“It’s about having a conversation, it’s about talking to somebody. If you can’t talk to ‘em face to face, talk to ‘em through sounds and words in a track.”
It’s safe to say that most people fell head over heels for Jamie xx’s debut album In Colour. Jamie Smith had spent years attaining a kind of gold-plated status as both a solo artist and de facto vanguard of the ultra-successful Young Turks imprint; glowing reviews from the likes of The Guardian and Pitchfork only underscored the point. Within certain crowds, however – the kind of club-dwelling vinyl hoarders who keep forums and comments threads alive, to be precise – there’s been a very vocal backlash to The xx producer’s first full-length outing.
One side to the record that people have taken issue with is the way Smith has used samples. A review from Boomkat accused him of “lifting and massaging inspiration from the rich heritage of late ’80s + early ’90s London dance culture” while simultaneously RA’s Andrew Ryce argued that “his rave tributes are the equivalent of a Hallmark greeting card blaring out tinny versions of classic rock songs.” It’s the breakbeat and rare groove-derived cuts that Ryce has a problem with; there are MCs and slowed down drum breaks in “Gosh” that nod to UK jungle and, in “Loud Places”, a cut from Idris Muhammad that’s embedded in London’s soul/jazz crate digging heritage.
The accusation is that he’s watering down the musical lineage that he’s borrowing from. In the context of a 40-odd years of sample-based music, it’s an apt moment to examine how fair these accusations are: are there rules around the ways in which people borrow from and recontextualise the subcultures that have preceded them?
I spoke to Mark ‘Marc Mac’ Clair, one half of 4hero and head of foundational early ’90s hardcore/jungle label Reinforced Records, who expressed some sympathy toward Smith. He says that he experienced similar criticism from institutional reggae figures like Buju Banton when he first began releasing records. “I had comments back in the day when they were saying, ‘They’re taking our voice and turning us into Mickey Mouse. And so you think, really, who has the right to say?”
For him, the fact his life experiences were far removed from deejays in Kingston was irrelevant: it’s because there were no rules that made those formative years so exciting. “The thing that I loved about the whole jungle and hardcore era was that it was a blank canvas.”
Although it’s not surprising that the publications and shops within dance music culture would resent an album like In Colour‘s popular appeal, does that mean they’re justified? The other searing jibe from Boomkat – that he’s a “posh soul boy” – suggests his being middle class has produced added venom. His origins don’t lie in the corners of London that have produced the cultures he’s referencing, and it should be recognised that this fits into a well-worn tradition of white musicians taking and popularising music from marginalised, often black, communities.
But others have reworked that same London lineage and been given a free pass. Paul Woolford’s Special Request alias revisited that very same hardcore sound across a series of EPs and a 2013 album, while Lee Gamble’s Diversions 1994 -1996 record took old jungle tapes as its basis for exploration. The fact they avoided criticism from the dance music press would seem to be owing to the intended audience for those records. Gamble’s album focused on the breakdown’s muffled euphoria to burrow down into a sonic niche and Woolford’s Amen-propelled productions retained a gnarliness still aimed firmly at the dancefloor.
Plus, Gamble and Woolford are definitely some way removed from the original junglists. In simple geographical terms, Gamble harks from Birmingham, and Woolford from Leeds. Although Gamble’s jungle tapes originated from stints on pirate radio, he spent a long while in the interim working in esoteric computer music and still operates on the fringes of the dance mainstream (most recently remixing Leftfield and The Chemical Brothers), while Woolford spent many years orbiting around the world of tech house before he turned to his breaks-and-bass revivalist styles. Both are retooling hardcore and jungle for very different audiences for those originally intended – but then, contrary to In Colour, neither of them are releasing something likely to find itself on the Radio One A-List any time soon. Reading between the lines of the different critical receptions, it seems pretty evident that commercial success rather than any breach of supposed authenticity is the real spark for backlash.
“For me, there’s no boundaries. If I don’t know too much about something, I’ll ask around about it.”
Speaking to RP Boo, a pioneer of Chicago’s footwork sound for whom samples are crucial, he made it clear that he didn’t feel your proximity to a culture should guide whether you can incorporate it into your own work. “For me, there’s no boundaries,” he says; “if I don’t know too much about something, I’ll ask around about it, especially if it’s a different language for me. I don’t wanna take something out of context and make it my own, I want to help enhance it.” Similarly, Clair says that although he might often have drawn on records which are close to him, he doesn’t think you should be restricted by what you’re part of. “The way that I see it is that I go into a second hand record shop and I see something, I don’t know, it could be Mozart. I’m not a fan of classical music and it’s certainly not my scene, but if I hear something that I like then I sample it. So there are no rules in sampling.”
However, where that example involves Clair using a relic of the music produced and consumed by a distant past’s privileged classes, In Colour does something like the opposite. Clair and Boo have their roots in the parts of London and Chicago that were and are embedded in producing those cultures – like rare groove and house music – that Smith has absorbed from his own distanced suburban upbringing. The spectre of cultural appropriation that’s implied by that dynamic seems to be what’s playing into the kind of vitriol channeled through The Quietus’ line that his album is “club music for the neoliberal age”.
Nonetheless, conversation with Boo and Clair reveals clearly that originality in the most literal sense is their only rule. The former recalls countless instances where he’s played a track out only to hear the same sample be used in a poor recreation weeks later: “They would go home the same night, re-make it and play it out for months and months,” with Clair noting that “the whole idea of just trying to do a raw ripped sample, that doesn’t go down […] you need to do something more.” And with no real rules, the “language” mentioned by Boo touches on the overriding importance of a dialogue between the sampled work and the new. Nothing should be sacred in what you choose to lift and borrow but you’ve gotta make sure you’re doing something with it. “It’s about having a conversation, it’s about talking to somebody,” Boo goes on to say. “If you can’t talk to ‘em face to face, talk to ‘em through sounds and words in a track.”
There’ll always be (understandable) resistance to underground influences being repackaged for wider tastes. In this case it’s given an added dimension by the historical significance of the gap between Smith’s origins and that of his source material. And while many might simply prefer jungle’s breaks to retain their gristly edges, Clair’s counter-example of the negativity he experienced feels astute. Discussions of taste will naturally end up resulting in an impasse, but I’d argue that In Colour channels its chosen fragments of club culture in a way that’s in spirit with what’s been discussed here.
If that idea of a conversation is crucial to how anyone should think about using a sample, then it’s also crucial to understanding the connections it can foster across genres and generations. Being able to throw in an explicit sonic marker, either through the same sample or through something directly lifted from another track, allows a sharp nod of respect to another musical tribe. Not only that, but it allows you to riff on their work to take that creative connection one step further. It offers the possibility of an instant dialogue between otherwise separate forms of music.
Listening to “Everyday of My Life” on DJ Rashad’s Double Cup album, the vocal in it instantly pricked up my ears. I eventually traced it back to Rufige Kru’s “VIP Rider’s Ghost”, an early jungle release that was the opener for seminal Metalheadz compilation Platinum Breakz. The vocal is taken originally from First Choice’s “Let No Man Put Asunder” which, digging into it, turns out to have a whole web of interconnectedness branching off from it.
It was used in Rufige Kru’s “Ghosts of My Life”, along with a vocal from “Ghosts” by Japan that allowed them to tie together disco and art pop all into one focal thread from hardcore to jungle. It was then re-worked in “VIP Rider’s Ghost” and Doc Scott’s ‘Unofficial Ghost’ on that same Metalheadz compilation. And there’s more: speaking to RP Boo revealed that he, unaware of the jungle connection, sampled that same vocal – which was foundational to Chicago house and thus always in the background for the footwork generation – in a footwork track years back (which, as is often the case, has never been officially released).
So, given that Rashad was almost certainly aware of its use on both sides of the Atlantic, it means that that one vocal from an ‘80s disco single could unlock a dialogue between two isolated musical legacies around their shared roots. Footwork emerged from the tail end of Dance Mania-era ghetto house in Chicago, while jungle’s break-led explorations branched off from house music in a very different way. It gave him an instant touchstone for the associations of a particular cultural moment while simultaneously continuing the relationship that had been brokered between footwork and jungle before that.
“It’s a respect for each other’s culture. What we were doing here was a different culture to what the Detroit guys were doing with techno over there. It was happening simultaneously, with completely different forms of music, but the bridge was sampling.”
That moment of hearing an interesting sample can in itself trigger connections for a listener. Searching for the origins of a memorable bassline, say, can lead you into rewarding explorations through whole back catalogues. Countless musicians, from the 22a set to Robert Glasper to Clair himself, have spoken about, and actively demonstrated in their releases, how hip-hop records formed the starting point of key musical journeys. When quizzed on it, Clair says that it was the ability of ‘90s hip hop “to introduce jazz to a younger generation through sampling” that he found so exciting. That relationship, between jazz quintets and crews of MCs 30 years on, was opened up by the sampler and has even gone on to flourish without it. No doubt, there’s still plenty of sample-heavy hip hop about but it’s worth noting the debt those cross-generational permutations that have followed owe to the time-hopping leap of the sample.
And where those records have reached across decades, there’s also the possibility of sideways nods to your contemporaries. Clair recalls how borrowing from US house and techno records was the trigger that led to them eventually playing the first jungle rave held in the motor city. “We’d borrow some Detroit chords, some strings or 808 patterns and you’d hear it in the next Rufige Kru or 4hero thing,” he explains. “We got invited to Detroit and spent time with Mad Mike and Kevin Saunderson, people like that. They got into what we were doing because we were sampling their stuff.”
“It’s a respect for each other’s culture,” he continues, “What we were doing here was a different culture to what the Detroit guys were doing with techno over there. It was happening simultaneously, with completely different forms of music, but the bridge was sampling.” And as he points out, it’s the fact that “no one was suing each other” that confirmed it was a mutually recognised mark of respect. That said, with AC/DC and Black Sabbath cuts in Traxman records and Four Tet openly discussing how he only uses samples, you might wonder whether artists are all that worried about who they’re borrowing from anyway. It seems unlikely that samples like those would be licensed, with the small units indie labels shift these days perhaps allowing for hopes of freedom from the wrath of majors and lawsuits.
And where 4hero did use samples from their distant peers, it’s worth noting the significant, long term connection forged by the instantaneous reproduction allowed by the sampler. Those two thriving clusters – Detroit and Dollis Hill – could have remained totally separate, unaware of the approving glances from the Reinforced camp, had it not been for them taking those chords and drum patterns. In a more linear pre-internet age, it opened up relationships that probably would never have existed otherwise.
There are some people, though, for who it seems the ideas sparked by samples bounce around in a self-contained orbit. RP Boo is one of them: he might talk about having a conversation but with his music there’s always the sense that he’s talking to himself more than anyone else. Take his latest album, Fingers, Bank Pads & Shoe Prints, where several of the tracks utilise different parts from Class Action’s disco record “Weekend” (much like First Choice’s, another of those tracks which is foundational to house, and thus to the whole of modern dance culture as we know it). “There’s still a lot of stories I want to tell with that record,” he explains, “but I just haven’t poured them out yet.” By attentively honing in his listening, Boo has offered us routes into all kinds of different pockets of his distinct approach to footwork. Where tracks like “Sleepy” (dicing with Johann Strauss’ “Blue Danube Waltz“, famously put to use in 2001: A Space Odyssey) flicker on a lightswitch of recognition, it still feels like that momentary confusion is harnessed to play into the track’s strange, alien groove.
The samples in In Colour, however, are used neither to speak to far-flung contemporaries or to be worked into a self-contained bubble. As any sample is to some degree, the chops that Smith chooses to use in the album are about engaging with the past. The nostalgic, emotionally brittle aspect of his music – that which some take especial issue with – is testament to that: the slow-mo, delicate framing of jungle’s rampant drum breaks in “Gosh” talk to a teary-eyed idea of rave’s past.
But where that backward-looking perspective feels personal, Smith’s position in music necessitates him being aware of the audience that will consume it. That is, he knowingly uses (and presumably clears) those cuts, opening up a dialogue with that past for his audience while also providing the significant royalties due to the estates of those whose work he’s used. It’s a far sight from the flagrantly stolen blues licks of Elvis or Zeppelin that paid no dues to their originators. A sample is able to draw directly on the power of the original – and, yes, profit from it – but here there is a reciprocal bump to the profile of the likes of Idris Muhammad.
Muhammad’s “Could Heaven Ever be Like This” is flipped so the uplifting disco chug has all the life drained out of it; its hands-in-the-air freedom is reworked, alongside Romy’s tender vocal, for a euphoric slow build that again feels as if it’s speaking to a faded memory from the dancefloor – or maybe a wistful wish for the dancefloor. It’s that suburban distance from UK dance culture, mediated by pirate radio, that early interviews with The xx revealed from the off as key to the washed-out aesthetic and skeletal poise of their music. With them, as with Smith’s solo work, there lie parallels with Burial’s arms-length dreams of ‘90s rave. And doesn’t that, in fact, make for a more authentic representation of the producers’ own lives and experiences of music, than if they were to try and replicate the exact spirit and sound of the music they sampled? And given that the likes of The xx and SBTRKT find themselves in turn sampled by many other musicians, including those in the hip hop world, is their place in the music ecosystem really so offensive?
Taking directly from the music around you offers the prospect of flipped perspectives and new trains of thought in a way that wouldn’t be possible with more hazy drifts of influence. There are different ways to build on that possibility, of course: piano chords can be warped and buried beyond recognition or, as with Smith, the source can be laid out clear for all to see. Where that conversation is held out in the open is where the internal politics of sampling, either amongst artists or observers, can come into play. That’s where invoking another culture to build your own music around puts you under scrutiny for what you’re doing with it.
Or, more importantly, what you’re doing for it. The cross-pollinating legacy of the sample opens up the benefits of dialogues ranging from sideways nods across contemporaries to exchanges between experimental pop upstarts and long dead jazz saxophonists. It’s where those benefits are mutual that things continue to move forward.
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