Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a remarkable exercise in maximalism, grandiosity, and pomp. Within the passages of excess, listeners are exposed to a kind of glistening and fantastical high life, saturated with drugs, sex, and materialism in all its grandeur and grotesqueness. Brilliant in its extremity, it is ironic that an album that ostensibly celebrates the rapid ascent of a musician from humble origins also serves as an excellent case study in how the music industry has pitted the odds against artists who attempt to make exactly that leap.
Nowhere does this become more apparent than in the music sampling taking place throughout the album.
First, what is sampling? And why does it matter? In the simplest possible terms, music samples involve the copying or transposition of parts of a previously recorded song into a new one—maybe it’s a bass line, a guitar riff, a piano passage, and so on. The point is that elements of older material are recycled in a new way on a new song. Though music sampling appears in many genres of music in some capacity, it is unsurprisingly far more widespread in hip-hop. As early as the 1970s, hip hop was as much an exercise in creating fresh lyrics and beats as it was an exercise in sifting through older content to find material to sample in songs. We can see classic examples of this in, for example, The Sugarhill Gang’s use of 1970s soul samples, such as elements from Chic’s “Good Times”, in Rapper’s Delight.
The legal challenges of music sampling are not hard to discern. If a producer takes part of the piano line from Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”, adds new percussion to it, and records a rapper on top of it, was this an original recording? And should that producer have the right to take Queen’s famous piano passage without the artist’s consent?
Unfortunately for producers, the Supreme Court ruled in Grand Upright Music, Ltd. v. Warner Bros. Records Inc. (1991) that copying music through sampling unmistakably violated copyright protections. And so, after a string of successful lawsuits, music sampling changed forever. Producers who sought to incorporate older material into their music had essentially two constrained options: they could either find music or sounds so obscure in origin that they would go undetected. Or they would need to ask the source artists for permission to use the music, generally for a fee. To musicians on low budgets—that is to say, the vast majority of musicians—the former option is both risky and incredibly labor intensive. Meanwhile the latter option is financially infeasible. And sounds from well-known songs—such as the “Bohemian Rhapsody” piano melody—are usually completely outside the bounds of what artists can afford to sample. Here, the bill can go as high as tens of thousands of dollars.
The exception to all of this is wealthier musicians. And this includes Kanye West. As lower income budget musicians who use sampling go through pains to mask the source of their sampled material or to otherwise pay massive fees to use better known content, richer artists with connections in the industry can essentially sample whatever they want. There are anecdotes, for instance, of West’s team offering $10,000 advances for a sample and an injunction to the sampled artist that they must accept the offer.
That kind of forwardness is not feasible for budget artists. And this is why, when we listen to “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”, the brand of sampling that we see takes a decidedly different form. The aptly named “POWER”, for example, samples King Crimson’s 21st Century Schizoid Man off of the classic “In the Court of the Crimson King”. The use of such a famous song serves as much to provide an interesting music detour as it does to show West’s audience how wealthy and able to access “top shelf” samples he is. We can see examples of this elsewhere. On the album “Watch the Throne”, which West co-authored with Jay-Z, the use of Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” in the song “Otis” serves a similar purpose. It is, as economists put it, a form of conspicuous consumption—a sample purchased to signal West’s wealth, access, and, yes, “POWER”.
The picture is entirely different on the other side. DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing—an album composed almost entirely of samples blended together— is probably the most well known and brilliant display of what sampling can do. It shows that it can be a creative art form on par with any original compositions. Yet as fantastic as it is, the record is impressive because it is a meticulous work of “cryptic sampling”, whereby DJ Shadow found sounds and samples from obscure origins, which allowed him to use them in his compositions. There are exceptions—Bjork’s “Possibly Maybe”, for example—but the rest of the record attempts to shroud its source content in mystery.
And here we see why this story of sampling tells a greater one about inequality in the music industry and the US more broadly. As connections, the ability to invest in quality recordings, and high level production techniques become ever more important to a successful career as a musician, the commodification of sampling and the split in access to samples that emerges from that presents another barrier to entry for low income artists. And from the listener’s side, sampling provides another excellent example of how monetary barriers are not only preventing artists from taking off. They are changing the very sound of the music we listen to.