-Ed: How To Ensure Samples Stay "Intrinsic To Dance And Electronic Music"

Glasgow Underground boss Kevin McKay dives into the history of sampling in dance music and what can be done to ensure sampling in the future.
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Kevin McKay

The history of dance music and sampling go hand in hand. Without samples, house and techno, or tech-house or whatever flavor of 4/4 electronic dance music you like would sound completely different. Apart from early disco, every single genre of dance music has relied upon them to some extent or another.

House music has used samples from the very beginning. Jesse Saunders took excerpts of Player (1)'s 1979 disco cut "Space Invaders" for his 1985 release "On And On" (widely credited to be the first house record). Sampling was also involved when the UK had its first house music hit; Farley 'Jackmaster' Funk and Daryl Pandy's 1986 UK hit "Love Can't Turn Around" interpolates Steve "Silk" Hurley's "I Can't Turn Around." On top of that, Hurley's version was a cover of Isaac Hayes' 1975 song.

Despite what it says on the writing credits it seems as though sampling was again present in 1987 on the UK's first house music #1. The bassline on Steve "Silk" Hurley's hit "Jack Your Body" sounds identical to a section of the bassline on the Shep Pettibone mix of "Let No Man Put Asunder" by First Choice. By the end of the 80s, there had been a slew of house music hits that sampled, from M.A.R.R.S. "Pump Up The Volume" (another #1 with an incredible 30 different samples used across all the different versions) to Black Box's huge "Ride On Time" and its borrowed hook from Loleatta Holloway's 1980 disco hit "Love Sensation."

Throughout the years since then, some of the biggest, if not the biggest records have involved samples. In the 90s we had Armand Van Helden & Duane Harden's "You Don't Know Me" getting its string hook from Carrie Lucas' "Dance With You;" DJ Sneak's "Can't Hide From Your Bud" owes almost all its music to Teddy Pendergrass' "You Can't Hide From Yourself;" Gusto's "Disco's Revenge" is cut up from Harvey Mason's "Groovin' You." Even Madison Avenue's ubiquitous end of the millennium anthem "Don't Call Me Baby" gets its groove from Pino D'Angio’s "Ma Quale Idea."

And it doesn't stop in the 2000s. Roger Sanchez raided Toto's "I Won't Hold You Back" for his #1 "Another Chance" while Mylo brought back multiple samples taking both "Waiting For A Star To Fall" by Boy Meets Girl and "Bette Davis Eyes" by Kim Carnes and turning sections of them into "In My Arms." In the 2010s, as dance music became pop music, the biggest crossover hits seem to shy away from samples. Maybe that’s just because a lot of those records have been put together by major labels and they have a much more traditional, songwriter-driven approach. That said, there have still been some big dance records with samples! You can pretty much pick anything by David Guetta (or his new alias Jack Back) and find some. My favorite from this era is Chris Malinchak's "So Good To Me." It lifted the vocals from Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell's "If This World Were Mine" and, of course, you can always rely on Armand Van Helden getting his Akai out; Duck Sauce brilliantly sampled Boney M's "Gotta Go Home" for "Barbra Streisand." And if all these records are just not very cool to you, even the hipsters are at it - TNGHT's (Hudson Mohawke & Lunice) Warp X LuckyMe release "Higher Ground" gets its hyper-speed vocal hooks from Julie McKnight's "Home."

It’s clear then that samples are intrinsic to dance and electronic music. There is also something else that a lot of these records had in common; they were allowed to develop in the underground. They might have ended up legally correct "hits" with the original writers and performers appropriately credited, but they didn't start that way. And from being involved in one of them, I can say for sure that, without the ability to fly things under the radar, at least Mylo’s would not have succeeded.

Things are different now. You can still sample, but it’s getting harder to release your music on the internet without clearing it. So, the reality of the experimentation phase that the releases above had is becoming less likely. Audio recognition technology is so good now that YouTube can spot if you've sampled another record. When that happens, they will probably take your track down. The EU has just passed new legislation to make sites like YouTube responsible for any infringing content. It has not been made law yet but, if and when it does, and as audio recognition technology improves, your chances of releasing uncleared samples on YouTube will drop to near zero. At the moment the new laws relate to sites with “user-generated content”. Whether sites like Spotify, Apple Music, Beatport or Traxsource will have to abide by these rules remains to be seen.

Releasing your music on vinyl used to be a guaranteed safe zone to try out these new ideas. However, with the major labels re-issuing so much of their in-demand funk, soul and disco catalogues, the people distributing those records don't want to risk their relationships taking on any "dodgy" ones.

“So what?” you might say, “Just clear the samples.” And it is true. It is entirely possible to clear some samples. However, it generally takes a while, around 6-9 months in my experience. That kind of delay used to be part of releasing a record and was part of the whole process of getting a release together. When physical copies were released, that process took at least three months if not more so it was something that could be factored in. Now that we rarely release physical copies of music, the release process has become almost instantaneous. The speed that music can go from studio to audience is incredible and the Internet has driven that change.

The Internet has also been responsible for so many other positive changes to the music industry that it’s hard for me to see how we operated in the past as better. The one thing that the Internet hasn’t changed is how quickly someone can clear a sample. And really, there is no reason why it shouldn’t.

I say that with the proviso that I don't think the act of clearing master samples is ever going to be simple. You're never going to get the major labels to give you a fair shot at sampling Prince's catalogue for example. There will always be big samples that are cleared for specific artists and not for others, and there will always be some samples for which you have to pay a fortune.

However, on the publishing side, things could be much simpler. Clearing the publishing on a sample is the part where you ask the songwriter if you can adapt their song in the way you have done with your sample track. There are some basic guidelines and unwritten rules for how much of your song you should give away to the writer of the sample. From my experience, for a classic "song," 50% of the copyright is in the lyrics, 25% in the melody attached to the lyrics (or another top-line melody) and 25% to the backing track. I've also experienced things from a dance point of view where an artist samples one or two phrases from a song but has added music underneath (bassline or synth for example), and those tracks get shared 50/50 between the writers. If a government-backed body like the PRS/MCPS adopted these "rules" and they gave out sample licences, then the process would be much smoother for everyone. It might not be an ideal solution, but it would go some way to making sure samples were getting cleared, and original writers were getting paid.

There is also the issue of who owns the rights. I’m amazed that there is not one central rights database that can be accessed by both artists, labels and publishers. If cryptocurrencies can exist in a database, then there is no reason why music rights couldn’t also. Such a database would allow artists or labels who sample to identify who they need to contact to clear them. If there was a focus on something like this being developed hand-in-hand with new laws like Article 13, I can’t see how this would be anything other than positive. It would also allow a lot of labels and artists who are currently sampling records and passing them off as their own (because they don’t want, or are unsure how to clear samples) to do the right thing. If sorting out your samples was as easy as sorting out insurance, tax or any of the other things that the Internet has made quick and easy, why wouldn’t you? Then labels releasing today can make sure everyone gets their fair share.

But that is for the future. If you are a DJ and producer inspired by music from the past, one thing you can do without clearing it with the publisher is a cover version. The music community has traditionally frowned upon covers as never-as-good-as-the-original. However, the Internet has made it much easier to find and record great singers and musicians who can perform just as well as the original recording artist (and sometimes better in my opinion). Making covers of songs also has the benefit of working out exactly how the great artists from the past created their songs. I’m sure part of the reason DJs end up with ghost producers so often is that they were never in bands and didn’t make their own cover versions of big songs. If you look at the early albums of many amazing songwriters (from Nile Rodgers to Mick Jagger) you will see a load of covers. I firmly believe that doing this kind of thing is not only entertaining for your audience but educational for the artist.

My label, Glasgow Underground, has released some huge covers in the last couple of years. Beatport’s #2 selling track of 2018 was our cover version of “Born Slippy” (as recorded by Underworld), PAX’s “Electric Feel” (as recorded by MGMT) has racked up over 3 million streams. A-list DJs have hammered both of these tracks, and you can hear them at hip festivals all over the world. Our latest covers project is my album. No Samples Were Harmed In The Making Of This Record reworks 14 classic dance tracks from the past and the DJ responses to this have been immensely positive.

So, next time you’re tempted to start sampling, maybe think about a cover. You never know where it will take you or what you might learn.

No Samples Were Harmed In The Making Of This Record is out now on Glasgow Underground. Download or stream here.

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