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Waxing theoretical

What does it mean to make something new? When do actions become original? In some ways, isn’t creating just another act of learning by enacting processes that have already been done?

DJs and producers take music other people have made and then rearrange, splice, change its tone, add drums or break-beats to create a different song. Puff Daddy samples David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” and gains worldwide fame. Kanye West slows down Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up” and not much attention is drawn to the process.

Does sampling constitute less creativity than writing original music? It certainly employs different skills, but any traditional musician will tell you how important arrangement is to a song. Furthermore, producers often play many of the instruments on their tracks themselves, using samples sparsely in new and creative ways.

DJs are the quintessential postmodern artist. Modernism’s evolution into postmodernism is defined by a self-proclaimed inability to create new narratives. Claude Levi-Strauss contends that there are a limited number of archetypal narrative structures that repeat throughout all cultures, just in different contexts. In this capacity, does sampling other people’s music reflect an inability to create, or is it a retrospective tribute to a larger tradition of musicianship?

Through intertextuality, DJs pay tribute to the past while giving credit to their role as creative artists. By putting original samples into foreign contexts, producers make self-referential art that uses its disparate constituents to create cohesive wholes. Songs are built around hooks and samples that actively refer to their own displacement. In this way, DJs constantly draw attention to the creation of their art by taking scattered fragments of other people’s music in order to make it their own in an entirely postmodern process.

Interest in mash-up style production is high. Girl Talk and MSTRKRFT provided the highlight of many music fans’ Halifax Pop Explosion this year. One of the reasons this culture has become more prominent is easy access to sequencing and sampling programs such as Cool Edit and Fruity Loops. This software makes production accessible and cheap for the average artist. The programs are basic, but still provide the technology needed to make a track. More expensive programs such as Logic and Pro Tools are capable of producing quality sounds in your basement, but cost considerably more. However, if you are willing to invest you can obtain industry standard production in the comfort of your own living room.

Part of the allure of sampling is the endless possibilities. Cut-up samples from the Last of Mohicans soundtrack and splice them with Winston Churchill’s “Battle of Britain” speech. Use The Beatles’ White Album to underscore lyrics from Jay Z’s Black Album like DJ Danger Mouse did with his controversial Grey Album in 2004.

The important thing to remember as a budding DJ is you should try to make something that is original.

Production may seem easy if you find the right sample, but the best producers mix and match elements from various records when not providing instrumentals on their own tracks. Mixing is about showing your connection to a larger musical tradition.

With that in mind, the only way to find that perfect sample is to invest the time listening to records.

Conversely, a good producer can make an exciting track from sounds they took from a video game.

At the end of the day, it is the producer and not their samples that will determine the quality of a given track. With this in mind, go forth and create.

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