Aural Aesthetic of Hip-Hop Sampling

To the Beat of Its Own Drum: Issues of Authorship Within the Aural Aesthetic  of Hip-Hop Sampling

(Presented at: Royal Musical Association Study Days – Authorship in Music. March 6-7, 2015 at Wadham College, University of Oxford).


Contemporary sample-based hip-hop recordings speak to the popularity and continuing practice in which numerous current popular producers (such as Kanye West and Madlib) adhere to a desired aural aesthetic from a particular era of recordings consistently returned to for raw audio materials. This rather extensive, and still currently explored catalog (circa 1967-1975) cannot be reduced to specific artists, songs, or record labels, but a distinct “lo-fi” sound quality that accompanies the original recordings. Prime examples include James Brown’s “Funky Drummer,” Melvin Bliss’s “Synthetic Substitution,” The Honey Drippers “Impeach the President,” and the Stax Records catalog, where the label’s underlying timbral quality appeared to be as important as the melody or lyrics. These records have been relied on time and time again to provide the backbone of countless hip-hop records, not just for the drum patterns, funky guitar licks, or vocal samples, but also for the grit of the original recordings. While the art and techniques of hip-hop sampling are well documented (Rose 1994, Schloss 2004, McLeod and DiCola 2011), discussion of timbral qualities within the samples as elements of authorship is not.

This paper investigates two primary factors of hip-hop’s sampling techniques: the origins of sampling records from a particular epoch in recording history and why the “sound” of the records provides an aesthetic popular with both the creators of hip-hop recordings as well as their fans. I contend that this element is as important as “notes on a page” and, if this territory is thoroughly explored, may open new avenues of research that would consider specific aural aesthetics as components of songwriting in other genres – adding another dimension to our current interpretation of 20th– and 21st-century songwriting.