Recently I had a mind-blowing experience while listening to music, but not in a positive sense. While flipping through local radio stations, I stumbled upon a track that was–now stay with me–a song which samples another track, which sampled another track. In other words, it’s a song which samples another song, which itself is based on a sample. Follow me?
“She Ain’t You,” a song off Chris Brown’s 2011 album F.A.M.E., uses the same hip hop beat as on SWV’s 1993 single “Right Here (Human Nature Mix).” SWV, in turn, based their song on a sample of the Michael Jackson classic “Human Nature.” Astoundingly, Brown imitates both songs in his vocals, although the lyrics differ.
As my mind tried to wrap around this song-based-on-a-sample-based-on-a-sample (which I have dubbed “meta sampling”), I also reacted with horror. While I have no problem with sampling, if done creatively and with due credit to the original artists, this meta sampling raises additional issues. Where does creativity and originality end and mere copying begin? Are today’s songwriters really so lacking in ideas that they need to “borrow” from a track that “borrows” from another song?
Sampling, of course, is nothing new; in an earlier form, The Beatles utilized tape loops and sound effects to create original songs such as “Strawberry Fields Forever” and several tracks off Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Rap’s first successful song, the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” is based on the instrumental track from Chic’s “Good Times” (although they hired another band to re-record the original song). In 1989, the Beastie Boys raised sampling to an art form on their landmark album Paul’s Boutique, in which songs also functioned as sound collages. By the 1990s, sampling became routine, although Beck furthered the Beastie Boys’ sound collage technique on such albums as Mellow Gold and Odelay. But hip hop and R&B artists largely dominated, with artists such as P Diddy, Mariah Carey, Public Enemy, the Notorious B.I.G., and Janet Jackson lifting riffs, drum beats, melodies, and even other singers’ voices to create new recordings.
While the Beastie Boys and Beck have fused numerous songs together with their own lyrics and other instruments to create original sounds, does Chris Brown fit into this category? Other than Brown’s vocals and new lyrics, the song directly lifts SWV’s “Right Here,” and Brown imitates Jackson’s and SWV’s vocal styles at various points. Is this a true original work?
Clearly Brown’s meta sampling fails to bother much of his audience. As of this writing, “She Ain’t You” sits at number 28 on the Billboard Top 100, number six on the R&B/Hip Hop charts, and number 17 on the Billboard Radio Airplay list. But the track may also signal a change–an unwelcome one–in popular music. Sampling other songs based on samples inhibits creativity and stifles an artist’s authentic voice. If it weren’t for rock, rap, hip hop, and R&B pioneers who shattered previous conventions, where would music be today? Surely today’s musicians and songwriters haven’t run out of ideas, as world events lay waiting for commentary. Love will never cease being a relevant topic, be it romantic or platonic. New genres have yet to be invented, or music that combines two elements (such as rock/rap and country/pop) have produced remarkable results throughout history.
As the old adage goes, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Perhaps, but imitation without originality can be just a copy. Such meta sampling prohibits artistic growth and reduces vocalists and musicians to puppets who say whatever the puppeteer wants them to say, with no distinctive thought. This notion is simply the antithesis of artistry. As Charlie Parker once said, “Music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.”