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By Daniel Martin
“Good artists copy, great artists steal.” -Pablo Picasso (as popularly attributed)
“Summertime, and the living is easy…”. Sometimes it just takes a familiar line to hook you in. That’s what the opening of the recent chart-topping Lana Del Rey single “Doin’ Time” did for me, as it may have done for many others. Depending on your age or listening preference, you may have associated it with the 1997 Sublime song which it covers.
Or perhaps you recognized the line from its original source, the song “Summertime,” and associated it with the soulful Sam Cooke version as I did, or with one of its many other popular covers in the 1950s and ’60s. Or maybe you know “Summertime” for the jazz standard it originally was, composed back in the 1930s by George Gershwin and made popular by Billie Holiday and other classic voices of the time.
The point is, the musical device in the aforementioned Del Rey song — when an artist takes a vocal line, melody, or instrumentation from an existing recording, and re-performs it amidst new context — is commonly known as an interpolation. This is also sometimes referred to as a replay, though a replay usually implies the re-performance was meant to duplicate the original more exactly; sounding closer to a sample.
According to Hit Songs Deconstructed:
“There are two key benefits of interpolating a melody from a proven hit — it’s already been tried, tested and proven to be effective with a wide audience (the numbers don’t lie), and it imparts familiarity, which makes it easier for the new song to connect.”
Not all familiar hooks elicit a positive reaction, however. Have you ever both read a book and seen its movie adaptation, and the version you liked better depended on which you had experienced first? Perhaps it is our natural tendency to want to give credit to the original author of a creative work. The same can be applied towards music. But suppose you don’t know who the original composer is… can you truly continue to listen objectively, and not have your opinion change, the more you learn about the song?
“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” -Charles Caleb Colton
Coldplay for years had been one of my favorite bands. But I remember having a strong negative reaction when they released a single a few years ago called “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall.” The song reuses note-for-note a keyboard riff that had also been featured in a track called “Ritmo De La Noche.” The latter was a huge hit in the Spanish-speaking world back in the ’90s, and is an absolutely fantastic dance song. Subsequently hearing the riff in the context of an English rock band just made it sound plain silly to me.
It wasn’t so much the “rockist” (we’ll come back to this term) in me not liking their relatively new EDM-centric direction, although yeah that’s a factor in my personal taste. It was more related to my being language-ist, so to speak, about the use of a Spanish song, not liking the new interpolation, and not feeling that the new version added anything of value from the original.
Perhaps it wasn’t actually anything specifically against Coldplay, but just as some people feel certain songs should never be covered, I felt this was a riff that couldn’t be improved upon by sampling and using it elsewhere as a partial cover.
However, unbeknownst to me until I looked it up at that point, the riff was not original to the Spanish song either! It actually belonged to a song called “I Go To Rio” by Peter Allen, from the mid-’70s. Had I been old enough to know the tune and have any sentimental attachment to it back in the ’90s, perhaps “Ritmo De La Noche” might not have sounded very tasteful either, or at least I might not have been so averse to my first hearing of “Every Teardrop…”. To stoke this fire with even more global complexity, the first incarnation of “Ritmo De La Noche” was actually in 1990 by a German band named Chocolate.
One might call this version the “original interpolation” of “I Go To Rio.” (I won’t even get into the readaptation of the Spanish title into English as a completely different pop dance song.)
Several other groups such as Lorca and Mystic covered the song the same year, adding to its popularity. Looking back, I’m not even sure which version I was frequently hearing. This all serves to emphasize just how much frame of reference matters; as it does in literature with our preference for the book versus the movie. It does even more so in music when we hear covers and the increasingly common practices of samples, replays, and interpolations.
These new versions might sometimes be better than the original, but ”better” is subjective and highly dependent on our listening reference points at any given time. The Coldplay song may have been nominated for a Grammy, but to me it’s one of the more generic songs from their EDM-phase, whereas I will always associate “Ritmo De La Noche” with the Spanish club parties of my college years and a study abroad trip to Spain.
Though the term had earlier origins, and had been popular in music journalism circles for decades prior, it became more mainstream after a landmark 2004 New York Times article titled ”The Rap Against Rockism” by Kelefa Sanneh was published. The over-generalizations made in this controversial article, and the ensuing rockism versus “poptism” false paradigm that was widely circulated, are problematic and a topic for a separate article altogether. But there are some valid points made about the concept of rockism. The Recording Academy did not allow songs with samples to be considered for Grammy Awards until 2014.
I remember first hearing Puff Daddy’s “Come With Me” or “I’ll Be Missing You” (which sample “Kashmir” and “Every Breath You Take” respectively) and feeling indignant. As a guitarist, I didn’t like the idea of someone taking the works of the masters (Jimmy Page and Andy Summers) of the craft I loved and using it for their own popular art. As with the riff in the Coldplay song, there was just something about its use in this context that cheapened the musical passage for me.
But to be fair, a significant factor was that, even though I listened to both genres, I identified as a rock ‘n’ roll musician and not a rap musician. The former is a genre where the art of playing one’s own instrument, especially guitar, is highly valued. The latter genre involves heavy production skills more so than instrument-playing. (I didn’t appreciate it as much then, but both are valuable musical skills, and both genres require so much more than skill to be successful.)
Perhaps this attitude can be called “rockism,” but it’s worth noting that production techniques have been more congruent with changes in technology, while the practice of playing an instrument has more or less remained constant for centuries. And it’s because of this that new technologies are often met with a wider sense of skepticism.
If you compare reactions from the early days of sampling to those when the synthesizer first became popular, you’ll find similar resistance among “acoustic” musicians. Since synthesizers are capable of emitting sounds akin to sampled tones of real instruments, many traditional session musicians perceived them as a threat. According to “The Musicians’ Union: A History:”
”A meeting of the Central London Branch in May 1982 passed a motion for an outright ban on synthesisers [sic], which though never official policy of the Union (the Executive Committee passed a much more nuanced resolution on their use in November) attracted a huge amount of attention, notably among synth players themselves…”
Of course nowadays, and similar to the progression of sampling from its early days, the synth is generally accepted as a legitimate keyboard instrument… certainly so in the rock world. Even while traditional stringS, woodwind,S and brass are often used in studio recordings, the trend among touring rock musicians has been to have synthesizers essentially do replays of these parts. It may be less than ideal, but who can argue with the economics and practicality of a single keyboardist versus an orchestral section? Though the authentic instruments would certainly make for a wholly unique auditory experience, wouldn’t most listeners rather hear a synthesizer playing those parts than not hearing those parts at all?
And perhaps the observation of other rock musicians’ receptive attitudes eventually leads to a tipping point or bandwagon of acceptance. When I later learned that the recording of “Come With Me” featured new parts played by not only guitar hero Tom Morello, but Jimmy Page himself, I eased my intolerance for the song quite a bit.
Likewise, with Sting participating in a performance of “I’ll Be Missing You.” It doesn’t make either of those songs better from a musical standpoint, but the endorsement by the original artists at least supports the notion that the sampling itself isn’t the problem.
We musicians sometimes listen to songs with two different sets of ears — one for casual listening enjoyment and one for critical and technical analysis. And whether we realize it or not, the latter is influenced by our peers and other critics.
To give another example, I had always enjoyed and had good associations with Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” as a casual listener, but it wasn’t until years later when I read up on its meticulous production that I fully appreciated the musicianship involved on a totally separate level. The enhancements made to the original “Pastime Paradise” by Stevie Wonder are quite interesting, from a technical perspective.
It’s also worth adding, from a lyrical standpoint, one can appreciate both Coolio’s stimulating interpolation, and Weird Al Yankovic’s second generation interpolation in his hilarious parody “Amish Paradise.”
Whether or not we become able to embrace other genres and musical techniques, there is nothing inherently wrong with being “rockist,” and being so doesn’t necessitate an aversion to sampling or other forms of riff recycling. In fact, if the term is meant to be applied to those who hold rock music on a special plateau, then rockists should be among those who appreciate sampling and interpolation the most.
Because samplers, interpolators, and cover artists are all in a sense historians of rock music. I grew up a child of the ’80s, and my first introduction to Aerosmith was actually via Run DMC’s version of “Walk This Way.” A few years later, I was introduced to Rick James’s classic bass and keyboard riff through “Superfreak” and its sampling in MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This,” and I may have never known about the Chi-lites’ “Have You Seen Her” had I not heard it covered (with interpolated lyrics) in Hammer’s follow-up single.
In the 21st century, samples and interpolations are even more commonplace, as they introduce new generations to old music. Whether it’s an R&B great receiving new life (like with Jamie Foxx singing Ray Charles in Kanye West’s “Gold Digger”), classic disco instrumentation (e.g. ABBA’s “Gimme “Gimme! Gimme!” in Madonna’s “Hung Up”), or the post-punk sounds of The Clash in M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes,” these are all important moments of rock history and its eclectic musical landscape. I was recently reminded just how broadly we define the umbrella of “rock” when I heard Aloe Blacc’s “The Man” (which makes prominent use of a line from Elton John’s “Your Song”) while I was staying at a Hard Rock Hotel.
This brings me to my final point about sampling and the trajectory of popular music. The most ubiquitous (and arguably, most important) samples don’t come from well-known rock or pop songs, but from rhythm and blues. R&B is obviously a huge part of rock history. Rock’s roots were seeded from it, and today’s hip-hop and dance songs which dominate the airwaves seem like more of a continuation of the evolution of R&B, with rock being sort of a sideshow that grew out of it and ruled for a period.
Music historian Elijah Wald even goes so far in his book How The Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll as to cast The Beatles, and the post-Sgt. Pepper landscape they created, inspired, and influenced, as an aberration in this natural progression. Spoiler alert: Wald’s book is not actually anti-Beatles, but the hyperbolic and controversial title is certainly a clever one.
More casual fans may not take the time to look up the origins of the “Woo! Yeah!,” “La Di Da Di,” or “Amen Break” samples that also tend to dominate contemporary music. But thanks to the music-mining, or crate-digging, of producers, rappers, and hip-hop artists alike, the collective psyche of the public is continually reintroduced to the vocal talents of originators like James Brown and Bobby Byrd, the lyrical wit and infectiously playful sing-songy rapping of Slick Rick, and The Winstons’ syncopation and vintage drum tone, to name a very select few.
These sonic time capsules are great period pieces, and they have become the backbones of hundreds of modern hip-hop songs; just as the classic I-V-I-vi blues riff, early power chords, and doo-wop’s I-vi-IV-V progressions and group harmonies became backbones for rock ‘n’ roll. Mark Ronson in his now-famous TED talk reminds us about the early days of sampling:
“…They were sampling those records because they heard something in that music that spoke to them that they instantly wanted to inject themselves into the narrative of that music. They heard it. They wanted to be a part of it, and all of a sudden, they found themselves in possession of the technology to do so, not much unlike the way the Delta blues struck a chord with the Stones and The Beatles and Clapton, and they felt the need to co-opt that music for the tools of their day. You know, in music, we take something that we love, and we build on it.”
It remains to be seen where popular music will go, how production techniques will further evolve, and whether a trend back towards traditional instrument-playing in the studio may ever take rise. But sampling and interpolation are here to stay, and why not?
A 2013 study by W. Michael Schuster, a Texas Judicial law clerk, showing that album sales of sampled artists are typically boosted, demonstrates yet another benefit of the recycling of music. It should be self-evident that original authors and performers should be compensated when their works are re-used.
Musicians have always fought an uphill battle in this regard. That this trend will continue seems an unfortunate inevitability in the streaming age and with our ever-evolving technology. But as we wait for the lawsuits to be settled, we can listen as the music is passed along to future generations and kept alive through the rigors of time. And won’t we, the public, all be better off for it?
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Daniel Martin is a songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, guitar instructor, and rock historian from Lancaster, PA. His music-related articles have been published on Counterpunch and Perfect Sound Forever. His band, Marty’s Invasion, has “invaded” multiple cities on the East Coast.