The Beat Lives On: Sampling songs from the past — exploitation or admiration?

Angie Yang | Daily Trojan

When artists sample music, are they stealing or merely being creative and using the work in a new way? 

Before diving into my research on the art of sampling music, I’ll admit I was the person on the end of the argument who believed it was an unnecessary and uncreative way of taking someone else’s work, putting your name on it and achieving success without giving credit to the original maker. Hot take for a music devotee — I know. 

As a fan of music and genres spanning many decades, I’ve found myself asking this more than a few times when listening to music today and hearing a familiar sound directly out of a song from the past: Why do so many popular artists, musicians, singers, songwriters, disc jockeys — praised for their music and originality — sample other artists’ songs, sometimes without even finding it necessary to acknowledge that they’ve done so? 

When an artist samples a song, they are reusing a portion of a previous sound recording and reworking it in a new way to make it their own. In some cases, it can breathe new life into older songs. But not in all. 

So many artists throughout time have topped the charts in modern music by sampling songs from the past, whether they take parts of instrumentals, vocals, lyrics, a drumbeat or melodies from another piece of music. 

Dare I say that some of your favorite artists have likely taken parts of previous artists’ work and put their name on it without crediting the musician they took from. Virtually every artist does it. But does that make it OK?

Though I frowned upon the use of older work in newer pop songs at one point, now I think of it as giving music of the past a new life to a generation of listeners who may be unfamiliar with the works of previous artists. 

There’s an added brilliance to being able to rework a piece from the past and make it relevant again, especially at a time when media, the music and entertainment industries are all drastically changing the way they produce content and engage with technology. The fact that an old tune or lyric can resonate in popular culture today, even if in a new way, is powerful and tells of the artist’s consideration for the original maker and modern times. 

And I’m not saying this is a new thing — sampling has been around for decades. Madonna used the opening of “Gimme Gimme Gimme” by Swedish Europop group ABBA for her hit song “Hung Up,” released in 2005. A Tribe Called Quest sampled Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side” in their ’90s classic “Can I Kick It?” Jay-Z and Kanye West sampled Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” in their 2011 hit “Otis.” The list goes on. 

In 2019, when pop music sensation Ariana Grande released “7 Rings,” upon first listen, I’ll admit, I was a bit protective over the song she’d sampled because it was one of the most memory-guarded tracks of my childhood. “7 Rings” samples “My Favorite Things” from the film “The Sound of Music,” which I watched religiously as a kid, enamored by Julie Andrews’s voice and the beautiful melodies littered throughout the soundtrack. 

Originally written by Rodgers and Hammerstein and sung by Academy Award winner and Broadway legend Julie Andrews, Grande uses the song’s melody from the beginning of the single when she sings “breakfast at Tiffany’s and bottles of bubbles / Girls with tattoos who like getting in trouble / Lashes and diamonds, ATM machines / Buy myself all of my favorite things.” 

At first, knowing the lyrics from the original 1965 song and the difference between the new lyrics Grande provided to the old melody made me unsure of how Grande was using the song — whether she was admiring an old track or ripping off an old tune for the sake of making a catchy new hit. But, she completely changed the song and did so in an effective way, making it fit her personal experiences while also appealing to popular culture. What better way to introduce the song to a new audience and give the melody a new life than that? 

Despite my original questioning, I quickly found myself unable to keep from moving to the beat, which, in my mind, must have meant there was something about this that worked and clicked with 21st-century sounds, lyrics and listeners. Suddenly, my uncertainty became appreciation. I also couldn’t help but be excited that someone else had the same love and admiration for Andrews’ song that I did. 

In this way, what I believe many artists have in common when sampling previous works is the ability to use them in unique ways, putting a spin on the original genre the song was attached to, changing the pace of the rhythm or switching in an instrument for another to produce a different sound with the same chord progression. Sampling music is an art in itself. 

Sampling is the foundation of hip-hop, a genre created by African and Latinx Americans. Paying respect to artists that came before, hip-hop began with producers sampling early funk, soul and disco records. Old tracks began to take on a whole new meaning, becoming an integral part of the sound and culture of hip-hop. 

From pop to electronic to hip-hop, the use of samples is inevitable in the music industry and has influenced genres all across the board. Some of the songs that utilize samples from previous works end up becoming even more popular than the original song sampled. 

I don’t think that’s something to be disappointed about. Though some artists may be territorial over their work, I don’t think the intention of a true artist — who values originality and whose passion goes beyond fame — is to “steal” music for the sake of being unable to produce with their own tracks. 

Thus, sampling music is not an act of exploitation but often admiration. It gives good music another chance for the beat to live on and resonate with new listeners once again. 

Emily Sagen is a senior writing about music’s lasting impact. She is also an arts and entertainment editor at the Daily Trojan. Her column, “The Beat Lives On,” runs every other Friday.