IT IS HARD TO IMAGINE, but in popular culture, the notion of originality was not always held as an artistic ideal. Today, we elevate musicians who write their own music; we view it as a badge of their artistic integrity. Anything less than absolute originality, however, and the artist faces a barrage of criticism. The practice of sampling, even with legal permission, is attacked with a vocabulary of crime. It is “theft,” it is “stealing,” it is “ripping someone off.” But there’s something positive to be said about creative sampling. To dismiss it as uninventive and lazy is reductive.
In Shakespeare’s day, the key to good writing was imitation – and this was in a period of artistic output that England has arguably yet to supersede. The words of Ovid, Virgil, Horace, Cicero, Seneca and Homer echo through the era’s writing because that was what readers wanted. Almost every Shakespeare play has a plot that can be traced back to one – if not several – earlier sources. Wyatt and Surrey simply translated the works of Petrarch in order to achieve sonneteering success. In Ancient Greece, the practice of using, echoing and adapting earlier works was known as imitatio – a writerly virtue that carried through into Renaissance Europe.
Consider the scent of rosemary as an analogy. Used in the 16th and 17th centuries to block the stench of plague, rosemary became a scent with foul associations in early modern London. Now, rosemary has no such connotations; it is a pleasant smell. Conversely, the art of imitation has soured from an artistic ideal to a rotten malpractice.
M.I.A.’s 2007 hit “Paper Planes” blatantly lifted the thumping opening riff from The Clash’s “Straight To Hell,” the B-side of 1982’s “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” (One Direction thought they’d take the riff from the A-side in 2012). The Youtube comments under “Straight To Hell” reveal the anger and indignation that M.I.A stirred with her sampling. The language is conditioned by a lexicon of theft and violence; “blatantly stole,” “ripped off.”
The etymology of “plagiarism” is also rather telling: the word stems from the Latin “plagiarus,” meaning “kidnapper, seducer, plunderer.” The dominant modern attitude to sampling paints The Clash as M.I.A.’s victims, not a band that legally sanctioned her use of their old riff. One Youtube comment reads: “I love both ‘Paper Planes’ and ‘Straight To Hell,'” which is absolutely not allowed. We are encouraged to choose a side in cases like this: the imitator or the imitated.
But is not the very act of selecting old melodies as components of a new song one of artistic invention? Look, also, at what M.I.A. does with the riff. It is taken from a song about the tragedies of the Vietnam War and recast in a positive, celebratory light. She takes it a few notes higher (more pop-friendly) and draws it across the whole song, rather than using it only as an introduction. M.I.A. breathes new life into an old, once-obscure riff.
David Bowie frequently took from other songs and cultures. But Bowie, patron saint of music, never stole; he “borrowed.” Of course he did. As Greg Kot wrote for the BBC in January 2016: “[Bowie] had a long history of … borrowing from relatively unknown artists.” Or, as Dylan Matthews wrote for Vox: “Bowie borrowed from his past.” The music icon certainly lifted from songs, but he did so creatively. “Let’s Dance” begins with the opening to ‘Twist and Shout’, but the sheer audacity of the juxtaposition of rock ‘n’ roll and disco music allowed Bowie to pull it off. He made the old melody his own, if only for the year of 1983.
This action of “borrowing” generously cast upon Bowie is something modern artists also deserve. When Kanye West and Jay-Z took a part of Otis Redding’s vocal from “Try A Little Tenderness” and looped it over their 2011 single “Otis,” it wasn’t for lack of creativity, but rather the opposite. The rappers created a catchy and inspired homage to Redding, as opposed to having merely looted a dead man’s canon of work.
Those people deeply entrenched against modern artists bringing forth part of an older song into the realm of new music should consider the pedagogic function of sampling. The YouTube culture of announcing what has brought you to a certain song or video shows just how curious some Kanye West and Jay-Z fans have been. In the comments section under Redding’s “Try A Little Tenderness” one user asks: “Who came here from ‘Otis’?,” while another announces: “Here because of Kanye.” One can even find evidence of Kanye fans being converted – or, if not converted, then acquiring a new taste for Redding’s music. A YouTuber writes: “I came here from ‘Otis’ by Kanye and Jay-Z, this one is better, RIP Otis.” Perhaps we rely somewhat on the sampling practices of modern pop artists to introduce young fans to the musical greats of the past.
It is also satisfying to think that, through sampling, many unwitting pop fans are in fact enjoying the musical efforts of artists long gone. When the chorus of Pitbull’s “Don’t Stop The Party” would play in clubs in 2012, people were actually dancing to Toots and the Maytals’s “Funky Kingston.” Most probably didn’t know it, but they were.
We should look to Bob Dylan as the master of ‘borrowing’. He took from songs that barely anybody knew. The speaker in “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” famously begins each verse with a question for his “blue-eyed son.” For instance: “where have you been,” “what did you see,” “what did you hear,” and so on. Look back to one of the oldest traditional ballads in the English language, “Lord Randall,” probably written before 1600. In each verse, the speaker asks a different question for “Lord Randal, my son,” such as “where ha you been” and “what met ye there.” Dylan hardly pilfers the tune, but he very much takes from the lyrics. But Bob chose his battles wisely, for the fans of Jacobean balladry were either dead or sparse in number.
Music’s most canonical figures have engaged in the practice of sampling or “borrowing,” and often at the peak of their careers. When an artist looks to draw from other songs, this does not evince a dearth of creativity but a refreshing belief that the music that has preceded them is part of their toolkit. Since the time of ancient Greece, the reputation of imitation has risen and fallen. It is about time that it rises again.