The Ethics of Sampling

Ella Stevens 5.9.2019
Hit Vibes and The Whispers Greatest Hits, an album it samples (Photos: Bandcamp, Amazon, Reddit)

With the easy availability of audio production software, nowadays all it takes to make great music is a laptop and a SoundCloud account. Burgeoning genres like bedroom pop show that any kid with a beat masher and an arpeggiator can end up opening for Dua Lipa. So what do all these kids do when given industry level software and access to all the music in the world? They sample.

Sampling has long been a staple of the industry, but nowadays it’s laughably easy. All you need to do is find a song on YouTube, copy and paste the url into a video to mp3 converter, and drag it into Logic Pro. It’s that simple. Electronic music relies heavily on sampling, and don’t get me wrong, the music’s great, however a problem arises when white kids start sampling black musicians without giving them any credit. This happens quite a lot, and it’s straight up cultural appropriation.

Vaporwave is a prime offender. Behind every iconic vaporwave song is a black artist whose work was remixed by some white hipster. “Enjoy Yourself” is a remix of Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall,” Teen Pregnancy samples “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, and 02 リサフランク420 - 現代のコンピュー is Diana Ross’s “It’s Your Move.” Many would agree that just sampling these artists isn’t a problem. The real problem is that the original musicians are never credited.

There are dozens of copies of Vaporwave songs kicking around the internet, none of them credit the artists they sample. However most of these songs aren’t posted by the people that mixed them, so I wasn’t sure I could blame the musicians. I ended up going straight to the source, the Bandcamps of Saint Pepsi, Macintosh Plus, and Blank Banshee, and nope, they don’t credit the songs they sample.

So why is this a problem? American music has a very long and messed up history of white artists ripping off black musician’s work. Rock and Roll was invented by the likes of Chuck Berry and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, but when I asked students to list some rock bands, they brought up AC/DC, the Rolling Stones, and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, all white bands.

Then there’s electronic music, which most critics would agree came out of disco, another predominately black genre. In fact Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” has been credited with almost single handedly creating electronica as we see it today. Vaporwave itself is derivative of chopped and screwed, a 90s Hip Hop genre which, guess what, was invented by DJ Screw, a black guy. Of course all music is inspired by the music before it, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but white artists have a tendency to pass off originally black genres as their own (like how people think Elvis invented Rock and Roll). White people taking credit for what isn’t ours is racist, and it needs to stop.

To end this appropriation, white artists have to start crediting their black inspiration, but giving credit is becoming increasingly difficult. Sampling has long been a part of the music industry, and in the past the songs sampled would be in the liner notes which came with CDs or records. Nowadays however, people mostly stream their music, so written credit in a CD doesn't help.

Of course musicians need to follow copyright laws, so there are still ways to give credit on songs. For example the song “Naughty Girl” by Beyonce samples Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby.” If you google “Naughty Girl,” the first things you’ll see is the lyrics, and if you scroll to the bottom of the lyrics, you’ll see that Donna Summer, Giorgio Moroder, and Pete Bellotte, the writers of “Love to Love You Baby,” are credited as songwriters. This is probably the easiest way to find songwriting credits online. The reason we can so easily find proper credit for Beyonce, but not Macintosh Plus is because Beyonce works for big record labels who have lawyers and executives there to make sure nothing is plagiarized. However people like Saint Pepsi, kids producing and releasing music all on their own, don’t have supervisors getting on their back about copyright violations.

Electronic musicians’ proclivity for sampling (especially genres like funk and disco, genres created by black musicians) combined with their ignorance toward cultural appropriation, their lack of liner notes, and the fact no one is making sure they credit their samples, leads to a big pile of ethical issues.

Cultural appropriation can be a touchy subject, and I’m sure there are people who would say I’m being too PC. I wanted to get their opinions, so I hunted down an interview, GHHS junior and master of the accordion, Josh Keil. I was hoping he’d disagree with me so I could get a variety of opinions, but when I told him what this article was about he said, “Yeah that could be a problem.” Josh said it’s hard to draw the line between a sample and a full blown remix. Of course not crediting a remix is a bit more atrocious than not crediting a sample, but no matter what Josh said, “In my personal opinion if I was going to sample anything at all I would just credit that sample no matter what.”

It’s clear that these musicians are committing cultural appropriation, but what do we do about it? One option is to just boycott the music, but I love these songs that are so heavily based on sampling. Hit Vibes is one of my favorite albums of all time, and I don’t want to have to stop listening to it. If musicians refuse to credit their samples, we have to do it for them. If you’re ever listening to a song you think uses samples, look it up. Whosampled.com is a great resource. A lot of times the original songs are just as good or even better than the remixes anyway. Also lots of good independent electronic music isn’t on Spotify, however the original songs are, so listening to the original music can even be more convenient. Black musicians need to get the credit they deserve, and it’s up to us to do it.