In art, unoriginality can actually spark innovation and creativity. Collage artists are known for repurposing other artists’ work to compose something new. In dance, people often strive to develop the same skills or techniques as other dancers. In the music industry, an example of this phenomenon is sampling; musicians use clips or beats from iconic songs to accompany their own work, collaborating with other artists to form something new. Sampling has historically been a huge part of hip-hop and R&B, and still is today. Although the recycling of artwork is praised in most art mediums, hip hop artists are often called lazy or accused of theft when they use samples.
Sampling began in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when DJs would borrow melodies from funk or soul songs for MCs to rap over. Since then, the practice has become so popular that almost any modern rap or hip hop song is guaranteed to have a sample or two. James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” is a great example of a popular song that was sampled by over 1,000 hip hop artists, including Run DMC, De La Soul, and A Tribe Called Quest. Another well known example of sampling today is Kanye West’s “Gold Digger,” which sampled Ray Charles’ “I’ve Got a Woman.” Without question, sampling is a key part of hip hop that has been used from the start of the genre and allows for musical connections between songs.
Music critics have various complaints about sampling. Many believe that sampling diminishes the amount of raw musical talent in the world. Nicholas Payton, a Grammy-winning trumpet player, wrote in an online blog, “By accepting this as the new standard, we’re sending a message to our kids that it’s okay to learn just enough piano to program an electronic keyboard … And if you can’t play it, then just sample it…” Another complaint is that of copyright infringement. Multiple scandals and lawsuits in which artists didn’t have permission to use the samples they used have shown how murky the waters of sampling can be.
These arguments against sampling are hypocritical, if not ignorant. One cannot label sampling in hip hop as lazy if they don’t have the same stance when it comes to repurposing art in other mediums. Hip hop, being an art and culture birthed by Black communities, is often discredited and vilified by critics with racial biases, and the disapproval of sampling is just another tactic that ties into this motive. Taking inspiration from other artists should be respected and appreciated throughout the different fields of art, whether it is in visual collages or hip hop samples.
It is also crucial to appreciate the power that sampling has to revitalize older songs. The people who criticize the repurposing of music fail to see how it can connect listeners with musical history which would have otherwise been forgotten. Instead of worrying about who is profiting off a sample, musicians and listeners should celebrate the stories being told in the music.