Sampling/Stealing/Appropriation

“Politically I find it very difficult – for example that you often have white producers sampling rare black music and then not paying royalties. That feels to me like a form of exploitation. I feel like there’s a political and ethical dimension that rarely gets talked about.” – Matthew Herbert

“Of such wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for its own sake, has most. For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.” – Walter Pater, “Conclusion” to The Renaissance

In the early months of 2015 we seem to be reaching the apotheosis of a politicising trend in music. Post-Ferguson expressions of anger in hip-hop from artists like A$AP Ferg and Kendrick Lamar have spread into the mainstream, with Common and John Legend’s Grammys performance watched by 25.3 million viewers. Iggy Azalea has recently joined the likes of Lana Del Rey and Gwen Stefani in yet another controversy over cultural appropriation; this time over the music itself, rather than an ill-informed photo shoot in Native American headdress. And tonight, as I sit writing, Owen Jones will be talking on stage after the support act for Paloma Faith’s gig at the NIA in Birmingham. The last fifteen to twenty years have seen hip-hop and soul in the US, punk and the free party movement into the UK, subsumed into a seemingly de-politicised mainstream endlessly reproducing inane platitudes like ‘pussy, money, weed’, the sparklingly produced guitars and the whinings of teenage angst, and legitimised but heavily regulated club nights with routine door checks and 3am closing times. But de-politicisation is a political move: by appropriating the popularity of political genres of music and art, repackaging them in sufficiently offensive, but ultimately banal, commercial forms, the revolutionary sting is amputated and these movements are divided into a sanitised and unthreatening mainstream, and a disillusioned but ultimately ineffectual underground. The controversy surrounding Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ was perhaps an early indicator of a rising mainstream awareness of issues of identity politics in pop culture. The resurgence of controversy around this song sparked by the recent legal case in which Thicke and Pharrell Williams were found guilty of copying Marvin Gaye’s ‘Got To Give It Up’, brings me to the focus of this article, alluded to in the quote from Matthew Herbert: sampling or copying in electronic music and its relation to ethical issues of appropriation in general.

At the very basic level here is a debate that stretches back to way before the notion of sampling even existed and one which somehow still goes on: the question of whether art can be divorced from politics. If we define the political as concerning relations of power, then all experience is political, and since art must in some way derive from (though not necessarily represent) experience, it therefore entails its socio-economic background. Even Pater and the aesthetes, with their insistence on ‘art for art’s sake’ were the product of their specific social and historical position – a period of decadence, the decline of traditional moral values and political anxiety as the death of Queen Victoria, with whom empire and power had become deeply associated, edged closer. And yet, with only a few exceptions, this seems to be the attitude taken by most samplers in electronic music today. The argument has been raised, and I think it is a valid one, that what is important here is being informed and respectful of the material reproduced, which explains why artists like The Busy Twist, who spend vast amounts of time in Ghana recording material with local artists, and Romare, who emulates in musical form the collage work of African American artist, Romare Bearden, are not subject to the same criticism as someone like Iggy Azalea, who has been portrayed as displaying a potentially wilful ignorance about the origins of hip-hop (traditionally a very political genre) and, while not sampling it, appropriating from it indiscriminately, often taking what some see as regrettable aspects of that culture. There are two other issues at work here that contribute to her controversy. The first is a lack of originality: while she makes fantastic pop records, Azalea brings nothing new to the rap game, perhaps apart from being both white and female; the second is that she sells far more records than competing black female MCs – the controversy started with Azealia Banks noting that Azalea is happy to capitalise on black culture, but wouldn’t involve herself in race issues following the killing of Eric Garner, comparing her to a black and white minstrel show.
If we are to take Banks’ line, then in the case of sampling, the ethical issues only arise when nothing interesting is done with the samples, the sampler is either ignorant of or wilfully ignores the social context in which the samples were produced, and the economic imbalance is in favour of the sampler (particularly if they come from a privileged social class). The first two conditions here are points of respect and imply a moral duty to understanding the medium with which you are working. The third condition is more difficult. The very earliest uses of sampling can be found in the musique concréte of Pierre Schaeffer and his contemporaries, but in the hands of the early hip hop turntablists, it allowed a generation of deprived African Americans, without access to instruments, to democratise the mode of production and express themselves through their own form of music. Today the ease with which production software can pirated and samples be collected from all over the internet again allows an outlet of creativity to those who cannot afford to pay for it. This democratising element of sampling is something Matthew Herbert seems to ignore; it may well be easy with his studio equipment and regular income through his own label to avoid using samples from other people, but this is not the case for everybody. On the flip side to this, it has recently emerged (and sparked a fundraising campaign) that Richard L. Spencer of The Winstons, whose song, ‘Amen Brother’ produced the Amen Break, the most reproduced sample in electronic music and the cornerstone of jungle, has never received royalties for its use, and the drummer that played the break, Gregory Coleman, died homeless in 2006.
These two sides to sampling – the democratising and the imperial – explain my title. I have called this article ‘Sampling/Stealing/Appropriating’, rather than ‘Sampling, Stealing and Appropriating’ because these terms are equivalent, but arise from contradictory discourses. ‘Sampling’ is value-free and as a result, most commonly used when discussing sampling in music. ‘Stealing’ comes from the discourse of law and if we define a law as a rule made up and enforced, then ‘stealing’ is the language of those in power, as only they can be the enforcers. This legal language is closely tied up with the notion of private property, which, even if we are not to accept it as the root of all imbalances of power, is certainly on very shakey ground when it comes to art and creativity, where influence and intertextuality has always played a big part. Finally, appropriation is the language of the subaltern, the alienation of the self from one’s culture through it’s absorption into the culture industry of the dominant powers. By these definitions I would argue that stealing is good, appropriation is bad, but it is not so simple. Hardline protectionists like Detroit Techno visionary, Kenny Dixon Jr. have been quoted as saying that black music should only be sampled by black people, but without a free interchange of cultures they will merely stagnate.
The issue here then, as we can see, is around money and power. Simply ensuring that royalties go to where they are due is not enough when the dominant powers can impose their culture of consumption and homogeneity wherever they go, and cherry pick the best bits from other cultures to repackage as commodified goods to sell for their own profit. In a hypothetical world somewhere culture is taken on its own terms, without the insistence on reducing it to an economic value. As a result, in this world there can be no hierarchies between cultures, no imbalances of power, and there will be a free-flowing interchange of music and art and cultural information without the nasty connotations of imperialism. This seems impossible for this world. We are backed into a corner by the logic of capitalism, with all its old institutionalised biases. We are forced either to appropriate, or to atrophy. But we should always do this with the necessary respect.

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