When you hear new songs on the radio these days, do they have a familiar ring? Listen more closely to what's tickling your subconscious. In many cases you did hear that sound before, maybe long ago. It's the James Brown beat that's now in a rapper's groove, or the recycled '60s riff in a current dance- floor hit. It's the steam heat of the early '80s hit Under Pressure recycled in the vanilla-rap hit Ice Ice Baby, and the streak of the funk classic Super Freak revived for M.C. Hammer's U Can't Touch This.
That oldies echo in your ears is the result of a high-tech technique, digital sampling, that is turning pop music on its ear. Besides creating some unexpected new sounds, sampling is raising serious legal and ethical issues. "We're talking here about the ultimate instrument," says Mike Edwards, founder and lead singer of the British neopsychedelic group Jesus Jones. "I think that sampling's effect on music cannot be calculated."
The concept dates back to the late '70s, when some enterprising disco deejay played a disembodied bit of an old record over and over again to give it a funky new spin. That technique took a quantum leap when the first electronic samplers were introduced around 1980. Unlike synthesizers, which generate tones artificially, samplers record real sounds. Anything audible is eligible: prerecorded music, drumbeats, human voices, even ordinary noise like a slamming door. Samplers transform these sounds into digital codes, which in turn can be manipulated to produce melodies, rhythm tracks and complicated webs of sounds.
Sampling enthusiasts range from the funk-and-roll bands Faith No More and Fishbone to the avant-garde gurus David Byrne and Brian Eno. On Fishbone's acclaimed new album, The Reality of Our Surroundings, the band incorporates church bells and human screams. "We use sampling to enhance the integrity of our music," says drummer Phillip Fisher. "Butif you put a collage together, you should give credit to the places you got your pieces from."
Not everyone shares such scruples. Rap is rife with riffs sampled from other musicians without their consent, most notably James Brown. (The Godfather of Soul says he has counted 134 examples.) Producer-performer Lenny Kravitz borrowed a drum track from the rap group Public Enemy for the thrusting beat of Madonna's hit Justify My Love.
In Europe sampling has created some controversial musical stews. The techno- rockers EMF have stirred up a fuss with their single Lies, in which they sample the voice of Mark David Chapman, the John Lennon assassin, reciting lyrics from Lennon's last album. To create the disco hit Sadeness, Part I, Romanian-born producer Michael Cretu sampled Gregorian chants, juxtaposed them with whispered verses from the Marquis de Sade, and set them to a metronomic beat. Whether such sampling is artistry "depends on how you use it," says Cretu. "If you are a really creative person, you use it as an instrument, you participate. I'm sure if Richard Wagner were alive today he would have the biggest sampler in the world."