A special thanks goes out to Fracture for his support and contribution to this feature.
Sampling is a backbone to Drum & Bass and the entire field of electronic music. From the use of favourite recorded breaks to daily noises to creating your own sound-bytes, the technological advances of the sampler have made it possible to create music with a wealth of opportunity.
Going waaaay back…
Drum & Bass as we know it today has been heavily influenced by the culture of Hip Hop and its explosion in the US in the late seventies and early eighties. Hip Hop DJs began using and looping their favourite beats and breaks, usually taking influences from funk, soul and jazz records. It was a form of ‘live sampling’, and DJs became more and more competitive, juggling and looping breaks, and discovering more and more records from the music that was around and available. Similarly, a few years down the line, Jungle music was created from the House/Techno revolution and the Hip Hop influences surrounding it:
‘…what the Hip Hop guys were doing was sampling all the records that were kind of big at that point in time. And then in this country, the Jungle thing, and even before that, early 90’s, it was kids in this country that were sampling records that were big in their time…So it’s the same thing in that people were just sampling and using what was around them’.
However, availability and ethos was different in the two genres. Hip Hop prided itself on the discovery and competitiveness of finding new breaks, using samples that no one else had, and ensuring that you weren’t copying or sampling someone else’s work. Jungle and Drum & Bass however, was certainly more explicit and overt in its use of other’s samples:
‘…For instance, you’ve got the Reese bassline most notoriously known from Ray Keith’s ‘Terrorist’. And you can probably bet that most Reese tunes after that were sampled from ‘Terrorist’ and not the original Kevin Saunderson track. So [Jungle and Drum & Bass] is quite incestuous that way. ‘
…But England and the UK is a tiny little place. We don’t have massive record collections, or massive record shops with cool funk records and soul records to find our own original breaks. So quite often, people are sampling each other’s records to get a sound or break that they wouldn’t otherwise have an access to.’
Still, the sampling and re-sampling of certain breaks have created some iconic sounds in Drum & Bass, and have certainly played part to its identity. Funk records and bands seemed to hold the favour of producers for drum breaks, the most famous and perhaps most important of which is the ‘Amen Break’ sampled from the track ‘Amen Brother’ by the Winstons, released in 1969.
These records have a versatility about them. Whether sped up, slowed down, chopped, changed, rearranged or reversed, the character and sound carries an indescribable magnetism with it.
‘We always start with the breaks cause in my opinion that’s what drives a track.
To us it’s the most important part…we will sit down and discuss what funk bands we haven’t sampled yet and work from there…I’ll fly to San Francisco to get hold of a break I’m after.’
Other important samples include the afore mentioned Reese bassline, a sound created by techno DJ Kevin Saunderson, and also the ‘Mentasm’ sound - spawned by fellow techno producer Joey Beltram. All of these samples have been used time and time again throughout the lifetime of Jungle and Drum & Bass, and are still used today.
And so, the fusion of using drum breaks from Funk and Hip Hop records and the use of sounds and basslines from early Techno and House records created a template for Jungle.
A form of sampling that seems unique to this genre however, is the sampling of films. Use of vocal snippets, passages, incidental music, theme music, background music, pads and effects were all adopted into Jungle/Drum & Bass tracks, and it created some big tunes:
‘That was huge in Jungle and Drum & Bass, sampling a film and then putting the Akai time stretch on it. Three that spring to mind for me are ‘Johnny’ by Johnny Jungle, which sampled a film called ‘Marked for Death’ with Steven Siegal in it. Then there’s a track called ‘Scotty’ by Subnation which sampled ‘Evil Dead’. And there was also ‘Ricky’ by Remarc, sampled from ‘Boyz in da Hood’. That was random sampling – why would you sample someone’s name from a film? But it sounds absolutely fuckin’ wicked, and no one else was doing that, and for me that was classic Jungle sampling. So where Jungle could be incestuous with its beats, they also came up with the idea of sampling some random shit like that from a film’.
Technology ‘breaks’ through…
It was the release of the first non-rack mounted sampler – the Akai MPC60 in 1988 that really brought power to the fingertips of producers of all backgrounds. It started the make of models that were accessible on an economical scale. Predeccessors such as the Mellotron, had been too large and expensive to get hold of for the average producer or DJ.
The MPC (Music Production Centre) was intentionally designed as a drum machine, for those that needed drums to practice to or perform with. Simply record drum sounds in and practice along. However, the creation of Hip Hop was through the misuse of this equipment:
‘I don’t know who’s bright idea it was but somebody said let’s actually record in a drum loop and this cool bit from a jazz record or whatever. So the whole way that samplers were used, that’s not what they were intended for’.
‘It’s pretty much the backbone of vintage Hip Hop. Hip Hop in general, as sample based music came from these machines.’
Damu the Fudgemonk – Wise Society
“It’s a drum machine, sampler and sequencer all in one. You put sound into it, you can manipulate it and you spit it back out’
The Akai MPC series and the Emu SP12 were huge in Hip Hop and are still widely used today by Dr Dre, Pete Rock, the Alchemist, Gangstarr and many more. But it was the Akai 950, 1000, 2000 and 3000 that really had an effect on the Jungle scene:
‘They were like THE Jungle sampler. They had some filters on them that led to different processing of drum breaks – adding some filters to them and some effects. But also, most notoriously, was the time stretch function on the Akai 1000, which is a function whereby you can get a sound and make it longer without pitching it down, and that’s the stretched vocal sound you hear when you listen to all the old Jungle tunes, such as ‘Dread Bass’ - one of the most known. That sampler and that effect coupled with the Amen Break and the Reese bassline completely shaped the sound of Jungle and therefore Drum&Bass’
‘(Timestreching) It allows you to be able to slow things right down, in speed, in pitch (then) back again. It was really used for chorused guitars…so I was like, fuck, if you can do that with breakbeats it’s going to be really on top…I started fucking around with the breaks and the feeling of changing pitch without changing speed was crazy.’
Finally came the Emu Ultra Series. It was released in the post-Jungle era, and had better capability in manipulation, distortion, filtering, control and sound design. The machines before it had all been mis-used to create these genres, but with the Ultra Series it seemed that the manufacturers were taking notice that people wanted to be more creative with their sounds:
‘It’s like a synthesizer really. It’s for bass. Definitely. It’s the filters and the effects and the routing inside it that really allows you to come up with some sound design. This has got a lot more options for creative stuff, for when sampling became an instrument and technique in itself’
Types of sampling
There are two different types of samples.
The kind of sampling that was integral to the early days of Jungle and Hip Hop, and was undoubtedly essential in creating a starting point for the two genres, is the sampling of other people’s music. In its infancy, this sort of sampling was just a new way of kids trying something deviceful, innovative and cool:
‘…it was kids wanting to do some stuff, make some stuff, be creative. Didn’t have any money, didn’t have any musical instruments, maybe didn’t know how to play any musical instruments. And it all started with DJs playing records, and breaks, and then looping breaks, and it’s not a mindset of stealing someone’s sound and making money out of it. It was like ‘I wanna rap over it’.’
In the halcyon days of these techniques, finding the right sample led to a culture of record hunting, crate-digging and vinyl collecting, and it created an air of healthy competition for the scene:
‘The way I sample, used to sample and have always sampled…I’ve got a big record collection…it’s like a process for me; going to a second hand record shop, flicking through all these weird and wonderful records that you’ve never ever heard before. You might like the sleeve on one so you pick it out and have a listen to that, and there’s nothing more exciting than when you find a country record or something, and you put it on, and there’s a drum beat on it and you’re like ‘wicked, I can sample this and no one knows what it is’. For me, there’s nothing more exciting than that; finding a cool bass sound, a cool loop, some drums on a record that’s otherwise rubbish. And then it’s a display of your record finding prowess’.
This sort of sampling has led to many disputes over copyright issues, and although a widespread technique, it remains illegal. With laws and rules tightening all the time, this sort of sampling is often a choice over where you want your music to end up:
‘If you’re writing underground music to put out then it really doesn’t matter. But if you’re writing a piece of music and you think ‘It would be wicked if this could get used in a film’, then if you’ve got a big sample in there, not that you wouldn’t be able to get it cleared, but you’re creating more of a difficulty for yourself, so it depends what you want to do with your music’
Sampling pre-recorded or pre-released music however, remains an undying artistry. The possibilities and urges to sample an attractive beat or sound are not easy to dismiss, and they still play a big role today as producers search for the perfect sound:
‘I’d sample a drum break for the sound of it, or the rhythm of it. It might have a really nice groove to it, or it might have a really nice snare drum sound, so I’d take the snare drum out and discard the rest. I think you make a decision on why you want to sample something just because of how it sounds. It might have a cool melody, it might have a cool rhythm, or it might just have a wicked tone to it.
'It’s huge it’s massive. I love it, I’m an advocate of sampling. But it’s easy for people to not understand why it’s not just stealing people’s music. That does happen sometimes, but for me I sample because something’s cool or quirky, not necessarily because it's good or catchy or people will like it and I can make loads of money out of it. So you can do it sensitively.’.
With better technical opportunities today, producers are able to create their own samples. Through ‘creative sampling’, music-makers are borrowing from the sound bank that we inhabit. Everyday life is often imperative to the beats we now enjoy. Be it a kettle boiling or a train passing - no sound is off-bounds.
‘I still use exactly the same techniques and the same processes but I quite like to use my own sound sources now so that might be something I’ve created on a synth, but I’ll still sample it and treat it as a sample. Or it might be a drum beat that I’ve programmed myself, that might have started life as loads of different samples.’
Though this accessibility has developed drum & bass into what it is now, similar experiments in sampling have existed since the 40’s, when Pierre Schaffer’s Concrete Movement rejected traditional music techniques in favour of actively manipulating and assembling ‘found’ sounds (– the ones that exist around us in daily life). Their use of tape splicing, reversing and pitch-changing, are techniques still integral to production today. Hats off.
The art of sampling has certainly become an instrument in its own right. It has allowed producers to create music and beats un-matchable by any live musician; complex, intricate and carefully manipulated. Breaks get chopped, changed and rearranged to take on a whole new guise. Beats and notes get tampered with, distorted, and pushed to their musical absolute, and the results have given us an ever-evolving and developing sound.
Music technology and sampling vehicles are already worlds away from their predecessors of twenty years ago. Quality and accessibility have enabled this genre to flourish with a truly world-encompassing sound. As with drum & bass, there is a strong hold to the quality of sounds and techniques of years gone by, and this accompanied with an appetite for advancement and future-bound music creates a combination that serves us well…..