The 1979 release of the song “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang marked a pivotal moment in music history, introducing the world at large to hip-hop and rap. Little did anyone know, at the time, the profound and lasting cultural effects these genres would have on the entire musical landscape. 

Since the release of “Rapper’s Delight,” hip-hop has evolved into a multifaceted cultural phenomenon, giving rise to diverse subgenres such as East Coast, West Coast, gangsta rap, conscious rap, and trap music. This evolution has allowed hip-hop to transcend cultural boundaries, becoming a global force that influences music, fashion, language, lifestyle, and activism. Hip-hop was and continues to be a platform for Black and other marginalized communities to amplify their historically silenced voices. 

It’s not only the original lyrics of MCs that deliver a message of resistance; hip-hop also created the rebellious art of sampling. Sampling is a fundamental and distinctive element of hip-hop music production that has profoundly impacted the genre itself and the wider music industry. It involves taking a portion, or “sample,” of a pre-existing sound recording and incorporating it into a new musical composition. This practice emerged as a creative and cost-effective way for early hip-hop producers to craft beats and create unique sonic textures.

The history of sampling

During the early twentieth century — both in New Orleans and elsewhere — jazz musicians frequently incorporated hooks, licks, progressions, or snippets of melodies from their fellow musicians’ compositions into their live performances. This practice was a form of homage — which is something that would continue in later in rap music sampling — that was rooted in a genuine sense of respect and admiration for the original composers. 

The act of “borrowing” these musical fragments became a widespread tradition and it contributed to a playful and enjoyable atmosphere during live jazz events. This not only pleased the audience but also added an extra layer of enjoyment to the vibrant world of jazz performances.

With the evolution of technology, sampling went on to develop beyond its jazz origins. Some historians cite the invention of the Mellotron electronic keyboard and its predecessor, the Chamberlain, as some of the earliest pieces of sampling technology. But it wasn’t until the 1970s and the 1980s, starting with the mixing and manipulation of vinyls done by DJs and MCs in South Bronx, New York City, that sampling became the art form we know today.

Switching between two vinyls on two separate turntables during street parties and nights at the club, DJs would draw drum beats from one and vocals from the other, looping and playing the tracks over the other and seamlessly binding them together. Sampling was popular because it was cost-effective: all one needed was the vinyls they wanted to use and any two sets of turntables, which were extremely common and easy to find in the 1970s and 1980s.

Sampling for Black artists

American music critic Amiri Baraka argued in his essay “Technology & Ethos” that Black people in North America had to create their own technology to find liberation, since pre-existing technology was often made to exclude the Black perspective. In fact, innovations in music often primarily occur due to the lack of technology that people have to reproduce the sounds they desire. Black people thus had to create their own sounds.

It is no wonder, then, that new technology began to emerge in Black communities in the 1980s through to the 1990s, after the Civil Rights Movement had used television and radio to its advantage. Black artists used stretching and sampling in their bedrooms, and figureheads like Herbie Hancock “hacked” the synthesizer to develop the sounds that he was looking for. New musical genres and styles emerged when Black people made room for themselves and adopted mainstream technology to create their own means of production and sound.

Sampling, one might argue, originated as a part of a resistance against mainstream forms of technology that excluded Black people. This might be why sampling, from the moment it became a powerhouse in the music industry, started to be seen as a threat. When it travelled beyond the neighbourhoods where it originated, the industry started trying to take it down almost immediately. 

The death of sampling

Music never truly became commodified until the rise of the Industrial Revolution and the creation of the phonograph. People stopped making music and started buying it instead, and music became less about music and more about money. 

The lawsuit Tuff City brought against the Beastie Boys in 2012 showcases how the modern world prioritizes money in music. The record label Tuff City attempted to sue the Beastie Boys for using a drum sequence from the 1982 song “Drop the Bomb” by Trouble Funk in their song “Hold It Now, Hit It.” However, the lawsuit was filed by Tuff City without Trouble Funk even knowing, and a day before it was filed, one of the founding members of the Beastie Boys, Adam “MCA” Yauch died of cancer. Even after Yauch had passed, the record label did not back down, showcasing that the lawsuit was, above all, an aggressive grab for money.

This lawsuit, like many other aggressive sampling lawsuits, stemmed from a 1991 US District court case Grand Upright Music, Ltd. v Warner Bros. Records Inc., which made artists responsible for making sure they’d been granted permission from the original artist before sampling music. 

This lawsuit changed hip-hop music forever. Before, artists had been able to build their entire albums from samples upon samples of other music without thinking twice. But the 1991 ruling led to the gradual decline of the artform; now, to sample, you have to be able to afford paying royalties to the original record label and artists — or to afford being sued. 

This is why now, you only see people like Kanye West and Nicki Minaj pulling interesting and recognizable samples out of their libraries and into their iconic albums. Artists like them do so as if to advertise their wealth. This made sampling inaccessible to most hip-hop artists, especially in hip-hop’s early days when most rappers and MCs were coming from less-than-favourable circumstances. This, to me, rings true to the constant class oppression that society is always forcing Black people into. 

But understanding what constitutes intellectual property and what counts as stealing is central to the legality of sampling. Sampling had been deemed okay when people did it during street parties where no one was making money, but it suddenly became near-criminalized the moment those same people started to make money from music. 

As Craig Jenkins put it in his review of Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back, “Overnight it became forbiddingly difficult and expensive to incorporate even a handful of samples into a new beat… producers scaled back their creations, often augmenting one choice groove with a bevy of instrumental embellishments.” Even though the censoring of artists led to new sounds of East Coast rap in the 2000s, it still does not discount that the strict laws around sampling silence Black voices. 

The criminalization of sampling, however, did not stop sampling as a whole. Just like the creation of the artform was made due to innovations, the continuation and perseverance of it also came through with innovations. No more than five years after the landmark 1991 ruling, DJ Shadow released Endtroducing….. where he sampled dozens of songs throughout the album. He did so by distorting and reshaping the sampled music so much that he hoped people would fail to recognize it.

Enter stage left: PinkPantheress in her bedroom

Before she was PinkPantheress, in high school, Victoria Walker sampled songs on GarageBand and posted her remixes without the intention of making money. In terms of influences, she cites her mother and “the UK music channel” for introducing her to garage, jungle and drum and bass music growing up, and even nods to K-pop as an influence. She described her high school music to NPR as “a nice little hobby.”

Unexpectedly, her early career took off in 2021 due to the viral TikTok success of songs she built from interesting samples. PinkPantheress has emerged as a notable figure in the realm of music sampling, garnering attention for her distinctive and eclectic approach to blending genres. What sets her apart is not just the range of genres she explores, but also the skill with which she navigates and fuses these elements, creating a sound that defies easy categorization. 

The two songs that led her to be a fan favourite — “Break it Off” and “Pain”— both sample UK club classic tracks that were recorded before she was even born. NPR identified the samples: “Break it Off” uses a 1997 drum-’n’-bass track called “Circles,” produced by an English DJ named Adam F, and “Pain” samples “Flowers” by Sweet Female Attitude, remixed by Sunship. 

When asked by iconic music reporter Nardwuar about how she finds her samples, PinkPantheress replied that she just scours the internet and YouTube. This method has led to some critiques from individuals who accuse her of  “defiling the classics,” implying a tendency to draw from and tinker with well-known songs rather than explore more obscure or diverse samples. 

However, PinkPantheress does far more than rework hits and has demonstrated a nuanced approach to sampling that challenges such criticisms. A notable example is her use of Franz Buchholtz’s “And Yet…” from an out-of-print album by his band Signaldrift in her track “Noticed I Cried.” By selecting a sample from an artist associated with a bankrupt record label and featuring unreleased material, PinkPantheress showcases an ability to unearth hidden gems and breathe new life into obscure, forgotten sounds.

She is one of the many people who are trying to reclaim sampling. “People need to realize that sampling isn’t a new thing,” PinkPantheress told NPR, “Sampling is embedded into a lot of genres: EDM, garage, jungle, DnB, rap, hip-hop.” Her perspective challenges the notion that sampling should be reserved for a select few and highlights the difficulty in determining which artists should have the privilege to engage in this creative practice.

As she continues to make music under the record label Parlophone, PinkPantheress contacts the artists and other record labels to sample their music. While PinkPantheress is recognized as a trailblazer in music sampling, the future of music is a dynamic and multifaceted landscape shaped by various artists and influences. As technology continues to advance and musical boundaries further dissolve, the exploration of diverse sounds and styles remains a central theme in the evolution of contemporary music.