Context Is Not A Myth

By Yohann Koshy

Just as self-deprecation isn’t the opposite of arrogance but rather its sneaky corollary, so too the subcultures spring from the mainstream, germinated by a logic they purportedly oppose. “Sampling” is the example I want to use here: this musical method has degenerated, becoming coloured by some of the very worst aspects of our society.

Perhaps the most obvious, material problem with sampling was voiced by luminary (and strict anti-samplist) Matthew Herbert who “find[s] it very difficult…that you often have white producers sampling rare black music and then not paying royalties”, which to him “feels…like a form of exploitation”. This is a problem, but it’s a solvable problem; if all these white producers found the relevant estates or labels and paid their royalties then Herbert’s objection would be disarmed. But would that uncomfortable feeling he harbours be entirely neutralised? Is it simply a question of payment? I don’t think so. Furthermore, Herbert’s complaint actually internalises the dangerous ideology of creeping, total fungibility; the Culture’s cannibalistic insistence that all forms of artistic expression and the interconnexions therein must have an exchange value; an ideology that he has in fact consistently contested throughout his career. One is reminded of the various heads of British arts institutions defending themselves from funding-cuts by pathetically appealing to the healthy profit-margins of The King’s Speech. The answer isn’t to be found in the accounts book.

(Quick digression: I am concentrating here on the contemporary sampling of rare or foreign music: I’m vaguely aware of sampling’s infancy, its weaning on American experimentalists like Terry Riley in the 1960s, who would loop, distort and disfigure music samples to devastating effect, see “You’re Nogood” [Cortical Foundation: 2000]. Such examples don’t figure here, to my discredit)

I’ll try and articulate my problem with sampling by appealing to an example. The BFI recently finished showing Michael Roemer’s 1964 film Nothing But A Man, a remarkable attempt to deal with the profoundly problematic constellation of White and Black in the Deep South. Its most affecting scene comes toward the end, when our black anti-hero, Duff Anderson, working at a gas station (having been made redundant from his railroad job after attempting to unionise), is forced to service the car of a group of angry, white men. However, it’s not their cruel demands or vicious taunting that vexes the most (“We want 38 cents of gas, and watch you don’t make it 39, boy”), but the soundtrack to their taunts. As Duff, concealing his righteous anger, cleans their windscreen, from the car’s radio we quietly hear a Motown classic. It’s either The Marvelettes, Smokey Robinson or Stevie Wonder; I can’t remember, it doesn’t matter. Up until this moment in the film, Motown music was to be heard exclusively in the Black milieu. It scored Duff’s courting of his wife thus becoming a symbol of Black culture’s self-affirming, rejuvenating power in the face of oppression. But in this scene, it’s been stripped of its cathartic potential and reappropriated by the angry, white men to soundtrack their ritualised humiliation of Duff. What once signified joy now signals defeat. What once embodied defiance now finds itself deformed. First they came for his job, and then they came for his music.

Lurking somewhere in this scene is the mercurial problem I have with our sampling habits. Although lacking the sadistic agency of Nothing But A Man’s villains, what’s the real substantive difference between them and the, often, middle-class samplers of today? Electronic producer Romare is the apotheosis of this tendency, his 2012 EP Meditations on Afrocentrism [Blackacre] a risible caricature of the eponymous subject. Although he felt his EP “validated” by his “studying up” on African-American culture at university, listening to a white Londoner rearrange obscure samples into such illuminating aphorisms as, “the blues began in Africa” and “I wanna go back home”, one couldn’t help but feel his contribution to Afrocentrism marginal at best and offensive at worst.     

The contours of this problem mirror an important debate that has occupied sociologists since the end of the twentieth century; the cultural flux occasioned by globalisation. The wrestling between cultural protection and cultural exchange has yet to be resolved and its moves only aggravated by the mammoth amounts of unaccountable capital that darts between borders on a daily basis. Accordingly, states pursue protectionist policies (quotas, subsidies) in order to resist what is often an Anglophonic, American invasion of music, television and film. In a similar vein vis-à-vis sampling, you have hard-line protectionists like Detroit native and resident Moodymann who, perhaps apocryphally, stated that only black people should be allowed to sample Marvin Gaye. This contrasts sharply with producers like the transatlantic, Ivy-League-educated Nicolas Jaar who, viewing music as culturally deracinated, malleable matter, has no qualms in mashing Aphex Twin into “Heard It Through The Grapevine” acapellas. I get that the tone of this piece hints at my gravitation toward the former’s camp but I’m not so sure. It doesn’t take much reflection to recognise that absolutist cultural protectionism, whereby sampling foreign music would be banned in order to protect its integrity whilst fostering indigenous arts, is fallacious because, to sample Aimé Césaire, “pour les civilisations, l’échange est l’oxygène, sans laquelle elles atrophient” (For civilisations, exchange is oxygen, without which they atrophy). However, at the other end of the pendulum, in a sort of sampling free-for-all, necessary continuums that perform an important, social function would be disrupted by channels of diffusion that favour Western, “technologically advanced”, relatively wealthy producers. So, is there a third way? Some sampling policy we could promote that avoids inequality and exploitation? Some kind of utopian cultural formulation that synthesises the best of both worlds? New Labour anybody?

For now, I’ll just tut and shake my head the next time at some night, I hear some producer play some African disco edit that I prejudicially assume he shouldn’t be playing. Life of the party, I am not.

10 Responses to “Context Is Not A Myth”
  1. Xavi says:

    Well written. Any beatmaker who looks over their back catalogue and finds only samples from Motown etc. probably has a problem with racial bias.

    But the issue is muddy. One potential area of ambiguity is the sampling of white musicians who are associated with typically ‘black’ styles. For example, where should we stand on sampling Bill Evans Trio, Joe Pass, John Scofield, or that mainstay of hip hop samples Bob James (to name a few examples at random)?

    To make an obvious point, much of the satisfaction of music is found in diversity and novelty, so choice of samples should reflect this. That means drawing for white music, black music and whatever. In fact, I would suspect that for more innovative beatmakers, the race of the sampled artists would become more uniformly distributed, as their ability to filp any song into their own style increases. I think this sentiment is fairly well captured by Waajeed: “the spot I go to is the dollar bin… I love messing with whack records.”

    But yeah, well said. Plus that Romare thing – simply appalling. Where does this Hoxton cum stain get off trying to lecture us on afro-this and blues-that? With his bongo loops. Fuck yourself.

    • Yohann says:

      Thanks for the comment: a potentially uniform distribution of sampling is interesting and provides some difficult hurdles for what I was trying to say.

      But the notion of “satisfaction” being found in “diversity” is one I think we should examine more closely. Deriving satisfaction from objects isn’t a neutral process and can be mediated by all kinds of bad, suppressed desires. Take the Western obsession with India because of its ‘diversity’ and colorful, vibrant ways (which we still see today in films like The Gold Exotic Marigold Hotel’); this satisfaction is just a masked form of elitism which reduces Indians to dancing minstrels. Or take Kate Winslet’s character’s “love” with Leonardo DiCaprio in “Titantic”. As Slavoj Zizek argues, this isn’t a genuine relationship but a reiteration of the deeply reactionary Pygmalion myth, whereby the rich reconstitute themselves during times of boredom or crisis by sapping the creativity, spontaneity and vibrancy of the working-class, before leaving them out to dry (or pushing their frozen corpse into the Altantic).

      What I’m trying to say is we should be weary of what makes us “satisfied”.

      • Xavi says:

        1. Yes, a uniform distribution of race of sampled artists seems like the logical distribution in an ideal world in which racial biases didn’t exist but this is fanciful and doesn’t reflect reality.

        2. Good point about ‘satisfaction’. You only need to dig in the ‘exotica’ section of the record shop to see and hear the patronising stereotypes of polynesia and the ‘orient’ conjured up by american musicians in the 1950s. The aesthetic was totally imagined / invented. But as you point out, this phenomenon can be much more insidious than that sort of blasé racism.

        Although when I said diversity, I was intending to refer to the diversity of style and technique more than geographical or cultural origin (but fair enough, I guess these are always related).

        3. Going back to my point about white jazz musicians; I’m interested as to whether your criticisms of modern day sample users applies to them at all. On the one hand they were partly responsible for shaping the music into what it was (e.g. Bill Evans on Kind of Blue [yawn, how mainstream!]), on the other hand they were white participants in a primarily african-american style. And they had accessibility to fame and fortune beyond the hopes of black musicians of comparable (or better) skill (see Dave Brubeck and Duke Ellington’s conversation following the former’s appearance on the cover of Time magazine in 1954 ).

        Would you say the ‘cultural theft’ is kicked up a notch by lifting the actual waveforms of recorded audio, rather than merely learning the techniques and playing from the same sheet music? Or is this just a natural progression of the same phenomenon, given the culture and the technology that exists today?

        Naturally, the ethics involved in evaluating this are a mess. You can start out with the most admirable intentions of making music with deep reverence for foreign cultures, yet end up more successful than ethnic minority musicians because a record company decides you’re more ‘marketable’ (through no proximate fault of your own).

        Anyway, these are hard questions with fuzzy answers.

  2. Matteo says:

    Aren’t there really just two issues here? The thing about Romare is just that he is using Afrocentrism in a crass and crude way to make his music seem “cooler” or “more soulful” or whatever. I don’t know enough about Elvis but was certainly more original and subtle in his appropriation of RnB – didn’t just stick a label onto his music.
    The Nothing But A Man example seems to be more about ownership? It’s similar to people complaining that hippie counter-culture has been co-opted into the mainstream (different contexts of course). It’s about how it’s impossible for a minority group to have something which is their own and through which they can resist the mainstream/majority of society.
    But like I was trying to say the other day as an individual you shouldn’t be put off using Motown samples by this. It’s a difficult line to draw but it’s the same as the line between giving helpful advice and being patronising. All you can do is try to give the best advice, there’s never going to be a formula which makes my sampling an African record not problematic.

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  7. Really interesting article, kind of links in with this article i read the other day about Eno and Brynes “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts”.
    I don’t know where I stand on this at all, its a minefield. A few of the tracks I made in my bedroom as a white middle class teenager sampled old blues and jazz tracks, which I didn’t give second thought at the time. I know what you mean, looking back, although it was done affectionately, i’m slightly uncomfortable about it now –though should I be?
    Also, would it be fundamentally different if I had sampled white Cajun music? How about elvis who himself was doing an amazing form of cultural appropriation himself… How about if I had sampled French accordion music? I have no links to France whatsoever. Is it that there are realms of culture and white European culture is seen as a “unit” in this argument.
    French artist Onra, who has Vietnamese ancestry made those “Chinoiseries” albums, which are incredible hip-hop sampling Chinese and Vietnamese 60s and 70s pop. But then, he doesn’t have Chinese ancestry. Though I guess if they are what his parents grew up on then it might not be appropriation at all.
    I agree very much with your rather confused conclusion, cultural exchange is vital for anything creative to happen. I think reinventing things that you hear from other cultures and then retranslating it is a hugely important thing. I think sampling is a bit more uncomfortable because it is literally reusing and repurposing someone else’s recording. I think there is a difference between the white british bands who “stole” blues and retranslated their own version of it versus a white English guy ripping samples from a Mississippi blues track and looping it.
    The context is everything, and I think that there are some special cases. I think it would be inappropriate on one level for me to sample a traditional Belgian folk song, but it would be much more inappropriate for me to sample an African American chain gang song. I went to the Schomburg institute which is an archive of black cultural identity in Harlem. The main museum is half under construction but its still really interesting – the African Puerto rican Schomburg founded it by depositing his huge collection of objects and books documenting black American culture. He wrote a series of essays, and essentially argued that slavery has left such a huge scar – people from many many different cultures were abducted as slaves, and now they are free African Americans they have to make a cultural identity almost from scratch. It is this which makes the cultural appropriation of African American music and indeed African music more uncomfortable and inappropriate.
    I guess in the same way that anything to do with the holocaust, or religion is problematic when it comes to culture appropriation. I don’t think you can form any policy on these sorts of things, I guess you just have to go with what feels right to you personally. I very nearly bought an LP of Maori hakas I found in a charity shop the other day, I think sampling that would have been just as bad. Right, now to go crate digging for some naff Belgian folk songs to rip off.

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