Music as Poetry: The Art of Sampling

Album art from the new Girl Talk album, "All Day."

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Editor’s Note: This post is a part of the “music as poetry” series of posts and has been written by Lucas Sifuentes, our film blogger.

In Seth Lerer’s “portable history of the English language,” Inventing English, the author describes the birth of American English and how, by changing the spelling of words and creating some of our own, we were able to create our own identity through language, and separate ourselves even further from the British. In the 13th chapter, Horrid Hooting Stanzas, he begins writing about how poets, especially Emily Dickinson, began to use this new language of ours to comment on the American condition and create specific examples of what it means to speak American English as opposed to what it means to speaking British English. As a society we’ve always looked to language and art to find our cultural identity and we still do so today; however, as Webster and Dickinson once helped create a new national identity through language, musicians today are creating a new cultural identity specific for the times we live in, and they’re doing it through sampling.

Sampling, as defined on Wikipedia, is the act of taking a portion, or sample, of one sound recording and reusing it as an instrument or a different sound in the recording of a song. This is something that originated in the 1970’s with hip-hop, where artists would begin recycling old beats of classic pop songs for the beats of their own songs, however today it has become a far more sophisticated art than simply that. Perhaps the best known sample artist today is the infamous Greg Gilis, or Girl Talk, as he is better known. The first track of Girl Talk’s latest album, All Day, contains samples from eighteen different well known artists; it begins with Jay-Z and Black Sabbath and ends with Missy Elliot rapping furiously over the hyped-up simple guitar chords of the Ramones.  All Day was Girl Talk’s fifth album released by Illegal Art, and it was released free to download or with the option of naming your own price. Listening to Girl Talk for the first time is like being trapped inside a Gravitron carnival ride, it’s loud, it’s disorienting, it’s fun, but also relevant to our times.

Why an artist like Girl Talk is so relevant now, though, is because not only does his music literally mirror the state of the music industry and the people listening to it, it celebrates it. A Girl Talk album can basically be summed up as the best pirated mix tape ever, not just because we know and love all of the songs on the album, but also because it is literally being given to us for nothing. It’s a reflection of the peer 2 peer file transfer sites that my generation has taken up as its main source of obtaining music, not because we’re a band of ugly pirate thieves, but because we feel a certain sense of ownership to the songs which have been a part of our culture since birth. So when Girl Talk puts out an album of nothing but samples, the true beauty lies in the eclectic genre-blending cultural experience that plays off a listener’s sense of excited nostalgia.

Although I believe Girl Talk is the artist who has most successfully mastered the true poetic art of sampling, there are still a myriad of excessively talented sample artists each with their own take on the genre. One artist, Ruckus Roboticus is another great sample artist whose album The Music Machine comments on the over-commercialization of music, lifting audio tracks from educational programming and commercials to create a more narrative experience. Another artist, Kid Koala made an entire album that explored the art of scratching, and on it there is a sample from an old Kung Fu story where the master instructs “Listen to the color of the sky, search the air for the perfume of ice on a hot day.” And in this one sample I think Kid Koala really nails the whole artistic purpose of sampling, which is to take something that already exists and extract a new beauty from it. But with all of these sounds occurring on the speakers simultaneously, sampling artists also allow the listener to interact with the music. In his award-winning graphic novel, Asterios Polyp, David Mazzucchelli allows his character to explain “Simultaneity – the awareness of so much happening at once – is now the most salient aspect of contemporary life. In a cacophony of information, each listener, by focusing on certain tones and phrases, can become an active participant in creating a unique, unique polyphonic experience…It’s like the, the discontinuity of quantum effects: something only occurs if you pay attention to it.”

— Lucas Sifuentes

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