In the popular music today, pretty much every song utilizes brief clips, or samples, from other songs as crucial parts of their new songs. Music is extremely self-referential within genre, and you’ll even hear the same clips used across the board by different artists in different songs.
In a world where so much music is created, edited, or finalized electronically, it is extremely easy to take a brief recording of an older, classic song and include it in a new song. This can be done out of respect for the song, or simply because the artist likes the way the sample sounds in relation to the rest of their composition.
The artist who really revolutionized the use of samples in music was Grandmaster Flash. He was one of the first true “DJ’s” and his songs are recognized worldwide.
One argument that people make against music comprised mainly of samples like that of Grandmaster Flash is that it isn’t original because it simply used other people’s work. It’s important to see that this is false. Music now is a collage more than an original painting. In the way that we see intertextuality in literature, we see inter-musicality across genres of sound.
Looking at Grandmaster Flash specifically, one realizes that just because the music uses a lot of samples doesn’t mean that it is any less creative. Grandmaster Flash put a lot of plain old physical effort into his work, using turntables to manipulate each sample manually, as if each record was a component of a drum kit, and he manipulated each one individually to create a complete final sound. You see pictures of Dizzy Gillespie with his cheeks puffed out in physical strain. Grandmaster Flash’s efforts were just as physical.
Each record could be compared to a section of an orchestra, and Grandmaster Flash could be compared to the conductor.
Looking specifically at his song, his best known, “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel,” we can break down specific segments and identify the samples that he uses and how he manipulates them to make them original and new.
Let’s first take a look at the first minute or so of the song, and then go through and identify all of the samples Grandmaster Flash uses, as well as how he layers and manipulates them to create his own original piece.
Right off the bat, we hear a sample from “Monster Jam” by Spoonie G. However, Grandmaster Flash makes it more original by manipulating the first two words of the sample, playing them back in a rhythmic sequence.
From the Spoonie G sample, Grandmaster Flash transitions into a sample from “Good Times” by Chic. Listening to the Grandmaster Flash sample and the original version, it is clear that he scratched over it, leaving his own artistic influence on the sample.
From the Good times sample, he uses a sample from Apache by Incredible Bongo Band. He scratches over this as well and uses it as a transition into the bass line from “Another one bites the dust by queen.” Over this portion of the track, his scratching reaches its peak of this one minute segment, and then transitions into the baseline from rapper’s delight by sugarhill gang, using a short excerpt from Good times.
Beyond samples from songs, Grandmaster Flash also uses (3:35) simple spoken words from the song “Life Story” by the Hellers, layered over the baseline from rapper’s delight to create a nice flowy dialogue over the consistent pulse that has dominated the whole song
Clearly, Grandmaster Flash is not using the samples as a shortcut to just piece together a new song from bits of old ones, but rather using each sample as an instrument, manipulating it in his own innovative ways and creating a new, original piece of music. You can even hear bits of human error with the turntable work, as its not as precise as a computer would be. You can tell it is a man manipulating each sample, and that qualifies Grandmaster Flash as just as much of an artist as the ones he samples from.