Home / Music / Meta Sampling: The Sincerest Form of Flattery, or Mere Copying?

Meta Sampling: The Sincerest Form of Flattery, or Mere Copying?

Please Share...Print this pageTweet about this on TwitterShare on Facebook0Share on Google+0Pin on Pinterest0Share on Tumblr0Share on StumbleUpon0Share on Reddit0Email this to someone

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.” 

Powered by

About Kit O'Toole

  • zingzing

    actually, brian… “industrial” comes from industrial records, throbbing gristle’s label (named for its ridiculous output as well as the fact that tg recorded at the “death factory.”) tg were certainly one of the grand daddies of industrial, but they rarely used samplers. cabaret voltaire and tg were making what would become “industrial music” in the late 70s, although i doubt people (other than the people making it) called it that then, using mostly analog synths and drum machines, along with guitars and some serious amounts of tape manipulation (which although close in spirit, is not sampling).

    einsturzende neubauten (not sure if that’s spelled right,) were another early industrial act. they got industrial down, as they would record themselves destroying buildings and using machines generally associated with industrial work as if they were instruments (alongside some more traditional instruments).

    samplers crept into industrial in the early 80s. the sound had been around long enough that the genre name stuck, but the fact that “industrial music” as we now know it (or as it was at its peak of popularity,) was somewhat dominated by a supremely post-industrial tool, the digital sampler, is one of the greater ironies in music.

    i’m a big fan of sampling. when done right (beasties, public enemy, disco inferno, animal collective, etc), sampling is an art in itself, and an instrument of limitless bounds. but, when it’s done in this meta-sampling way, where the aim of the producer is to ride the coattails of an already popular song, it’s troubling.

    the new kanye west/jay z track was leaked today. it samples otis reddings “try a little tenderness.” it actually starts with a good 40-second chunk of the song, and not a peep from west or jay z. that bothers me quite a bit. it could be them showing off the amount of money they’re able to spend sampling stuff. but that’s of limited musical appeal (beyond the fact that it’s an awesome song, but we knew that already). the bits where they rap are better, as it’s done over a jagged little grunt and guitar bit from the song. i’ve got mixed feelings about it for sure.

    the world did feel bigger when people could sample without having to pay for it. in many ways, i wish we could go back to that. but i can see why that would be unfair.

  • Kit O’Toole

    Brian aka Guppusmaximus, interesting point! It’s fascinating to see how some genres have used sampling in a creative way, which is quite different than meta sampling. Thanks for commenting!

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    Nice Article…

    Though you forgot to mention what the Industrial genre did for the world of sampling since the mid 80s. In which, they incorporated samples of mechanical, thus the name “Industrial”, sounds in their electronic style of music and even went as far as to use that sample as the foundation for the whole track.