Talking Sampling With Jaguar Skills

On the right and wrong way to bump another’s beats…

Sampling. It’s all around us, even when we don’t realise it. In our pop songs, our disco hits, our hip-hop bangers. And sampling’s long been a part of songwriting – artists were manipulating the sounds of others fto benefit their own expressions back in the 1960s.

With sampling – or was it? – hitting headlines recently as Portishead and The Weeknd had something of a minor falling out over the use – again, or not – of elements of the former’s material in the latter’s new track, Clash thought the time was right to have a little chat with an authority on the topic: celebrated DJ and producer Jaguar Skills.

Responsible for highly acclaimed, genre-smashing DJ sets since 2002, and a regular on BBC Radio 1 (and its sister station, 1Xtra), Skills’ love of hip-hop goes deep – and so, too, does his knowledge of who sampled what, and why. And so…

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There isn’t really any other genre that’s quite so deeply connected with sample culture as hip-hop is, is there?

Nope. I suppose it was Chic, really, that helped to start hip-hop, as Grandmaster Flash sampled them for ‘The Adventures Of…’. Is there any other music that really engaged with sampling before hip-hop? I know The Beatles used samples on ‘Yellow Submarine’.

But when you take hip-hop right back to the parties that Kool Herc was playing at, he was spinning records from other genres – funk, disco, jazz – and finding the breaks, to create ‘new’ music.

Yeah, it’s music based on what’s come before. And, truthfully, I stopped liking hip-hop as much when artists stopped sampling. A lot of the cool stuff to me, in hip-hop, was when an artist would take something and flip it, making it much better than it originally was.

I remember going into record stores to find all the records that the artists I liked were sampling, to find the breaks. I was always amazed how an artist could take just four bars, or even less than that, and do something incredible with them. Some of the breaks you find, you’ll listen to the song itself, and it’s rubbish! The tune is rubbish! But this maybe two-second bit in this rubbish song can be the foundation of something new.

That’s what made me start to want to make my own beats. My dad was a DJ, and he had such a vast collection of records, so when I was getting into hip-hop properly in the early ‘90s, and the late ‘80s, I could go into his collection and pull out the actual breaks used on the records I was listening to. Because you’d have the credits on the back, so you could find the originals, like the Zapp Band or whatever. So I was really lucky in that respect.

But whatever that creativity is – taking something rubbish, and making it really good – that’s always really inspiring, for me.

So do you see differences in usage, then? Between something like Beastie Boys’ ‘Paul’s Boutique’, where all the different samples add up to make something new, and a track that just lifts a chorus wholesale, with minimal changes?

You know, it depends. Sometimes you can get a tune that is cool that features a really obvious break, or sample. Wu-Tang Clan used to do it a lot. RZA would just grab a tune, and rip it, and loop it, badly. And he’d put barely anything on top of it. And that can be really brave, from a producer’s point of view. RZA would just take a loop, the Wu would rap on it – how amazingly raw is that? So I do like that, sometimes, because I feel that’s how it was done. Like, any other finesse on the track, extra production, will just take away from the rawness of the sample.

But then, if you sample… Well let me talk about house music. When I got really into house music, I realised that all of these records were just sampling old disco tunes. But that did help get me into house – because through the sampling I connected it with hip-hop. There’d be a groove, or a bassline. But, at other times, you can really take the piss, can’t you.

Like, that Puff Daddy song that samples The Police, you know that one? (‘I’ll Be Missing You’, sampling ‘Every Breath You Take’ – Clash) I don’t know what the truth is, behind that track, but I heard that Sting took 100% of everything on it. Like, everything. Every single last penny. But you can do something good, and you can do something corny.

Truthfully, I think people just don’t sample anymore because of the cost involved in it.

I’m glad you mention that, because I wanted to ask about the difference between using something in a new manner, creatively, and what basically amounts to theft. Around the last DJ Shadow album, ‘The Less You Know, The Better’, he told me he’d completely removed a track, because of sample clearance issues – and this was after other clearances had delayed its release for several weeks. So that’s the ‘right’ way to do it, I suppose. But then, just recently, you’ve got this Portishead versus The Weeknd thing…

What’s that? What Portishead shit is that?

(Clash explains – read the news here)

So he sampled Portishead? But didn’t get permission? And Portishead have got shitty with it? Well, didn’t Portishead use lots of samples on their debut? I suppose they were probably cleared. I like Portishead, but I don’t know them… I guess the lesson here is that if you’re going to rip someone’s song, make sure they’ll never be able to hear it! Go to some weird restaurant in Japan and sample the tune they’re playing in the background. Get that, and use portions of it to make a new tune. That’s my suggestion!

It’s easy to spot a sample these days – even with free-release mixtapes and that. You can get machines to find them. I’ve been watching this deep house ‘revolution’ that’s been going on, and to me… well, I’m old enough to remember when that sound came out the first time. Anyway, I’ve gone back to these old CDs and records, and you look at them – and there’s no real evidence of a sampling law. So you’re listening to these records and you’re like, holy f*ck. Like, in hip-hop, an album like De La Soul’s ‘3 Feet High And Rising’, there are tracks on there with over 40 different records on them. (Not quite, but there sure are a lot – Clash) F*ck, man.

I really like the sound of when someone samples something, but there has to be a middle ground between being allowed to use that sample, and getting sued for doing so.

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I think it’s generally okay if the track in question, that uses the sample, is released for free – there’s this video (above) of Chilly Gonzales that details that process (at 4.30, if you need to skip on – but do watch the whole thing). But The Weeknd track is available to buy, so, surely, assuming it does sample Portishead, they should get some cut of that?

Well, it does sound like Portishead have a point, doesn’t it. But then I do also think that if you can pay your way with your music, if you can cover your rent and look after your kids and that, let someone else use your tune, yeah? You don’t need to go hardcore. I met Bob James once (who? Wiki is your friend – Clash), and I was talking to him for hours. He was of the opinion that anyone could sample his stuff if he liked the tune they made from it. If he doesn’t like the tune, maybe he should let them use it, regardless. But, maybe, he doesn’t have the right ears to know whether that use of a sample represents a good tune or not. Is he too old? Like, Souls Of Mischief sampled his theme from Taxi, ‘Angela’, on a track called ‘Cab Fare’. But that track never came out, at the time. I asked him why, and he said: “I didn’t like the song.”

You’re touching on a point here raised by a young producer called XXYYXX. When Clash interviewed him recently (read it here), he said, “If you want to sue someone for using a sample, you’re ruining music.” Do you think that these financial barriers to sampling are stunting creativity amongst young producers?

Because you have to learn some piece of music, otherwise. You know, I feel stifled, as a producer, knowing I have to pay for a sample if I release it. If I know something is going to cost me loads, I can’t make that track as I want to. So I have to learn to play a part – I have to use a keyboard, or learn a piece on a guitar. A lot of the time, people just say: “Oh, just get someone to come in and re-play that part.” But there’s something special, something grimy, about taking that sample you want, you know what I mean?

Hip-hop’s moving away from sampling anyway, and has done so over the past 10 years – you don’t hear as many samples as you used to. Producers are learning to properly play, too. But, to be honest, a lot of music made via that approach sounds shit to me. You listen to a tune without samples, that a producer’s tried to play on, and sometimes… Well, it can sound like my son trying to play a keyboard. And then there’s a track with some old soul sample, and it shines by comparison. But perhaps this is just a sign of the divide between old and young people.

I think it’s important too, as a DJ, to be able to sample – to help put together mixtapes. There is an art to it, and for me sampling really opened my ears. I started as a b-boy, got into making beats, and then I got into jazz! I got into jazz because of the samples that were in hip-hop. And then hip-hop opened the door to funk for me, too. Everything that I like, everything, comes from digging for these records, from their use as samples. And I was digging, too, because I wanted to sample shit.

So when you’re planning a mix, a DJ set, will you look at a track by Artist A, which samples Artist B, and then mix from that into a track by Artist B? So that the sample precedes another track ‘proper’?

Oh yeah, that used to be the way of things. When that digging culture was really around, I’d play a Tribe Called Quest record, and then start the break they used, on the original vinyl. And this is before people would DJ with MP3s – so I’d have to spend hours trying to find this break, used as a sample, going through all these weird places. You have to know the tune.

The one I remember the most is Daft Punk. Their second album had just come out, ‘Discovery’. It had ‘Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger’ on it. I heard that tune, and I’d not heard anything like it before – it really blew my brains out. It seemed next level, like, properly amazing. And I’d been at the Record And Tape exchange, going through all of these old disco records. I got home, put one on… And I’d found the break from ‘Harder…’ without even realising it. It was on this old record, and it was exactly the same as the f*cking Daft Punk tune. It’s a tune by Edwin Birdsong, and I only picked up the record because I thought his name sounded like a pimp. I thought: “Wow, Edwin Birdsong… That sounds funky.” And it was!

But the thing was, Daft Punk has done nothing to it. The original (‘Cola Bottle Baby’, from 1981’s ‘Funtaztik’ album, below – Clash) already sounds like a computer from the 1960s has edited it. This guy was futuristic, man. But, that makes me think that sometimes the art of sampling is as much to do with what record you find, rather than what you do with it. Daft Punk had found this old disco record, which nobody had heard in years, and represented it. And in a way, I felt cheated! I thought they’d chopped it up in that way. But I also respected the rawness of it – they’d just taken this tune, looped it, added a few extra bits. There’s a sort of purity to it. I just thought: “Wow, you’ve got some balls.” I wouldn’t be able to do that, myself.

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Well, that goes back to your point earlier of choosing relatively obscure samples.

I think that’s the most important thing. There is nothing worse than doing the most obvious shit. You can really f*ck off if you’re going to do that. It’s like… Have you heard this record, right, by Pitbull? I can’t remember what it’s called (‘Feel This Moment’ – Clash), but it samples the keyboard line from a-ha’s ‘Take On Me’. That’s like, “Man, come on. Don’t do that.” It’s a straight rip. He’s done nothing to it. It’s like the Avicii record, ‘Wake Me Up’: “Oh, let’s take country and western and EDM, mix them together, and see what we get.” I’ll tell you what you get: the worst record in the world. That’s what you get. But it’s one of the, if not the, biggest-selling song of the year so far. Like, wow. It’s test-tube music, isn’t it?

Well, part of me thinks it’s a necessary evil. You see empires build up, because then there’s a greater satisfaction in smashing them down.

Yeah, good thinking. But I do think that if you take a really famous sample, but flip it in a new way, so that the listener knows what it is, but not what to expect from it… That is what’s super cool. Give the listener a sniff of this massive tune at the start of a track, and then take it back and do something really brilliant with it. That’s exciting, for me.

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Jaguar Skills presents his Hip-Hop Odyssey at London’s Village Underground venue on August 22nd, 9pm-2am. The set represents a live, long-play ‘repeat’ of a 2006 mix for Radio 1 that crammed 800 classic tracks into 40 minutes, and attracted over a million downloads. For tickets and other information, head to Jaguar Skills’ official website

And no, we won’t tell you his real name.

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