PRINT March 2003


I don’t recall that the vogue lasted for more than a few years, but one of the things many of us did in the 1980s was to put a music sample on our answering machines. The most socially confident simply replaced their entire voice message with a snatch of sound that summed up their mood for that day or week. Callers could interpret the morsel as they saw fit. It was a virtuoso way of customizing a new technology that offered an impersonal, and often awkward, resolution to a communication problem. Before it was widely accepted, the answering machine—like call waiting some years later—was considered an uncivil medium. Callers felt belittled or put off by their blunt encounters with mechanized greetings. Putting your own voice on the outgoing message, even if it was witty or self-mocking, seemed only to reinforce the breach of decorum. The music sample was a less complicit endorsement of the technology, and it gave callers something to savor. Genre-wise, it belonged to the baroque lineage of personalized stationery, and it presaged the widespread use of quotations in our e-mail signature files.

It would be careless to overlook the relevance of the answering-machine sample to its moment in time. We were living through the salad days of music sampling, before a legal chill descended on this warm and lustrous craft. Sampling was, arguably, the most representative aesthetic of a decade that wanted to put everything in quotation marks. It gave a vernacular spin to highbrow tactics like appropriation, collage, and creative copying, which had played starring roles in the debates about postmodernism. In the art world, these tactics had often been used for what was called institutional critique. They challenged modernist credos—such as the notion of an originary author or one-of-a-kind production—on which a vast and lucrative edifice of art appreciation and evaluation had been built. By contrast, sampling had hard-knock origins, in impromptu Bronx house parties and street jams thrown by neighborhood DJs who were not uncommonly ex–gang members. But if sampling’s artful workouts were homegrown, DJs were always hot to harness the new technologies of the day—from the early reengineering of turntable and speaker systems to the adaptation of drum machines and synthesizers, and then the wholesale embrace of digital production and distribution formats that emerged supreme by the early ’90s. Sampling was the twitchy zone where the great tectonic plate of the analog world rubbed up against its digital successor.

The first significant pop hit of 1980 (at least from the perspective of appropriation)—and the first cassette single ever—was Bow Wow Wow’s festive “C30, C60, C90 Go!” In that song, Malcolm McLaren’s anarchist urchins rapped out his agitprop appeal to copy music onto tape and give it away. They dressed like buccaneers, and their message was a call to arms against a music industry that made pirates of half the world’s population. The global revolution in home taping would give rise to a new kind of transnational police operation, as the US, along with other G7 culture exporters, increasingly scrambled to protect their corporations’ intellectual property with every trumped-up ruling they could push through the eye of the WTO’s legal needle. The coup at the end of the decade which established the CD as a consumer-product standard was a short-lived refuge for the industry—lasting until the MP3 whirlwind punched a hole into a new universe of piracy. Even so, the CD effectively sealed the extinction of the last analog species that could be considered dominant in its day. Today, the most stunningly inert legacy of the ’80s is the stacks of music cassettes collecting dust on our bookshelves, more idle by far than the volumes of print with which they keep company.

Musically speaking, however, the decade had really begun in October 1979, when the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” a novelty item initially, became hip-hop’s first commercial hit. The rap, which was performed over the bass break from Chic’s “Good Times,” recycled rhymes that, by then, had become common currency among New York City’s early MCs, like Grandmaster Caz and Rahiem. As it happens, the recording technology wasn’t sophisticated enough to sample the Chic song, so the Gang hired a house band to play the same section over and over. It’s no small irony that the recording which propelled hip-hop from the city’s northern underground to within earshot of the national FM public required live musicians to imitate what DJs had being doing with vinyl for several years. For a pioneer like Kool Herc, that had involved plucking preferred fragments—the break beats—from old songs to create a new soundscape. In the hands of Grandmaster Flash and Grand Wizard Theodore, turntable innovations in cueing, spinning, scratching, and needle manipulation followed in short order, as the competition between DJs quickened. The basic grammar was worked out in an entirely makeshift way, and each new technique had to pass muster with the audiences of the day. In due time, these rules of molecular recombination would have much the same impact on culture-making as gene splicing had for our understanding of biological nature.

When Herc, Flash, Theodore, DJ Hollywood, Love Bug Starski, Afrika Bambaataa, and others began to reclaim vinyl as raw material for their scratchy party sound tracks, were they motivated, in part, by respect for tradition? Were they paying homage to the ancestral archive? Such notions have been advanced, and overemphasized, partly out of the need to defend rap from its many detractors who dismissed DJing, from the very first, as musical fraud. As a result, it has become customary to see the early sound collages, along with the MC battles that followed, simply as the latest adaptation of the vast ongoing conversation of the black musical tradition—what Amiri Baraka (aka LeRoi Jones) had called “the changing same.” Commentators in this vein have explained almost every feature of hip-hop against the rich backdrop of African diasporic culture: the heritage of the West African griots or the Jamaican selectors and toasters; the influence of street-corner jive, scatting, skip-rope games, or other forms of vernacular “signifying” games like the dozens (“Yo mama’s so fat . . .” etc.); the legacy of the circle in break dancing; the rituals of musical competition in jazz and R&B. In a tradition where musical ideas, melodies, and phrasing are more likely to be viewed as common property than as a matter of personal ownership, it is much easier to conclude that versions of other people’s music-making are primarily a tribute to them and not a plagiaristic act.

While historically informed commentary of this sort has been important and edifying, some of the sheer flippancy that was first-generation hip-hop gets lost amid all the talk about respect for the elders. Sampling, for example, was much more likely to be viewed as disrespectful, especially by musicians themselves. For every layperson’s casual dismissal—“it’s not real music”—there was a musician who saw rap as a threat to his or her livelihood as a performer. The art of foraging amid the waste heaps of vinyl (the first dinosaur of the analog era) for ever more obscure percussion beats, bass lines, or piano breaks to throw into the mix was less a tribute to the musicians who had originally recorded these fragments than an index of the intrepid scavenger’s ingenuity. Most working musicians, their labor power directly threatened by the growing popularity of the new DJ culture, had little patience for the somewhat bookish view that sampling was all about ancestor worship or building an archive of vernacular history. Nor did rap producers mince words in their own self-styled war on music as we knew it. Listen to Hank Shocklee, from Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad, the most formidable crew of sound engineers working in the ’80s: “We don’t like musicians, we don’t respect musicians. . . . We have a better sense of music, a better concept of music, of where it’s going, of what it can do.” For “wall of noise” practitioners like Shocklee, the goal was all about organizing sound—all kinds of sounds—into new constructs. Music in the conventional sense was just one building block among others—a found object that could be filtered into the mix, not unlike a shard of newspaper print pasted into a Merz collage by Kurt Schwitters.

Labor anxiety also swirled around the use of prerecordings in the dance-club economy that germinated in Chicago house and Detroit techno and came to dominate popular culture overseas in the course of the decade. Wherever the dance cult of the DJ burned with a hard gemlike flame, live musicians and their instruments were about as uncool and anachronistic as an 8-track tape. That North America was the great holdout to this mass cult had little to do with the labor concerns of working musicians. It was more a reflection of a national market still driven by regional radio, the strong ideology of “authenticity” attached to genres like rock, and the rise of MTV as a promotional tool that required ebullient lead performers to play character roles in dramatic vignettes. The largely anonymous congregationalism of the dance-music scene failed to fit the bill on all three counts.

Non-metropolitan working artists might well have responded in similar ways to Conceptual art and its various offspring. The rise of installation and other site-specific art was a potential threat to commercial artists whose livelihood depended on a regional art market, and thus on provincial buyers whose taste was tied to conventional forms like figurative painting or freestanding sculpture. In reality, however, the influence of the avant-garde has little direct impact because the gallery/museum bubble of the metro art economy is such a thing apart from the other worlds of art making. Conversely, when a short circuit occurs and a door opens for outsiders to enter the bubble, their transplanted art survives in a form likely to be seen as anemic; stripped, as it often is, of its nourishing environment. This is precisely what happened in the early ’80s when graffiti art jumped from the MTA train yards of Brooklyn and the Bronx to Tony Shafrazi Gallery in SoHo. The gallery career of Futura 2000 and others who tried their hand on canvas was an attenuated version of what blow-up champions like Blade, Phase 2, Dondi, Crash, Lady Pink, Zephyr, and Seen were doing on the public canvas of the IRT and BMT subway cars. As for exceptions like Basquiat, he simply graduated into another program.

Graffiti art had long been a fellow traveler of hip-hop, providing a visual backdrop for the music along with a signature style for concert flyers and promo graphics. Trapped now between the transit cop and the gallery entrepreneur, it was offered an alternative career when the rap scene made its move to trendy Downtown clubs. At places like the Roxy, promoter Lady Cool Blue put on all-star shows that featured the whole panoply of hip-hop: MCs, DJs, break-dancers, and graffiti artists. Hip-hop got to add to its multimedia road show a visual genre with a whiff of illegality, while the partnership gave graffiti some cover from the barrage of efforts to criminalize it. Yet the concert environment proved almost as stifling as the gallery format. Graffiti art lost a large part of its actuality when it was no longer saucily gracing the surface of some public or private property.

There were similar doubts about whether the mobile party format of “wheels of steel” could—or should—be captured on record. Yet it successfully made the transition to a fixed industry product in the early ’80s, either through producers like Russell Simmons, who stayed close to the street source and incorporated environmental sound, or through DJs who became producers themselves. In 1982, with the commercial introduction of MIDI—the common digital interface that allowed synthesizers, drum machines, and sequencers to speak to one another—the recording studio became the site of choice for making a technically seamless mix. Anyone with access to ever cheaper MIDI formats could do push-button versions of a trade that old-school DJs took years to master. In time, and in tune with a natural backlash, producers would use the most advanced machines to try to re-create the raw textures of these pioneers.

By the mid- to late ’80s, sampling was headed in two directions. One path led into the dense, multilayered wall of noise that the Bomb Squad built out of found sound, deep funk, police sirens, and what-have-you. With the release of Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988) and Fear of a Black Planet (1989), this vibrant clamor became the signature sound of hard-core, street-level rap and resurgent Black Nationalism. Its militantly masculine appeal has been remarkably resilient over the years and echoes loudly in the rock/hip-hop fusion bands of today. The other path was less agitational, though no less inventive. Utilizing their vast record collections (an advantage, some sniped, of their comfortable suburban upbringings), producers like Eric B. and Prince Paul leaned on the technical precision and clarity of the mix. Sampling reached a level of confidence where live instruments could be reintroduced—as they were on Stetsasonic recordings under Paul’s direction—without reproach. So, too, critics of their method could be directly rebutted as “narrow-minded and poorly taught,” as Stetsasonic did in “Talkin’ All That Jazz” (1988), where even the Godfather of Soul got slapped for speaking out publicly against sampling: “Tell the truth, James Brown was old / ’Til Eric and Rakim came out with ‘I Got Soul.’ ” With his next project, the epochal 3 Feet High and Rising (1989), Prince Paul’s sonic range took a quantum leap into the esoteric, patching comedy skits and general looniness into a heady Day-Glo mix of musical genres (Curiosity Killed the Cat vs. Steely Dan) that matched the mind-expanding mood of De La Soul’s rappers.

The commercial staying power of that album, often remembered as “rap’s Sgt. Pepper,” put paid to sampling’s decade-long reprieve from the law. Rap was becoming a money-spinner, and industry lawyers had begun to pay attention. The album’s success attracted the first high-profile copyright suit, brought by Flo and Eddie, formerly of the Turtles, for De La Soul’s use of a four-bar fragment from their 1969 song “You Showed Me” in De La’s “Transmitting Live From Mars.” The rappers settled out of court, but in 1991 an overzealous federal judge in New York handed down a portentous ruling (in Grand Upright Music v. Warner Bros.) that had been long feared. Biz Markie, an accomplished interpreter of goofy juvenilia, was sued for sampling a few notes from Gilbert O’Sullivan’s 1972 hit “Alone Again (Naturally)” on his album I Need a Haircut. Ominously, Judge Kevin Duffy began his opinion by citing religious authority—“Thou shalt not steal”—as an “admonition followed since the dawn of civilization” and ended by arguing that Markie had violated “not only the Seventh Commandment, but also the copyright laws of this country.” Even worse, Duffy concluded the ruling by referring the case to the United States Attorney’s Office for consideration of criminal charges. Poor Biz narrowly escaped prosecution for his thieving ways. His subsequent album was called All Samples Cleared.

The Markie case could have been justly decided more broadly, under the banner of the legal doctrine of fair use, or in the recording artist’s favor under “protection of speech.” Instead, Duffy’s harsh ruling ensured that, henceforth, only record companies or performers with deep pockets could viably sample, given the high cost of legal clearance. As legal historian Siva Vaidhyanathan argues in Copyrights and Copywrongs (NYU Press, 2001), this shift in favor of established artists and the media Goliaths was a clear reversal of custom. US copyright law had been conceived, written, and traditionally interpreted in a manner that protected emerging artists and the cause of free speech. In the last decade, the scale has tipped toward authoritarian legislation that yields little wiggle room, but the Biz Markie ruling did not deal a deathblow to all unlicensed sampling. A 1994 Supreme Court decision found that 2 Live Crew’s sample of Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” was a parody and thus a legitimate example of fair use. But the fix was in (nonparodic sampling has never been upheld as fair use in the courts), and the era of impudent, libertine creativity was over. Lawyers would now have an all-important say in how progressive music was made, and the concept of intellectual property increasingly cast its long shadow across all the arts.

When the law finally did kick in, why was sampling dealt with so peremptorily? Over the years, Pop and postmodernist artists known for their appropriative techniques—Warhol, Rauschenberg, Koons, Levine, Salle, Kruger—have, too, been sued for copyright infringement. Some suits were rejected; others went against the artist; still others were settled out of court. Yet it is impossible to imagine a judge addressing any of these defendants as if they were common thieves, as Duffy did Markie. Nor did any of these art-world rulings have the effect of stopping an artistic practice in its tracks, as it were. The tone of Duffy’s verdict is perhaps best understood in the context of the Culture Wars, which had lately opened up to a new dimension of hostility on the racial front. Kulturkampf in the ’80s had mostly revolved around the expansion of the arts canon to include writers and artists hitherto neglected on account of their race or gender. But by the end of the decade, the frontline was shifting elsewhere; combatants were now busy with First Amendment strife over the NEA, hate speech, and workplace harassment. Speech of all sorts increasingly carried a hefty price, and legal scrutiny of its impact escalated accordingly. In addition to 3 Feet High, 1989 saw the release of 2 Live Crew’s As Nasty as They Wanna Be, which provoked an epic brawl in the courts over its X-rated lyrics’ very right to exist. Rap was not only a highly talkative affair, it was also the first musical genre where almost anything could be said, and so it tested the limits of permission at every turn. When the talk turned toward armed response to police brutality those elastic limits were reached.

In this respect, by far the most consequential album to appear in 1989 was N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton. Its blustery, prototype version of gangsta rap would become the industry standard for cranking out hip-hop product that spun gold out of controversy. Tracks like “Fuck Tha Police” triggered the vogue for rhymes about cop killing, and throughout the ’80s rappers fed off playful fantasies of outlaw behavior. But the West Coast gangsterization of N.W.A. and their followers had an in-your-face tenor that pushed too many Culture War buttons to escape rebuke. For the most part, gangsta rappers were themselves signifying on the menace-to-society stereotypes of urban black males, but the distinction was easily lost in the tone-deaf moral panic that ensued. It only made the rappers more menacing. The response was a potent cocktail—as American as apple pie—of property fright and race hatred. All of a sudden, culture warriors had a more combustible issue on their hands than whether the addition of Toni Morrison to the syllabus would squeeze Shakespeare out of the curriculum. Everything about hip-hop soon got bundled into a criminal profile that was mined by its critics for political advantage and by its exponents for monetary gain. One of the incidental casualties was the free-form art of sampling. Without the high visibility of this profiling, it is unlikely that sampling would have been dispatched with such rough justice to the felon’s corner. An entirely novel and brilliantly executed way of making music had compromised long-standing notions about authorship and originality. This threat was magnified by the race and self-assurance of its practitioners, and it was resolved the way that American courts have customarily dealt with uppity blacks whenever property was on the block. More broadly, the judgment was a clear signal that the information landscape was going to be an increasingly ugly legal battleground. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, Napster, and the blitzkrieg of corporate claims on intellectual ownership all lay ahead, but it should be remembered that the original test case of the property wars—the mercurial career of sampling and its legal finale—was one that could hardly be called color-blind.

Andrew Ross is director of the American Studies program at New York University. His most recent book is No-Collar: The Humane Workplace and Its Hidden Costs (Basic Books, 2003).