Sampling, or the use of bits and pieces of prerecorded music as building blocks for an original work, came into its own in the '00s, far from both the wild invention of its use in early hip-hop and the litigious hangover that followed.
The Avalanches opened the decade with their conspicuously virtuoso crate-digging, further cementing an idea that a DJ might be both curator and artist. The Internet, always willing to be less-than-strictly legit when it comes to intellectual property law, helped facilitate the subtle melding of disparate styles, like Danger Mouse's convincing Jay-Z/ Beatles fantasia and also the continual Pavlovian bell-ringing of Greg Gillis' just-hooks project Girl Talk. Panda Bear and his Animal Collective bandmates closed the decade by combining rolling loops and earnest songwriting. Their abundant sampling was often invisible, so the results earned more Brian Wilson than DJ Shadow tags.
As improving technology continues to make the practice of splicing bits of someone else's work with your own less and less daunting, it'll become even harder to pigeonhole artists who sample with any monolithic aim or purpose. That is, there's no one genre of, or indebted only to, samples. At this rate, by the next decade's end, saying a song contains samples will seem about as novel as noting a song that's now got guitars.
Denver producer Travis Egedy has been making electronic music under the name Pictureplane since 2004, but he finally reached a wider audience with his 2009 record, Dark Rift. He's one of myriad bedroom savants who warp musical morsels to fit a personal aesthetic. At times, Dark Rift resembles the glow-stick techno of early-to-mid-'90s dance culture, where occasionally tacky club beats pounded while slick, soulful divas promised to make you sweat.
Egedy filters this now unfashionable style through modern lo-fi production. While he still uses sampled female vocals to hover over his compositions, he corrupts their simple mantras—chopping, repositioning and generally bending them past the point of recognition. While the producers from the earlier techno era often ceded the spotlight to those disembodied slogans, Egedy reclaims them, singing over both his insistent rhythms and the skipping vocals. Suddenly the music seems made for bedroom brooding, not muscle-bound dance-floor courtship.
Egedy's most arresting composition to date is "Goth Star," which uses the hairspray-saturated Stevie Nicks vocal from Fleetwood Mac's 1987 hit "Seven Wonders" to nefarious effect. The track begins with a dark-and-stormy synth loop, set off by Mac's own high, melodic keyboard washes. That touch identifies the song that's being manipulated much more clearly than the lead vocal it mangles. Stevie starts to bleed into the mix, the rich timbre of her voice immediately recognizable. But the effect is similar to a radio constantly cutting out on a mountain drive—no sentiments survive uninterrupted, though every halt is neatly synched to the beat. The listener is left with a vision of the witchy pop icon gone mad in a disco. Like all effective sampling, it takes something familiar and makes it new—and, in this case, newly creepy.
Whereas Pictureplane successfully molds samples to fit an established mood, Brooklyn duo Javelin samples so that it's impossible to distinguish what's even being borrowed. Though they've since moved up to a record deal with David Byrne's respected world-music label Luaka Bop, 2008's self-released Jamz n Jemz remains their best moment yet. Cousins Thomas Van Buskirk and George Langford are mixtape makers of the highest caliber, hopping from genre to genre with impatience but never departing what sounds like a relaxed yet active summer BBQ. They even include a few literally titled seconds of charcoal burning.
Jamz n Jemz' tone is inclusive enough to envelop low-key funk, Spanish language lullabies, hot-dog jazz fluting, mid-'80s electro and what might be the filthiest anti-STD PSA ever. Somehow, the transitions never seem to jar. Without a guided map, there's no way to know which tracks are original jams and which are gems rescued from the bargain bin. In interviews, they've pegged the ratio of sample-heavy to sample-free songs at around 50/ 50. The music doesn't so much recontextualize sampled snippets as decontextualize the band's own instrumental compositions, making all of it seem like more shards of cross-genre shrapnel cut from some great, forgotten zeitgeist.
Live performance continues to be a challenge for those making music from previously recorded songs, which are inherently finished and inert. Acts often compensate for the canned elements with light-show visuals, a kinetic counterpoint to a form of song craft that chains them behind a stack of technology. Javelin, who spent four years trying to conceive a live show for their music, have hit on a symbolically satisfying image with grand, toppling, onstage boom box totem poles, each tuned to broadcast the band's set to the crowd via FM radio waves.
As the duo stands in front of their rig, singing cultural tidbits impromptu over their music—an oddly fitting Nirvana verse here, a bit of freestyle lifted from an Outkast album there—it makes perfect visual sense. They've practically turned themselves into transistor radios, filtering decades of music into something that flows intuitively. It's the unspoken desire of sampling's previous waves, finally fulfilled.