Thursday, 25 June 2015

Essay: The Art of Sampling by Chris Inglis, Musicologist

A short while ago I was bumbling around the internets and came across an extract from an academic essay on the subject of electro-swing and its evolution from old-time swing and 90s dance music. I hunted out and read the full thing, and discovered that it had been written by a Musicologist (yes, that's a thing) named Chris Inglis. Now, as regular readers will be aware, my qualifications for pronouncing on the scene are exactly none, so I thought I would get in touch with Chris to see if he was interested in helping me to bring a little actual knowledge to the blog. He very kindly agreed to share the fruits of his researches here.

Chris's post is somewhat longer than you might be used to reading on here, and its certainly a lot more intellectual than anything I ever write (it has references and a bibliography), but I strongly recommend reading to the end.

The author, looking slick
I was pleasantly surprised to be contacted the other week with a request to contribute an article to this blog. Being the only academic to be working within the field of electro swing (as far as I’m aware, and if anyone knows of any others I would genuinely love to be put into contact with them), it is a great opportunity to present my work to a much larger number of people than those who would normally read it. I’m currently working on an extended thesis with the working title of Sampling the Swing Era, specifically focussing on the practice of sampling within the genre, and what you’ll find here will form the basis of one of the chapters found within.

The key aspect of my current research involves determining the specific reasons why artists working within the genre of electro swing, and the vintage remix genre in general choose to work with vintage samples, and the distinct implications that working these samples may have. Concerning music, where many eras of the past have had their own individual style, this no longer appears to be the case. The author Simon Reynolds notes this in his book Retromania, in which he states:

“Instead of being about itself, the 2000s has been about every other previous decade happening again all at once: a simultaneity of pop time that abolishes history while nibbling away at the present’s own sense of itself as an era with a distinct identity and feel.”
[Reynolds, 2011:x]

But why specifically does the music of the past appear to be creeping back into the modern day? Through the use of sampling, a large amount of modern music can now largely be described as simply a reinterpretation of already existing music.

To begin, I’ll very briefly look at two case studies, simply to highlight the incredible importance of sampling within the genre. The first is Parov Stelar, who presents a great indication of this importance most notably through his 2013 album, The Art of Sampling. Clearly, from the very title of this release, Parov Stelar is indicating his fondness for sampling, and this is backed up with the following quote, made in reference to this particular album:

“Sampling is an instrument. You have an unimaginable treasure trove of material that you can use and transform into new things. I play the computer; that’s my instrument.”
[Füreder, 2013]

My second example comes from the band SwinGrowers, and more specifically, their 2015 album Remote. This album in fact features zero samples whatsoever; however this was presented by the record label as one of the selling points, indicating its uniqueness. As the press release states:

“What marks this out is the departure from any use of vintage samples. Instead, every track, every sound is entirely original - the influences have been fully absorbed. If there was ever any doubt that this genre had a future, then this is the rebuttal. “Remote” is nothing less than a game-changer.”
[Freshly Squeezed, 2015]

The phrase “game-changer” in this context is particularly telling.

Regarding the specific role and function that the sampling of vintage music plays within the genre of electro swing, there has been essentially no academic work conducted for this particular genre. However, a genre which has been researched quite extensively is the related genre of jazz rap, concerning artists such as A Tribe Called Quest, and De La Soul, which has been looked into by academics such as Tom Perchard and Justin Williams. Concerning the use of sampling in the genre of jazz rap, Williams has stated that “the fundamental element of hip-hop culture and aesthetics is the overt use of preexisting material to new ends” , and that “borrowing is hip-hop culture’s most widespread, and arguably most effective, way of celebrating itself”.

A number of different reasons behind the use of vintage influences have been presented by the authors conducting research into the genre of jazz rap. Perhaps surprisingly, the argument that seems to appear the most commonly is the suggestion that both jazz and hip-hop music have emerged from the same traditions and creative sources. For instance, a point is made by journalists Janine Adams and Havelock Nelson that “hip-hop is the jazz music of today”. Additionally, fellow journalist Danyel Smith makes the suggestion that jazz has been turned into “some elite, sophisticated music”; one of the ‘high arts’, as opposed to how it would have originally been considered, and that hip-hop is “bringing jazz back where it belongs”. Indeed, Williams lists some of the musical similarites between both genres, including their “origins as dance music, [that they] were largely the product of African American urban creativity and innovation, and [their] shared rhythmic similarities”.

However, a few authors have also suggested that this is not in fact the case, and that both hip-hop and jazz are two distinct, individual genres; therefore jazz rap’s sampling of jazz is intended to serve almost as a juxtaposition. As Tom Perchard suggests, the artists working within the genre of jazz rap are using these samples “precisely because of their distance from them”. It’s also been suggested by Williams that, as Smith suggests jazz is now considered one of the ‘high arts’ of today’s society, hip-hop’s sampling of it is perhaps an attempt to enter that same world, or as he describes, “part of hip-hop’s ongoing struggle for cultural legitimacy”.

Another suggestion for the use of vintage samples within modern music, is the concept of ‘retelling the past’. Hip-hop’s sampling of older genres has been described by author Russell Potter as “re-form[ing] the traditions it draws upon”, and Perchard describes the phenomenon that “traditions are invented and cultural memories mobilized at times of social change or trauma”, drawing parallels with hip-hop’s sampling of older generations’ music. Author Peter Burke goes on to describe how – as the saying goes, ‘history is written by the victors’ – “marginalized cultural groups have been apt to make more of that cultural memory”, and that “this reproduction of memories constructs oppositional historical narratives”. It is certainly possible to see these modern musicians using vintage music as a way of constructing an alternate history, more favourable for themselves.

Before moving specifically onto my own research, I’ll present a few more points made by Simon Reynolds. A question he poses, is whether “nostalgia [is] stopping our culture’s ability to surge forward, or are we nostalgic precisely because our culture has stopped moving forward and so we inevitably look back to more momentous and dynamic times?" Reynolds also suggests that perhaps we are now using more and more vintage samples simply for the reasons of ease and accessibility, stating that “all the sound and imagery and information that used to cost money and physical effort to obtain is available for free, just a few key and mouse clicks away”.

Therefore, within the genre of jazz rap, there are already a large number of suggestions as to why these artists may choose to work with vintage samples. With regards to electro swing, I was keen to discover whether or not these views were echoed by the practitioners of this particular style. In order to do this, I reached out to a number of artists working within the genre, and asked the following question:
“With regards to your music, what do you consider the role and function of using vintage music to be?”

The first artist to get back to me was Nick Hollywood, who says the following:

“Vintage music is a source of inspiration. That’s pretty much the only real common ground. Beyond that; in what way it inspires – either via directly sampling – or by simply providing a musical style template – is completely different from one artist to the next.”

Hollywood’s description of vintage music serving as a source of inspiration for him ties in with Reynolds’ idea that perhaps our culture has stopped moving forward. This implication that vintage music is perhaps of a higher quality than the music of today was in fact quite a common theme throughout many of the responses I received.

A DJ who takes this idea even further is Per Ebdrup of Swing Republic, who states the following:

“Very significant. Many tracks I make in this genre are sample based. The old samples give a great vibe to the tracks. In those days, only the very best musicians were allowed to record, because of the expensive technology. So the quality of the artists is high. Lyrics in 20-30ties are often quite fun which gives the music a happy and light feel.”

Ebdrup’s point that only the best musicians were allowed to record, and his suggestion that the quality of the artists is therefore high, further backs up this idea.

In some cases, there in fact almost seems to be an air of superiority with these various electro swing/vintage remix artists. To take a slight detour away from the artists who I contacted myself, this position is made no more evident than in the duo Goldfish. As Dominic Peters states of their music:

“I think our whole thing is kind of combining the analogue and digital world together. A lot of dance music’s very sterile and very bright and shiny, and we try and rub in a bit of dirt, and a bit of analogue warmth, and real instruments, and bring back the life to dance music.”
[Goldfishlive, 2012]

This suggestion of superiority is demonstrated perfectly in the music video for Goldfish’s track One Million Views:

This isn’t however to say that electro swing musicians necessarily look down upon regular EDM artists. Returning to the artists I contacted myself, Michael Rack of Dutty Moonshine says the following:

“Fun. Just straight fun. Jazz and Swing was an amazing and timeless sound, you could call it the 1st punk music of it’s day for what it went up against. Slapping vintage samples onto basslines and dance beats is a sure win.”

Rack’s fondness for “basslines and dance beats” is perfectly evident here, although it does seem that he still perhaps maintains a preference for vintage music, through his description of the reasons behind its use as “just straight fun”.

A further reason for the use of vintage samples is given by Tobias Kroschel, better known as Sound Nomaden:

“For me music is timeless, that means if you give vintage music a modern twist or put it in the right context people will feel it, even if they're born in a different generation. The great opportunity of using musical themes or samples from old decades is, that you can reach people from age of 16-80 years. It is an amazing experience to see these different generations dancing together on the same music.”

Kroschel’s suggestion that the music is “timeless”, and his reference to his love of seeing “different generations dancing together” is perhaps suggestive that he is leaning towards the ‘same tradition’ theory, in his indication that all people and ages can be reached with this style.

A similar point is made by Luca Gatti, better known as Dr. Cat, who says the following:

“I would say the role is a primary one, in that without those vintage samples the tracks would have a complete different vibe to it, I am not saying the tracks would be better I am just saying the track would not sound as categorized within the vintage remix domain. The function is of endless inspirational importance, not only re connect with the past but springs out in to the future.”

Another aspect I am investigating with my research, is whether to consider electro swing as a continuation of the original swing music, or whether to regard it as a genre in its own right, simply taking influences from the swing era. From this quote, it would appear that Gatti would take the first view, and that electro swing is what swing has now evolved into. This of course also ties in with the ‘same tradition’ theory.

So what we can ultimately conclude is that there are many different reasons for why producers may decide to use vintage samples. The fact that some of these views are complimentary, whereas others are contrasting leaves room for much more research to be conducted, but for now, I will briefly recap the various views presented so far.

For jazz rap specifically, the idea that both genres of music come from the same traditions is certainly an interesting one, and does in fact seem to translate across to electro swing. The music of the swing era evolved out of the jazz of the 1920s, just as electronic dance music evolved out of the hip-hop of the early ‘80s, so there are certainly parallels to be drawn there.

The suggestion however of a juxtaposition of styles can apply too; this point is made clearly by Simon Reynolds in Retromania when he states that “nearly all the most successful mash-ups worked by contrast and collision”. It does certainly appear to be the case with certain electro swing producers that they are making a conscious attempt to combine contrasting styles.

The idea of retelling the past is definitely an intriguing one. The suggestion by Tom Perchard that hip-hop musicians are constructing an alternate, more favourable past for themselves certainly makes sense; and when drawing the parallels we have already seen between hip-hop and jazz; and EDM and swing, this suggestion may possibly still apply.

The suggestion that our culture has stopped moving forward does initially appear questionable, however there does exist ample evidence, supplied by a number of authors to back this up. On top of this, the common suggestion found in many of the artists questioned that the quality of vintage music is higher than that of today seems to suggest that, if not our culture has stopped moving forward, then perhaps our range of influences has.

Reynolds’ other suggestion that vintage samples are being used more as a result of the ease that now exists to obtain them does indeed make sense. Whilst it is unlikely that artists are using vintage samples primarily for the reason of ease of accessibility, – they are almost certainly being used entirely for artistic purposes – the fact that it is now much easier to do this definitely helps out, and allows for a much wider use as well.

As I’ve suggested, there is perhaps a level of superiority present amongst electro swing and vintage remix artists, which would then of course translate across to the samples they choose to use. By demonstrating their knowledge and use of obscure and vastly unknown sample sources, these artists are simultaneously presenting to the world their uniqueness and merit as a musician, on top of their ability as a producer itself.

The suggestion made by Tobias Kroschel of using vintage samples as a way of bringing different generations together is certainly a very satisfying idea. From my own experience attending various electro swing events, I have witnessed many times that this is indeed the case; it is entirely common, and not at all surprising to find people of all ages enjoying the music together at these events.

Finally there is the suggestion that electro swing is the natural extension of swing music into the modern day, which of course ties in with my first point about the genres being part of the same tradition. I myself would definitely subscribe to this theory; my main argument being that jazz music has always been about experimentation, and in this sense, simply trying to repeat the styles of swing exactly how they would have sounded up to 80 years ago goes almost against the very ideals of jazz music itself.

By bringing in aspects of electronic dance music, these artists are experimenting with what can successfully be achieved within the genre; and within the style of electro swing, it would appear that they have indeed achieved success.

Burke, P. (1997). Varieties of Cultural History. Cambridge: Polity Press.

McAdams, J. & Nelson, H. (1992). ‘Hip-Hop Puts Fresh Spin on Jazz’ Billboard. 22 August 1992.
Freshly Squeezed. (2015). Catalogue. [accessed May 2015].
Füreder, M. (2013). In: Buhre, J. An interview with Parov Stelar. [accessed May 2015].
Goldfishlive. (2012). Goldfish Outdoor (Official Aftermovie). [accessed May 2015].
Perchard, T. (2011). ‘Hip Hop Samples Jazz: Dynamics of Cultural Memory and Musical Tradition in the African American 1990s’ American Music. 29 (3).
Reynolds, S. (2011). Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past. London: Faber and Faber.
Smith, D. (1994). ‘Gang Starr: Jazzy Situation’ Vibe. May 1994.
Williams, J. (2013). Rhymin’ and Stealin’: Musical Borrowing in Hip-Hop. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.