The Importance of Context in Sampling
I did not hear the phrase ‘who will survive in America’ from the original artist, Gil Scott Heron, but instead from Kanye West. I did not hear the bassline from Lou Reed’s ‘Walk On the Wild Side’ from the song itself, but the instead from the popular Tribe Called Quest song that samples it- ‘Can I Kick it?’ For many, the first time they heard Lauren Hill’s voice wasn’t in her own work, but instead on Drake’s ‘Nice for What’ track. The list goes on and on. Numerous songs are known to people not through the actual song itself, but instead from the samples that have redefined them.
In his book Rhythm Science, D.J Spooky aka that Subliminal kid (Paul Miller), demonstrates his idea that sampling pervades and exists within all components of our culture. He claims that music and sampling are “utterly malleable material” (20), and that “any sound can be you” (24). Gil Scott Heron’s work exemplifies the malleability of music and the effects of sampling culture through its broad impact. Heron’s work is best known not on its own, but primarily through the context of hip hop sampling. Thus, when most people hear ‘the revolution will not be televised,’ or ‘who will survive in America’ they don’t immediately think of a Harlem poet, but instead of a Kanye West track. In a recent article on Heron, Andrew Nosnitsky stated,“it doesn’t take long to see past the catchphrase and recognize him as a much more complex artist and human” (Nosnitsky). However, few people actually do experience Heron past his catchphrase. Like many heavily sampled artists, Heron’s work and its meaning is completely transformed and reduced in totality. Heron’s work effectively reinforces Miller’s claim that music is ‘utterly malleable material,’ and that it is impossible for any work of art not to be remixed, revised, or redefined.
Miller’s Claims on Remixing
Miller makes the claim in his writing and art that sampling, remixing, and revising are fundamental aspects not just of modern hip-hop culture, but of human existence. In his book, Rhythm Science, Miller’s writing and the physical style of his book intersect in numerous ways. Miller defines rhythm science as “a forensic investigation of sound as a vector of a coded language that goes from the physical to the informational and back again” (5). It is notable that Miller focuses on how rhythm science is all about repetition, going from physical to informational, and ‘back again’. Miller claims that DJ’ing is based highly in repetition, as it is “all about reprocessing the world around you” (29). The interesting thing about Miller’s physical work and his topic is that both are based around the same thing: DJ’ing and sampling. Miller repeats, redefines, and reprocesses his definition of rhythm science throughout the book, thus following along with the fundamentals of DJ’ing and sampling. Miller also relies upon the DJ’ing pillar that is repetition, by including similarly styled green pages every other page, and by including the same break in the middle of each page. The break itself is caused by the physical CD within the book- another example of Miller connecting the physicality of his work to the reality of it. He claims, “DJing is writing, writing is DJing” exemplifying that to Miller, they are the same. There is no distinction between his physical book, the topic of his writing, and DJing and sampling. They all exist together as one. Through both his writing and the physical structure of his book, Miller exemplifies his idea that sampling, DJ’ing, and remixing are fundamental parts of music and life, showing us that “any sound can be you” (64).
‘Comment #1’ and ‘Who Will Survive in America’
‘Comment #1’ is a thought-provoking poem by Gil Scott-Heron in which Heron focuses on a criticism of race in America. ‘Comment #1’ includes a “mockery of white radicals,” visceral imagery of the slave trade, numerous components of self-hatred, and a devastating call for equality and change (Patrin). Additionally, the recording of his poem includes an up-tempo drum beat in the background. However, the far more popular track, ‘Who Will Survive in America’, by Kanye West, which was released 40 years after Heron’s original recording, includes only a short snippet in a one minute and thirty-eight-second-long song. Kanye completely redefines ‘Who Will Survive in America’ not because he adds any more lyrics–he doesn’t–but simply because he releases it in a unique time period, via an alternative medium of expression, and as a different individual.
The phrase “Who will survive in America” is the centerpiece of the sample Kanye uses from ‘Comment #1’. For many, the first time they hear this phrase spoken in Heron’s voice, it is not in Heron’s own poem, but instead as the final track on Kanye’s album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. ‘Comment #1’ has only 201,414 plays on Spotify, whereas Kanye’s ‘Who Will Survive in America’ has 13,674,809 (both as of April 24, 2019).
‘Who Will Survive in America’ does not add any new words and simply places a snippet of the original work over a different background beat. However, the literal change in the sound is not the only difference between these two works. Scott’s criticism of white radicals who “exercise the luxury of dropping out of society so they can fight for the cause of smoking pot and fucking in the streets” while they continue to ignore the basic needs of the African American community (basic civil rights, food, housing) is radically changed when heard in 2010 as opposed to 1970. When we think of the phrase ‘who willsurvive in America,’ it sounds different on Kanye’s album than it does on Heron’s, even though we are hearing almost the exact same thing. This process of sampling and re-contextualizing sound is an integral part of sampling culture, especially within hip-hop music. The context of 2010, Kanye West, and the other songs on Kanye’s album alter the meaning of Heron’s poem, whether Heron intends it or not.
Impact on my Own Understanding of Music and Remixing.
My writing class, Voice, Noise, Sound, and Sensedrastically altered my understanding of music, especially in regard to originality and sampling. In my second writing project I focused on the sampling choices on the album Yeezusby Kanye West. I wrote that in order,
“to create the track ‘Blood on the Leaves’, Kanye sampled ‘Strange Fruit’– a song written by Billie Holiday about the murders of African Americans by lynching. This song undoubtedly carries an important and heavy weight in terms of race in America. Kanye chooses to take this intense song about murder and morph it into one about an unhealthy, oversexualized, and drug fueled relationship as demonstrated by his lines, “my second-string bitches,” and “when you tried your first molly” (Blood on the Leaves).” (Lodish).
The song ‘Blood on the Leaves’ completely changes its meaning when the listener recognizes the sampling choices that go into it. Suddenly, a song that on the surface appears to be only about sex and drugs transitions into one about race and violence, once the listener recognizes that the sample comes from a song about lynching.
In some ways, I agree with Miller that everything is connected to sampling and repurposing. However, this course has shown me the importance of context in regard to sound. I have learned that although sound canbe re-adapted and repurposed, it is supremely important to learn the roots of music, not only to increase understanding of a work, but also gain a deeper knowledge of the sonic framework for music itself. At the end of the day, it’s almost impossible to not constantly re-contextualize music and art in regard to time. As many people are unaware the deep context and history within songs, our understanding of music, and ownership of it is drastically altered.
Now when I listen to my favorite hip hop tracks, I am always sure to consider the samples they utilize. When I hear a new hip-hop song, I check whosampled.com. My brother and I even created a playlistof our favorite hip hop songs along with the samples they use. I would have never listened to Pastor T.L Bennet without first hearing the sample Kanye took in ‘Father Stretch my Hands’. Bennet is currently one of my favorite artists. I now appreciate and listen to Lou Reed, Lauren Hill, Gill-Scott Heron, and countless artists, thanks to a deeper understanding of sampling.
Miller is right when he claims sampling is everything. Yet, it is important to understand those samples and their origin. Otherwise, when you hear ‘Who Will Survive in America’ or ‘Blood on the Leaves’ you may misunderstand their significance, causing parts of the meaning and history to be lost.
Patrin, Nate. “Gil Scott-Heron.” Pitchfork, Pitchfork, 30 May 2011, pitchfork.com/features/afterword/7978-appreciation-gil-scott-heron/.
Rhythm Science. MIT Press, 2004.
Nosnitsky, Andrew. “Gil Scott-Heron: More Than a Revolution.” Pitchfork, Pitchfork, 18 Jan. 2012, pitchfork.com/features/article/8755-gil-scott-heron/.
Lodish, Josh. “White Freedom: Kanye West’s Refusal To Give Into Societal Notions On Race And Music My Blog”. Joshlodish.Com, 2019, http://www.joshlodish.com/uncategorized/white-freedom-kanye-wests-refusal-to-give-into-societal-notions-on-race-and-music/.