Sampling’s cultural impact
Collage. Cut and paste. Referencing. Whatever you want to call it, the act of scavenging source material and repurposing it in new creative works had a huge impact on 20th century art. The same can most certainly be said of the influence sampling technology had on the way people made music – and the music we continue to make and enjoy in the 21st century.
There’s a school of thought that sampling derives from dub reggae producers of the late 60s and early 70s, who created ‘versions’ of their music – largely instrumental tracks based on existing hit records. Producers would emphasise the bass, use extreme echo effects and occasionally drop in snatches of voice from tape machines, a little like vocal sampling.
While there’s clear similarity in the approach, sampling refers specifically to the process of an analogue-to-digital converter (ADC) taking a ‘sample’ of an analogue signal thousands of times a second, and storing its level to build a digital approximation of the signal. As such, sampling can only truly be said to have emerged after digital technology’s arrival.
As commercially viable digital audio products only really took off in the late 70s and early 80s, it’s no surprise that an explosion of musical creativity coincided with the release of the earliest samplers. Early 80s pop would have sounded completely different without the E-MU Emulator in particular. Around that time, hip-hop DJs were already looping and extending instrumental breaks from funk and soul tracks by cutting back and forth between two copies of the same record on a pair of turntables, extending the beat for breakdancers to dance to and rappers to rhyme over. Once samplers arrived, hip-hop matured rapidly, evolving from the drum machine-driven sound of acts like Run-DMC to the experiments of Public Enemy.
In Detroit and Chicago, the sampler had just as much of an impact on the early techno and house scenes. Sampling became a staple technique of many producers and even created entire sub-genres in its own right. Filter house, with its reliance on looped samples of old disco tracks, could never have existed without the creative possibilities samplers introduced.
The E-MU Emulator II and its kin defined the 80s