Friday, June 20, 2008

Fairlight Robbery Revisited

EMU modular synthesizer, 1977

I found the above image during my usual abrowsal, and as a fan of vintage electronic instruments, I took interest and sourced it back to There, I found a remarkable article on sampling from 1987, by one Louise Gray, titled Fairlight Robbery. It appears to be one of the earliest mainstream introductions to sampling and I found it to be dead-on and even a bit prophetic. (I have since sourced the above image to the Old Tech Vintage Sythesizer Site, which is where I think it originated.)

The article brings up a lot of issues still discussed in the music world, though the context has changed:

A synthesiser uses sounds that are located within its circuits, an electric guitar makes noise via vibrations, but a sampler ‘takes’ When the Musicians Union and BPI between them came up with those slogans on a thousand guitar cases – “Home taping is killing music” and “Keep music live” they hadn’t considered the sampler. But the true significance of this development is not so much in what it does, but what it implies. When it’s cheaper to sample than buy a guitar (the SK-1, bought by buskers, parents and the curious as the ultimate coffee-table toy, starts at £69; the Fairlight 3 at £60,000, but there’s a myriad of points between the two) why sweat? Why try to play like Hendrix when you can rip him off?

Samplers didn't kill music and MP3s won't either, but brain wave music technology made available to the consumer might likely be the next industry-destroying bugaboo falling from the sky... why buy music when you can play it from your head anytime you want? (Note that the ones complaining the most are the ones that have the most to lose when they won't be able to fleece the public and the musicians as much as they did in the glory days.) Technology and business models will change, music will remain. More amateurs may be making better music, but the truly gifted will always sway our attention.

What I really found astonishing is how this article foreshadowed the explosion of sampled Hip-Hop and even House by bringing the KLF and Mixmaster Morris into the picture. That's quite early for all that. She was just ahead of the curve. The Second Summer of Love came the next year and shortly thereafter, sampling was no longer strictly the domain of the superstar and the early adopter.

To be fair, however, Fairlight Robbery comes more from the direction of the fan and the industry as opposed to the street. There is a somewhat different version of the story, though it does not invalidate Ms. Gray's observations. This version is oral tradition, largely anecdotal* and sometimes borders on folklore, but is essentially the way it is. Since there are many threads to the tapestry, we'll keep to the main.

To get to the origin of sampling in DJ culture and what ultimately drove it into its place in music today goes back to the early 1970s. Back in those days, block parties were a big part of inner city life. I've been to a number of them growing up and they're a community tradition-- one that can be traced back to the Ragtime days and even beyond. For our purposes we'll stick to the '70s.

Back then, times were harder than ever in the ghetto and finding bands with all the gear to play parties became more and more difficult as time wore on. They also asked for money and probably couldn't play for more than a few hours. Eventually, the music for these parties became the domain of the guy in the neighborhood who had the most records. One of these guys, the most famous and iconic and the one credited with starting hip-hop and DJ culture is the much storied Kool Herc.

Kool Herc
image Wikipedia

Kool Herc was a Jamaican born DJ that played block parties in the Bronx and throughout the New York area. He had a big sound system and all the records. His aspiration was to play reggae like the sound systems back home, but the people in the neighborhood weren't having it, so he played funk and soul. At some point, Herc began to notice that the dancing crowds went nuts during the breakdowns, longer drum and percussion driven sections of songs that you use to release a little tension, build it up again and bang out of it to good effect. Any of us that have listened to popular music in the last 40 years should be aware of this, at least subconsciously. He started extending the breakdowns by moving or knocking the needle back to the beginning of the breakdown or even in the same groove, on and on, back and forth to the delight of the crowd. Use two turntables and you can extend it or even mix two different beats. Others adopted this style, Grandmaster Flash took it to the next level. The breakbeat, scratching and subsequently, Hip-Hop emerged.

Soon, DJs became so good at cutting up records that they found that the crowds would often gather around to watch, transfixed, as opposed to dancing to the music. Since the object of these parties was to get loaded, dance and get laid, they had to find a way to get the booties back on the floor. They brought in "MCs" to steal focus and rile the audience into moving their asses. Thus the rapper was born.

Initially the DJs were the stars of the show and the MCs were along for the ride. Later, when these groups gained the notice of record companies, notably in NYC and Philly, the focus was shifted to the MC. American popular music is vocalist and image driven, so the rapper became the obvious sell.

In the 1980s and even into the early '90s many up-and-coming crews didn't even have turntables and mixers, they made their beats on tape using what became known, retrospectively, as "pause button sampling." This technique requires a dual cassette-tape deck and a lot of patience. You use the playback side of the deck to play the break, rewind, play again, while recording only the desired spots on the other side, controlling it with the pause-button. It takes some skill and some practice, but if you have any rhythm, you can get the hang of it. I did this for many years before I knew there was a name for it. Public Enemy's Rebel Without a Pause is an obvious reference to this.

After all that, when DJs and pause-button samplers realized that there was such a thing as a digital sampler that could do the same thing much easier, cleaner and more high fidelity, the movement began. When affordable sampling workstations and rack-mount units became available, it all blew up, and here we are, twenty years later. Musical movements like Musique Concrète prompted the initial development of the synthesizer and sampler, but it was Hip-Hop that spear-headed the widespread use sampling in popular music.

Fairlight CMI

With early samplers like the Fairlight series being the domain of those that could afford the £60,000+ price-tags, artists like Peter Gabriel, Stevie Wonder and Art of Noise were some of the few using them until right about the time Fairlight Robbery was written.

Since then we've seen sampling dwindle in prominence due to a move back to the drum machine for beats and also because of persistent litigation and stringent court-rulings. MP3s and piracy have stolen the spotlight, but you can still get your ass sued off for using that Zeppelin riff. Samplers are useful, but short of licensing loops, paying artists for the spirit of their work or bootleg mash-ups using phrases, rhythms or entire sections of songs, many artists utilize them as a sonic supplement for things like sweetening vocals, a string section on the cheap or a means to create unique sounds. I'd wager you'd find some sort of sampler in most major or independent recording studios as well as post-production sound facilities in the film industry. They are here to stay alongside banjos, cowbells, electric guitars, compressed music files and eventually mind-music machines.

*Years back, I read a story about Kool Herc that said he had a smaller mobile sound-system that could be powered by a bicycle-driven generator. Tales are told of Herc playing gigs in the parks and squares of New York while one of his dreadlock buddies pedals away furiously to keep the system running.

Kool Herc: The Origin of Hip-Hop:


Alan Evil said...

In so many ways the modern digital studio is completely sample based. Now the "sample" is and track or part of a track in a song. I use Ableton Live! for my DAW and anything tracked into the program is immediately available to be sliced up into samples and loops.

Originally, sampling was the easiest way to realizing a sound, but with modern sampling it is now often easiest to program the part you hear in your head. I find myself sitting and playing the same riff for a song over and over and then using three or four loops of it rather than what I actually played. This allows me to play with the composition while using original parts, just like we used to use two turntables for except infinitely variable.

At this point I would say that except for mad traditionalists, the line between live preformance and sampling is forever erased.

John M. said...

I think that outside of Hip-Hop, electronic music and hybrid-rock... which I guess is a dwindling minority... there seems to be resistance, but even in those cases samples are often used for supplemental purposes, even in jazz and orchestral music. In many cases, samples are the new "punch-ins."

Still, though pervasive, samplers have fallen a bit more into the background. Few still use the "Funky Drummer" in its raw form and a sound like "Pop Will Eat Itself" just wouldn't fly these days.