As we learned in part 1, I enjoy discovering the source of samples used by artists I listen to. Today, I bring you two tangentially-related things that also interest me about sampling.
A while ago I heard a very weird song called Okay Cupid, by Kitty Pryde¹. The chorus, in particular, seemed very strange to me. Perhaps if I listened to the lyrics, I would’ve heard her reference Frank Ocean, but instead, I realized what had happened when I finally heard Thinking About You. Kitty had not sampled Ocean’s track; instead, she simply performed a brief cover of it, for the chorus. I found that interesting, and I have no idea how common it is.
The thing that makes it interesting is that unlike typical sampling, in which the artificial nature of the injection makes it clear that a sample was used (in most cases), you really need to know the song in question ahead of time to know when someone is employing what I called “pseudo-sampling.” Otherwise it just seems like part of the song.
The same thing happened to me with I Like It by Grand Puba. At around 2:50 into the song, he pseudo-samples You Are Everything by The Stylistics (on my part, I heard the Marvin Gaye & Diana Ross version). I never would’ve realized he took that from anything had I not heard the song, because it fits into his track smoothly. It reminds me of shows like Family Guy, and how they often make obscure references for humor. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for more of this.
That’s pseudo-sampling (I’m sure there’s a real term for it). Now I want to talk about mashups. If ordinary hip-hop is the minimal end of sampling, mashups are the maximal end. Instead of having a song that uses some samples, mashups turn samples alone into an actual song.
The best mashup I have heard so far is Pop Culture by Madeon. There are a number of impressive things about the song: the number of samples he is able to use; the fact that he can play it live; the fact that he recorded it when he was 17; the fact that it actually passes as a real song despite being a mashup. Hell, it’s even got a great music video². I feel that Madeon set a bar with this song that has yet to be surpassed.
I’ve also been a long time fan of DJ Earworm, who makes a mashup every year of the top 25 pop songs, as well as several smaller mashups in between. My favorite is either 2008 or 2012 (notice the dramatic difference in pop music across that gap). However, I have some complaints about mashups.
It may be a struggle to voice this in such a manner that pisses off the least number of people — I’m pretty good at doing the opposite. I think that too often, mashup artists get stuck in one of two conditions: either producing a boring track out of too few samples, or a veritable arms race to nail as many samples as possible into one track at the cost of having a point. In both cases, it seems like these guys are just doing it because they can, rather than because they had some kind of musical vision that they’re fulfilling. I’m not trying to suggest it’s easy to make a mashup, but the fact is, these mashups are all starting to sound the same.
The artists are obviously limited in the types of tracks they can use if they want a really good mashup, because too much tampering with key or tempo to make a mismatched track fit would be easy to spot. This limitation shows itself in the form of infinite intros, bridges that span an ocean, and outros that never end. More bluntly, it seems almost habitual that mashup artists, in lieu of composing a real track, start stacking intros, verses, and choruses one after the other and warping them together. I find that just as boring as the artists who make an entire track out of two songs.
There is some middle ground, and it mos def makes for great dance music. The thing about dance music is that it’s repetitive. The thing about mashups is that they’re a gimmick. The thing about repetitiveness and gimmicks is that they get old after you’ve listened to them for too long, and “too long” comes quickly.
Let’s revisit Madeon, and why I believe his mashup is so superior. The main reason is because he employs a technique I will call “sampling as an instrument.” What does that mean? It means that rather than letting multi-bar samples of other songs be his song, he takes very short, precise samples, and uses them like instruments to make a completely new song, with little left over from the originals. Of course, he has his lengthier vocal samples that make up the lyrical component of his song, but this is a common technique in hip-hop and electronic music, and I have no complaint about it.
There’s a big difference between sampling as an instrument and taking songs that sound similar and doing whatever patchwork is necessary to build a mashup out of them. The former allows for truly endless possibilities depending on how you employ your samples (thus, the expansiveness of electronic music in the first place). The latter is just lacking in originality, especially given how common it is today. Artfully demonstrating the sameness of pop music can only get you so far before you become reminiscent of the oft-mentioned comedy group Axis of Awesome’s 4 Chords.
¹She apparently goes by Kitty these days, presumably because Marvel would’ve sued her for the name
²The video stars a performance artist named Nathan Barnatt, who has got several other amusing videos here