Friday, May 21, 2010

A Sample Kind of Life

After hearing the song "Flashing Lights" for the first time a few weeks ago, I got my hands on KANYE WEST's 2007 album, Graduation. Last week, while driving to Chapel Hill with my roommate James, I put it on and he recommended I skip to the song "Drunk and Hot Girls," which features MOS DEF. I acquiesced and found myself listening to what sounds like the two hip-hop moguls adlibbing anti-party girl diatribes along to CAN's "Sing Swan Song."

Now, I'm not one to malign a musician for reusing somebody's original melody/beat/et cetera, but I cannot figure out why these guys felt it necessary to turn a couple snippets of DAMO SUZUKI's vocals into a five-minute rant about clingy wastoids (besides the fact that one part of the original vocals does sound like the words "drunk and hot girls"). Maybe West and Def did just hear a mondegreen in "Sing Swan Song" and thought it would make for some good comic relief on Graduation, but I think this kind of cross-genre sampling (especially from such a notoriously hip band as Can) serves a different purpose for "Drunk and Hot Girls."

Kanye West is the kind of hip-hop star who grabs the attention of all kinds of music fans, not just those who consider themselves true HIP-HOP HEADS. He collaborates with musicians from ADAM LEVINE to CHRIS MARTIN to TWISTA in order to make himself relevant to listeners of all types, but to please the music fan who may not like the big names next to the track titles he has to use samples that a) have not been used in any other noteworthy hip-hop songs and b) will grab the attention of the snobbier listener. Can seem like just the group to achieve both goals as they are not the kind of band to be played on mainstream radio and knowledge of their music nowadays provides
the listener with a chunk of CULTURAL CAPITAL. The samples taken from "Sing Swan Song" are "good" precisely because they elevate (or are supposed to elevate) West's music from run-of-the-mill radio-rap to hip-hop that involves itself in a CROSS-CULTURAL DIALOGUE.

I have also noticed this picking and choosing of samples as being able to function in the opposite way. Swedish electronic musician AXEL WILLNER (no relation, pictured), better known as THE FIELD, uses a sample from LIONEL RITCHIE's "Hello" in his song "A Paw in My Face." Willner preempts accusations of musical pretentiousness when at song's end he let's the sample unfurl, revealing the source material in a kind of "gotcha" moment. Instead of trying to dress up his music with a more obscure sample, he affectionately takes one from an artist known for being a popular cheeseball.

Samples today
, then, are more than the musical interpolations that they perhaps once were; musically they are very useful, but the mere presence of samples can change the entire meaning of a song, whether intentional or not. I can't help but think of Marshall Mcluhan's "The Medium is the Message" (which I haven't read in a while, so bear with me). The presence of a sample in a pop song is a medium that requires the conscious participation of the listener. This medium, no matter what its content may be, is schism and re-presentation of a previous pop song, therefore changing what the aims of what the new song may have originally been.