An exploration into the cultural politics of repetition through the lens of the hip hop sample

Everything is a Remix

Term Paper, 2021

19 Pages, Grade: 1,0

Free online reading

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Theoretical Background
2.1 Repetition and Intertextuality – Coming to Terms

3. A Brief Glance on Sampling in Music
3.1 From Beethoven to Biggie Smalls
3.2. Copyright – A Balancing Act

4. Analysis
4.1 Autosonic and textually signalled
4.2 Allosonic and not textually signalled

5. Conclusion

6. Sources
6.1 Literature
6.2 Internet Sources

For Jonas, who introduced me to the beautiful music of Little Simz

Imitation is just inspiration, if you feel like takin’ just be sure that you cite it


1. Introduction

I vividly remember one instance when after a dance event, I went over to one of the performers to express my excitement about his choice of music: I believed to have recognized a song that I loved, albeit a remixed version. The choreographer who overheard the conversation came over, smiled understandingly and told me that I could not possibly have recognized the song because all of the tracks had been written exclusively for the performance. When the dancer confessed that he did indeed ask the composer to model one of the songs on Saâda Bonaire’s You Could Be More As You Are , resulting in a melodic structure and lyrics so similar that an outsider like me could recognize the kinship between the songs, the mood shifted. I hope this won’t cause us any copyright issues then actually meant what an embarrassment that we were found out copying.

The almost religious conviction that intellectual property is something sacred – some reified form of the genius mind to be protected by laws – permeates contemporary western culture to a degree that it appears to belong to a set of ‘a priori’ facts of social life. We love to assign ideas to individuals and to conceive of breakthroughs as the predetermined triumph of progress. We worship Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs as the great prophets of technological transition and we lay the classical composers of the 19th century to rest in a designated place of honour, removed from the burial ground of the ordinary. 1 Every single site in the public domain has become subject to claims of ownership, more so if it holds economic value or promises of prestige. To a culture that considers itself ever-evolving, repetition is an insult. And yet, our digital representations of the analogue world, accessible and malleable as they are, uncover the manifold mutual references and intertwining of ideas. In that vast digital space where all ideas come together, the myth of eternal novelty is debunked, its hubris becomes ever more apparent. Of course, culture wars have started much earlier. But the ongoing debate about the building blocks of creativity has gathered momentum with the divide between the ideal of linear development and the social reality of eternal recurrence 2 widening in front of a global audience.

In her comprehensive monograph on Hip Hop, Tricia Rose writes: “Sampling technology and rap producers’ commercially profitable use of sampled sounds have seriously challenged the current scope of copyright laws […] and raised larger, more complex questions regarding fair use of musical property and the boundaries of ownership of musical phrases” (Rose 1994, p. 64). This was in 1994. After almost 30 more years on the centre stage of popular culture and in the face of costly clearance processes, Hip Hop has significantly changed its production practice. A dive into the colourful world of contemporary Rap Music should shed light on changes in both general attitude towards and minorities’ employment of repetition to articulate cultural priorities.

2. Theoretical Background

2.1 Repetition and Intertextuality – Coming to Terms

I will bite the bullet and try to tie the free floating, flowery language of postmodernism to a tangible concept of cultural repetitiveness that applies well to musical expression. Russell A. Potter, who in Spectacular Vernaculars analyses Hip Hop as an essentially postmodern artform, identifies as the central trait of the postmodern “its refusal of fixed or progressive models of time […]; perhaps running in grand Viconian cycles of eternal return, perhaps preferring the kind of local interruption of time that takes place in a musical sample of previous recordings” (Potter 1995, p. 2). As an interface between postmodern thought and black cultural criticism, his writing provides the backdrop against which theorists as diverse as Julia Kristeva and James A. Snead can be consulted on the same issue. While earlier European postmodernist abstract intellectual thought shows little engagement with either Black culture or with Black cultural theorists, it nonetheless coined terms that changed how academia looked at media texts of all sorts. In doing so, however, it only echoed what was already put into practice in the popular sphere: “Hip Hop […] is itself an active, ongoing, and highly sophisticated postmodernism – a postmodernism which in many ways has gone farther and had more crucial consequences than all the academic books on postmodernism rolled into one” (Potter 1995, p. 9). A confusion and overlapping of identities, a post-catastrophic awareness and moral ambiguity, fragmentation, deconstruction and a non-linear understanding of time – Hip Hop has it all. Any inquiry should therefore aspire to collapse academic cultural analysis and cultural production, to let the ivory tower’s object of study speak for itself.

For me as an outsider without the resources to conduct interviews and without a direct link to ‘the culture’, that ideal remains a utopia. I intend to refrain from any definite ascriptions of meaning and to instead open up a space of contemplation: How do contemporary rap artists and producers relate to repetition in its musical form? What are the circumstances that lead to those specific modes of expression?

James A. Snead (1981) defines as culture the “types of music, literature, art and temperament by which a group of people is made aware of and defines itself for others and for itself” (p. 147) and proposes that “one may readily classify cultural forms based on whether they tend to admit or cover up […] repeating constituents within them” (ibid, p. 146). Because every culture, in order to “maintain a sense of continuity about itself” (147) necessarily incorporates recurring elements, differences in how repetition is dealt with provides insight into the core characteristics of cultural communities. And because continuity is always at least in part fiction, the way in which ruptures are either ‘covered up’ or incorporated in the narrative, is also telling.

Snead takes it from there. He contrasts European (i.e. Western) and Black culture, though not without hinting at the fact that any distinction between them might stem from the forceful attempts of Western intellectual authorities to degrade non-Western cultures in order to justify the brutal exploitation of these people. Reinterpreting Hegel’s racist deliberations, Snead comes to the conclusion that where Black culture embraces cyclical views of history and “highlights the observance of […] repetition” (149) on both a biological/agricultural and a social systemic level, European culture tends to cover it up. While complete denial is impossible, in European culture, repetition undergoes a transformation and is reborn as progress and development. “[R]epetition must be seen to be not just circulation and flow, but accumulation and growth” (ibid.), as Snead puts it.

These overarching sentiments are expressed concretely in both cultures’ musical forms.3 Western (classical) music prioritises complexity in harmony and melody based on definite pitches. Rhythm serves mainly as tool to carry forward harmonic progression. The cadence (a sequence of chords), in which all melodic lines are rooted, strives for final resolution (Snead 1981, p. 152; Rose 1994, p. 67). Black music, in contrast, centres dense rhythmic and percussive organisation, layering rhythm patterns on top of each other and repeating them. This is not least a necessity that stems from the communal character of Afrodiasporic music. Collective improvisation requires repetition, and “because beat is an entity of relation, any ‘self-consciousness’ or ‘achievement’ in the sense of an individual participant’s working towards his or her own rhythmic or tonal climax above the mass’ would have disastrous results” (Snead 1981, p. 150). Furthermore, Snead observes the prominence of musical ‘cuts’, anticipating rap music’s production modes without explicitly mentioning the genre.

In black culture, the thing (the ritual, the dance, the beat) is ‘there for you to pick it up when you come back to get it’. If there is a goal in such a culture, it is always deferred; it continually ‘cuts’ back to the start, in the musical meaning of ‘cut’ as an abrupt, seemingly unmotivated break […] with a series already in progress and a willed return to a prior series. (Snead 1981, p. 150)

Curiously, the knowledge embodied in these forms of cultural expression is echoed in the distant sphere of academic postmodernist thought. I should focus on Julia Kristeva’s notion of intertextuality, as her concept has gained the status of a postmodern classic (if such a thing exists). In Semeiotikè, she writes:

The text is therefore productivity, meaning that (1) its relation to the language in which it is sited is redistributive (deconstructive – constructive) and consequently it can be approached by means of logical categories other than purely linguistic ones; (2) it is a permutation of texts, an intertextuality: in the space of a text, many utterances taken from other texts intersect with one another and neutralize one another. (qtd. in Orr 2003, p. 27)

Note that here, (1) the meaning of a text is something that is always in flux, always at least double-voiced. The elements of which a text is composed do not have a strictly denotative function; instead, they are redistributed as they appear in a text, their relations to each other shift. Semioticians talk about floating signifiers: Arrangements of words and sentences (what Kristeva was originally talking about) have no fixed meaning but are at best an approximation; something which is subsequently also true for arrangements of musical phrases.

Recurrence in cultures, according to Snead, is closely connected to this concept of intertextuality insofar as repetition “tends to defuse the belief that any other meaning resides in a repeated signifier than the fact that it is being repeated” (Snead 1981, p. 153). Only through the highlighting of repetition, previously anathema to western culture, does this central postmodern insight become inevitable. Kristeva’s text as productivity is also surprisingly similar to the African American oral tradition of Signifyin(g), which is “repetition with a difference, the same and yet not the same” (Potter 1995, p. 27). To signify is to allude to what came before, playing on and revising tropes, but withstanding any unambiguous interpretation. To participate in the play, insider knowledge is required; this once again not too different from postmodernists’ ludic conception of intertextuality, where pleasure in reading occurs when the reader recognizes something familiar to her and becomes complicit in the intertextual code-game (cf. Orr 2003). Sampling in Hip Hop is by all means “a foundational instance of musical Signifyin(g) […], musically troping on and responding to what has come before” (Williams 2015, p. 207).

Kristeva’s text as permutation (2), in turn, has important implications for the Western default of assigning text positions in a hierarchical order, for the obsession with the ‘original’. Mary Orr, in her reworking of the postmodern theories on intertextuality notes: “Reflexivity is indeed the essential motor of language itself for its own rejuvenation” (Orr 2003, p. 28). The intersections of texts are what keeps the language in which they are written alive. Repetition and mutual references weave a net – the more knots, the more closely-meshed the net, the more vibrant the language. If we are to apply semiotic concepts to the ‘language of music’, we can observe how intersection and neutralization work: A jazz lick4 might be picked up by different players, performed in different contexts, in different timbres, each version a fully adequate knot in its own right. Artists signify on each other because they are aware of their roots and confident of their own creative contribution. Ingenuity becomes an empty ideal as reality exposes it as a simulacrum. Because creativity is not magic. Musicians in every genre learn by copying. They familiarize themselves with and emulate existing pieces to develop their abilities and to obtain the tools for crafting new art. Incorporating someone else’s musical creation in one’s own often is to cherish the soil from which that creation was grown.5 Neutralization is then “not so much a cancelling out as an interactive levelling. Prior text materials lose special status by permutation with others in the intertextual exchange because all intertexts are of equal importance in the intertextual process” (Orr 2003, p. 28).

The practice of sampling has been caught amidst the tempest of cultural identity struggles and the music industry’s hunt for profit. While postmodernist ideas are slow to make their transition into real world politics, Hip Hop artists have taken on a vanguard role. The genre’s voraciousness has prompted a series of hostilities but at the same time it has made it the perfect weaver: expanding the net with ever new meshes and intricately linking up disjunct historic fabrics.

3. A Brief Glance on Sampling in Music

3.1 From Beethoven to Biggie Smalls

What we usually mean by sampling is the technique of using snippets from existing recordings stored in digital memory to incorporate them into new pieces. According to this definition, the practice is fairly young as it relies on technology that only in the 1980s had become widely available.6 Sound collage and musical borrowing on the other hand are as old as musical expression itself and share important cultural implications with the forms of sampling associated with the digital age. In 1820, Beethoven wrote 33 variations on Anton Diabelli’s Waltz in C, reworking the main theme and various melodic figures. The result, considered to be one of Beethoven’s masterpieces, is essentially a remix. Such repetitive tendencies in classical music are already accompanied by a fear of tainted texts: “The anxiety that haunts many modern artists – an anxiety that they are actually creating nothing new under the sun – is something that has been pervasive within Western culture during the last two centuries” (McLeod 2011, p. 59).

On the other side of the Atlantic, Interpolation and musical quotation have always been defining characteristics of African American music, not associated with shame or guilt, but openly celebrating the giants whose shoulders we’re standing on.7 The Twelve-bar blues is a harmonic template consisting of a fixed chord progression, rooting every individual performance in a communal genre. Jazz musicians study a set of standards to get a feel for the genre and learn from the greats. Even leading names proudly release recordings of their own interpretations of standards, not least because they consider themselves eternal learners. As Kevin Whitehead writes in Why Jazz?: “Jazz is full of allusions. A performance may reference another tune, another version of the same tune, the sound of another performer or genre, or musical practices traceable to Africa or Europe” (Whitehead 2011, p. 3).

Already pretty similar to digital sampling are the experiments of certain avant-garde composers related to the Musique Concrète genre of the 1940s and 50s. They cut up tapes, used soundbites from radio broadcasts and in that way created the first musical collages from previously recorded sounds. Although the composers often violated copyright, there were no trials as their pieces were far removed from the popular scene. It is this same condition that made possible “The Golden Age of Sampling” in Hip Hop, a period usually understood to cover the years from 1987 to 1992 (McLeod 2011, p. 31).

What sampling in Hip Hop first tried to do was to emulate the soundscape DJs created at live events. For several years in fact, Hip Hop existed solely as a live artform, because the signature sound – looped breakbeats – required that someone with serious skills tended to the turntables. To dismiss the technique as unimaginative and lazy is already quite presumptuous considering that Hip Hop artists were technological innovators right from the beginning, often inventing techniques and workarounds that manufacturers never even envisaged.8 When in the mid to late 80s samplers like the Emu SP-1200, the Akai MPC 60 or the classic Roland TR 808 drum machine became affordable, rap producers went from recreating the ‘block party’ sound to crafting elaborate and multi-layered instrumental beds to sampling jazz and beyond.9 Because at that time, Hip Hop was “still considered a flash in the pan by the larger music industry, […] hip hop artists [had] the opportunity to make music exactly as they imagined it, without restrictions” (McLeod 2011, p. 31). Production crews would go “crate digging”, that is, scouting records for sounds that fitted their vision. Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad would “jam with samplers [and turntables]” (McLeod 2011, p. 34) to find out which parts go well together. Sampling then became a means of composition, “a process of cultural literacy and intertextual reference” (Rose 1994, p. 89) Tracks could be assemblages of a multitude of sounds, uniting instrumentalists that never played together in real life. They could be a challenge for audiences to know the parts, affirming black musical history as ‘past’ sounds are located in the ‘present’ (cf. Rose 1994, p. 89). Producers already created densely arranged pieces with an impressive sonic force when copyright law “hadn’t even realized what samplers did” (McLeod 2011, p. 37). But with increased commercial viability, scrutiny over samples increased as well (ibid., p. 39).

3.2. Copyright – A Balancing Act

Ironically, copyright was designed as a means to encourage creativity by ensuring that creators could profit from their creations. For a limited time span, no one could sell an idea that was protected by copyright, allowing originators to cover development costs and to make a living from their trade. After that timespan, the idea goes over into the public domain, where others can copy and transform it, facilitating social evolution. To be functional, “copyright must perform a balancing act by brokering a compromise between compensation and access” (McLeod 2011, p. 25).

If this balance gets disturbed, the system fails. Because the dominant meme governing the copyright system is that of intellectual property (as opposed to the common good), laws and their interpretations are skewed. Some flaws, as for example long copyright terms, concern all music creators alike.10 But notably, not all creative uses of previous work are treated equally. Some types of musical borrowing have few legal restrictions, but other forms have many. The creative freedoms associated with brief quotation, mimicry of style, and cover versions often don’t apply for those who wish to sample fragments of sound recordings. (McLeod 2011, p. 27)

The system, modelled on Western classical music, is designed to protect sheet music, not rhythm and timbre. As sample usage was relatively unregulated, exploitation by recording companies was preprogramed when rap music became big business. Outrageous licensing fees could be charged for minor usages, while the ‘original’ artists in many cases didn’t even have publishing rights11 and consequently didn’t share in the companies’ profits. Furthermore, in comparison with other forms of musical borrowing, sample usage is less likely to be subject to Fair-Use, a doctrine that allows exceptions from copyright law if the use of existing work is considered ‘transformative’ (cf. McLeod 2011, p. 12). Whether the doctrine applies is evaluated on a case-by-case basis, hence court decisions in famous cases set precedents for the entire industry.

When the Turtles sued De La Soul for unauthorized use of “You Showed Me” for their album 3 Feet High and Rising in 1989, the case was settled out of court but nonetheless had a deterrent effect.12 In 1991, in the Grand Upright Music v. Warner Bros Records Inc case, the judge “considered any unauthorized sampling an act of theft” (Williams 2015, p. 212). As clearance processes are lengthy and nerve-wrecking, not to mention the possibility that the sampled artist will deny permission of use, including more than one sample in a song had become virtually unworkable and collage-heavy albums such as 3 Feet High and Rising or Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet disappeared from the cultural scene.

Another famous case is the Bridgeport Music Inc13 v. Dimension Films case, “which claimed that N.W.A.’s ‘100 Miles And Runnin’ used a three-note chord from Funkadelic’s ‘Get off Your Ass and Jam’, albeit with the pitch lowered and looped five times” (Williams 2015, p. 212). The fact that Bridgeport won the case, although the infringement was minimal and the use could easily have been labelled transformative, set a precedent that any sampled sound needs to be cleared.

From a music theory perspective, courts came down disproportionately hard on Hip Hop artists. The explanation for often absurd rulings at least partly lies in cultural anxieties that are triggered by sampling as a practice that foregrounds repetition. The felt menace of Black empowerment has its own effect and is only made more salient by the musical highlighting of Black priorities.

Today, beats only very rarely use samples, and if they do, the use alone becomes a statement. The different forms in which sampling occurs today points to expressions of defiance, heightened historical awareness and surging transgressive tendencies.

4. Analysis

4.1 Autosonic and textually signalled

One of the most acclaimed rap albums of 2021 is Little Simz’ Sometimes I Might Be Introvert. The only sample used among lush orchestral soundscapes and gritty grime beats is from Smokey Robinson’s The Agony And The Ecstasy (1975) for Two Worlds Apart, a sample that was obviously carefully chosen and that serves as a stylistic device rather than as the basic beat of the track. The technique of digitally sampling the original is what Serge Lacasse calls “autosonic quotation”, in contrast to “allosonic quotation”, which would be performing the quotation live and re-recording it (cf. Lacasse 2000, pp. 35-48). Furthermore, the quotation is “textually signalled”, meaning that the text draws attention to its borrowing by employing specific aesthetic modes (Williams 2013, pp. 7-10). In Two Worlds Apart, these include evocations of turntable techniques such as abrupt cuts [00:43] and half-beat chases [01:14], as well as changes in pitch [01:38] and application of filters [02:03].

Little Simz’ opting for autosonic quotation is not random, as becomes clear in an interview with Vulture: “I just love [Smokey Robinson’s] voice, for a start. The song just felt really classic, and that’s what I was going for: [making] a classic album” (Curto 2021). Both the unique timbre of voice and the recognizable vintage Motown sound of the old record are essential to the sample. Little Simz is not just relating to a melody, a composition, but to a specific constellation of time, location and feel that is important to her. She is building on the foundation of her musical predecessors, figuratively and literally. By textually signalling the quotation, producer Inflo14 indirectly gives credit to the original while at the same time tapping into different Hip Hop production traditions. The allusion to old school turntablism links the text up with Hip Hop’s roots as a live artform and functions as a genre marker. Playing with pitch and filters alienates the Smokey Robinson song, it is repetition with a difference. What Inflo does, is signifyin[g] on both the original piece and on the technological circumstances that made Hip Hop recordings possible.

The sample is an active engagement with the past, a demonstration of historical knowledge as it proudly discloses the influences of rapper and producer alike. It locates an old classic in the present, insists on its continued relevance, and at the same time allows the artists to insert themselves in the ongoing narrative.

While many samples may serve the same purpose, it is especially articulate in Two Worlds Apart. On the album, the song stands among awe-inspiring original compositions that deal with incredibly personal and current topics and presents a less intense, reduced counterpart; time to breathe and reminisce. The lyrics are almost goofy at certain points and make room for the sample to shine through. The track highlights its repetitive elements without blatantly copying. Especially the legal argument that samples might hurt sales of the original records doesn’t apply: The parts Inflo lifted from The Agony and The Ecstasy are recognizable and characteristic but they are minor snippets mostly from verses and assembled in a way that creates a stand-alone piece.

The bar that is looped for the intro appears at [02:04] in the original song where it functions as the transition between the first chorus and second verse. Here, the high note is immediately released to give way to the second verse. In Two Worlds Apart however, the loop defers the beginning of the verse and situates the song in a Hip Hop context: less smooth, with obvious breaks. The guitar lick that provides the bed for the major part of Little Simz’ verses is taken from between two lines in the second verse of The Agony and The Ecstasy [02:29], an unobtrusive passage that is easily missed when one listens to the whole song. Inflo does not lift a tried and tested motive off a major hit but in fact gives new life to a lick that would otherwise have been lost in history. Furthermore, the little “turnaround” in the fourth bar of Little Simz’ verse is from the original Chorus part [03:35] and in the key of G. This change is a small but noticeable break, not only because Robinson’s voice is cut off but especially considering that in the original, the lick in D is followed by another bar of D.15 Another version of the turnaround uses a passage from Robinson’s second verse, which in the original features a progression from D to Dmaj7 to G. The transition from Dmaj7 to G can be interpreted as a V-I progression, a progression used extensively in popular music leading up to a resolution. Although the D chord is not dominant,16 it still strongly anticipates the resolution on the I chord. In Two Worlds Apart, the resolution never takes place, as the progression moves from Dmaj7 back to the familiar lick in D. This is a very telling example of Sneads ‘deferred goals’ and ‘cuts back to the start’. Little Simz’ revision of the old R&B hit dissolves past and present into one timeless flow, it exists as a reconciliating intertext, a dialogue of sorts. She situates herself neither above, nor below those who came before her, but within the same continuum.

Interestingly, the dialogue takes place on a verbal level as well. Essentially, Two Worlds Apart is a duet between Smokey Robinson and Little Simz, made possible by the technique of sampling. At several points throughout the track, the lyrics of both singers complement each other, whereby Little Simz reverses the original meaning by exchanging certain passages of the old song for her own lines. The first instance is Little Simz’ line

Please let go of all your troubles when you’re here with me and – followed by Smokey Robinson’s “you’ll be free, no, no”. What implies liberation and a healthy relationship in the new song, was an expression of agony in the old one. Robinson’s line “I’ll never from you be free” provides only the raw material, the building blocks for Little Simz message. What emerges is a statement in its own right. The same occurs in the bridge, which loops the section from The Agony and The Ecstasy where Smokey Robinson sings: “How did our two worlds entwine?” [00:18]. In Little Simz’ song, the line is radically cut to feature only “our to worlds ent-“, which she then complements with her own “apart”, again reversing the original meaning. The very title of the song is an amalgam of the two singers words, whose lives and textual creations are at the same time worlds apart and delicately entwined. In this text then, language, both musical and linguistic, “is shown to be […] exactly what is there, not what is elsewhere: It is of desire, not of meaning” (Snead 1981, p. 153). Signifiers are exposed as being indefinite and floating, but not completely arbitrary. Parts of Smokey Robinson’s tune are repeated simply “because the material is beautiful” (Williams 2015, p. 217), not because of their specific meaning. They are repeated for the sake of repetition, because the voice and melody are worth listening to again. But they are consciously chosen. The permutation of texts in Two Worlds Apart is a curated one. The artists exhibit certain passages and in the way they choose to arrange them, their intervention becomes visible. What is more, they add their own work to create a colourful collage, sometimes substituting, sometimes reinforcing the original composition: For the outro, the verse-loop is released, letting the original song continue before culminating in a repeated “and I love you”, which is not contested but actively affirmed by Little Simz’ adlibs.

Both Little Simz and Inflo are pretty much aware of the controversy around sampling and create Two Worlds Apart in an environment that is shaped by public discourse, lawsuits and the decisions of other artists. In order to avoid trouble, only one song has been sampled and the sample has undoubtedly been cleared. But the decision to choose a recognizable song, to autosonically quote it and to highlight the quotation both by textually signalling it and by contrasting it against the other songs on the album is inherently defiant. On Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, Little Simz has proven that she doesn’t need samples to create an instrumental bed to rap over. Including one anyway is an act of resistance in the face of voices that continue to discredit the musical validity of Hip Hop. As she connects with her musical influences on a public stage, she normalizes repetition and shows that the ‘unoriginal’ can in fact be highly innovative.

4.2 Allosonic and not textually signalled

Darkness in Mind by Kassa Overall feat. Sullivan Fortner approaches sampling differently. The track is based on Chopin’s Prélude in E minor, Op. 28, No. 4 but doesn’t use any specific recording. Instead, jazz pianist Sullivan Fortner interprets the piece, abstracting from the written sheet music, adding own phrases and extending the original composition by repeating several parts. Kassa lifts the melody from Chopin’s piece and moulds his own lyrics on it.

Every track on Darkness in Mind – from analogue and digital drums to the subtle strings in the background – has been recorded specifically for the song, making it an “allosonic quotation” (Lacasse 2000, pp. 35-38). The mixing is smooth and mostly refrains from Hip Hop-specific techniques, consequently, the borrowing is not exactly “textually signalled”. It should however be noted that the Prélude is a famous piece known from blockbusters such as The Pianist. When Kassa Overall incorporates it in his work, he is well aware that listeners might recognize the melody. He is neither claiming it as his own, nor is he hurting the sales of the original composer - Chopin has been dead for almost two centuries now.

In spite of its smooth mixing, the track manages to stay true to its genre. Where the Prélude immediately jumps into the main theme, Fortner repeats the first note with increased urgency. He defers and anticipates the beginning of the song and then suddenly mutes the sound, which feels like a ‘cut’. But – repetition doesn’t enter the song by dint of the modification by a rap artist. It was there all along. The main theme of the Prélude is a motif that moves down in half tone steps, from C all the way down to F. The listener would expect the melody to then move further down to E, but instead, Chopin returns to C, starting the sequence over. Kassa just picks up on the trend and ‘modernizes’ the piece by lyrically superimposing a verse-chorus structure. He makes the music his own by building on the melody to tell his story. The heart-wrenching sadness of the composition perfectly complements his words:

But the darkness of my mind And the love thereof describes the beauty in melancholy, something that he (and probably many others) found in Chopin’s Prélude. But he doesn’t just use the melody and harmonies. He transforms them and adds to them rhythm (drums), timbre (strings), bass and most notably his own voice as an expressive instrument [03:27]: what Tricia Rose identifies as the defining characteristics of Afrodiasporic music (Rose 1994, p. 65 ff.). He uses the basic structure of the piano piece and fills in the gaps with dense polyrhythmic structures and muffled bass frequencies that escalate the emotional tension contained in the original. Sullivan Fortner’s playful solo [01:52] moves into the background, it clears the stage for the rhythm section. Although still present in the mix, it could as well be a jazz sample. A filter makes the piano chords sound faint, while the 808 kick drum blows up whatever speaker the listener may use. However, when the main theme is picked up again [03:29], the piano is once again the only instrument that is playing, regaining its full expressiveness. While highlighting the recurrence of the melody already familiar to the listener, the sequence is also a homage to Chopin. Stripped of all extra layers it becomes one of many performances of the original piano solo piece.

Before concluding his Prélude with an authentic cadence ending on E minor (the I chord), Chopin creates tension by suspending the progression that the listener anticipates and desires. It is precisely this passage that Kassa Overall extends, looping two bars and repeating them over and over. On top of this re-recorded sample he once again layers multiple drum patterns (among them the hi-hat triplets that are defining to the trap sound) and sings “Oh, I’ll wait for you” in a gloomy and broken voice. Here, the specific emotional charge of Chopin’s piece is transported to the new creation, text and melodic structure complement each other. What in the Prélude sounds like ‘longing’ is taken rather literal by Kassa and is extended to reach peak gravity before the track ends on the same cadence as the original – almost a cliché.

Kassa Overall, MC, producer and drummer, stands for a tendency in contemporary ‘AlternaRap’17 to transgress boundaries – boundaries between musical professions as well as boundaries between genres. Kassa, who has had formal musical training, uses sampling as a tool to transport the meaning of Chopin’s Prélude wholesale. He taps into the emotional reservoir of the original and masterfully builds on it. He melts Western classical music and Hip Hop into a hybrid which “neutralizes” the original text by demonstrating that it does not have to be ‘pure’ to be beautiful. And he demonstrates the power of the public domain. Classical compositions are not subject to copyright,18 because the composers are long gone. What remains of them are their ideas, free to use, detached from the race of their authors. Hip Hop artists who pick up on them ultimately show what Snead (1981) theorized upon:

The outstanding fact of the late-twentieth-century European culture is its ongoing reconciliation with black culture. The mystery may be that it took so long to discern the elements of black culture already there in latent form, and to realize that the separation between the cultures was perhaps all along not one of nature, but of force. (p. 153)

5. Conclusion

With the rise of streaming services and platforms such as YouTube and, more recently, TikTok, the number and variety of cultural products has exploded. Reception and transformation are easier than ever and the economic relevance of creative industries is increasing still. Such an environment makes for heated debates about the building blocks of creativity. In societies that seems to have lost their sense of identity, not only financial stakes are high: How to approach intellectual property becomes a deeply ideological question.

Nowhere is the struggle for dominant meanings as fervent as in the realm of music with its finite number of notes and rhythmic patterns. Obviously, you cannot own the C major chord or the 4/4 meter. But what about a particularly sticky melody, what about a unique timbre? In the realm of music, “Repetition Legitimizes” is an actual concept upon which theorists and youtubers alike elaborate. 19 When Hip Hop – and with it the technique of sampling – gained popularity and commercial viability, a break occurred on different levels. For one, sampling made repetition very obvious, because it lifted every single detail of the relevant passage from the original record. It brought into broad daylight what musicians had been doing in the shadows all along. And secondly, young African-Americans openly celebrated that repetition instead of covering it up. They employed impressive technological ingenuity precisely to loop the same breaks, to keep the beat going. Because this seemed so audacious and – of course – because there was money to be made, copyright lawsuits became commonplace. Patent trolls eventually bought musical catalogues just to sue artists who use the material while in many cases, the sampled artists didn’t even profit from the record companies’ raids.

Confronted with a judicial system disjunct from social reality, Hip Hop artists had to adjust their production modes, but they never unconditionally surrendered to legal pressures. Amongst the genre dominating trap beats, samples stand out all the more, a defiant political message by their mere existence. In the ways sampling artists engage with their musical roots and prioritize black cultural concerns by emphasising and celebrating repetitive elements, they continue to shift cultural discourses. Their unbridled musical curiosity has them transgressing genre boundaries and linking up cultural fields that used to exist in separate universes. If the postmodern realization that intertextuality is a vital characteristic of any vibrant societies’ cultural products comes to be widely accepted, Hip Hop artists will have played their part. If we as a society are to become less territorial and possessive with regard to our ideas, if we are to accept that copying, transforming and combining elements is necessary to create the public domain we all want to draw our inspiration from, Hip Hop is where we can start to look at. Future research might want to further examine how the artistic vision of rap music, its musical workings maybe even more than its lyrics, comes into effect in the broader cultural sphere. Because, far more than music genre, Hip Hop continues to be a movement, a philosophy, a way to look at the world. As Dead Prez have said it: It’s bigger than Hip Hop.

6. Sources

6.1 Literature

Kristeva, Julia; Roudiez, Leon S.; Gora, Thomas; Jardine, Alice (Eds.). (1980). Desire in language. A semiotic approach to literature and art. New York: Columbia University Press ((European perspectives)).

Lacasse, Serge (2000). Intertextuality and Hypertextuality in Recorded Popular Music. In: Michael Talbot (Ed.): The musical work. Reality or invention? Liverpool: Liverpool University Press (Liverpool Music Symposium, 1), pp. 35–58.

McLeod, Kembrew (Ed.). (2011). Creative License. The Law and Culture of Digital Sampling. Durham: Duke University Press.

Middleton, Richard. (2002). Studying popular music. 1. publ., repr. Milton Keynes: Open Univ. Press.

Orr, Mary. (2003). Intertextuality. Debates and contexts. 1. publ. Cambridge: Polity.

Potter, Russell A. (1995). Spectacular Vernaculars. Hip-Hop and the Politics of Postmodernism. Albany: State University of New York Press (SUNY Series in Postmodern Culture Ser).

Rose, Tricia. (1994). Black Noise. Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Middletown, Conneticut: Wesleyan University Press.

Snead, James A. (1981). On Repetition in Black Culture. In: Black American Literature Forum 15 (4), pp. 146-153. DOI: 10.2307/2904326.

Whitehead, Kevin. (2011). Why jazz? A concise guide. New York: Oxford University Press.

Williams, Justin A. (2013). Rhymin' and stealin'. Musical borrowing in hip-hop. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press (Tracking pop).

Williams, Justin A. (2015). Intertextuality, sampling, and copyright. In: Justin A. Williams (Hg.): The Cambridge Companion to Hip-Hop, 21/10. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (Cambridge companions online), pp. 206–220.

6.2 Internet Sources

Curto, J. (2021, September 16). You’ve Never Heard Little Simz Like This. The rapper breaks down every song on her career-redefining new album, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert. Vulture.

Little Simz (2021, September 3 ). Little Simz - Two Worlds Apart (Official Audio) [Video]. YouTube.

Smokey Robinson (2018, November 28). The Agony And The Ecstasy [Video]. YouTube.

Bronswood Recordings (2020, February 28). Kassa Overall - Darkness In Mind feat. Sullivan Fortner [Video]. YouTube.

Aldona Dvarionaitė – Topic (2021, May 13). 24 Préludes, Op. 28 No. 4, Largo in E Minor [Video]. YouTube.

Kirby Ferguson (2016, May 17). Everything is a Remix Remastered (2015 HD) [Video]. YouTube.

HOT 97 (2016, August 19). Grandmaster Flash Talks "The Theory" Of Being A HipHop DJ & The Beginnings Of Hip-Hop!! [Video]. YouTube.

Musescore (n.d.). Prélude Opus 28 No. 4 in E Minor – Chopin. Retrieved January 22, 2022, from


1 In an effort to make the Viennese Central Cemetery more popular, authorities developed the ‘grave of honour’ as a tourist attraction. Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Schubert were even moved from their prior resting places at Währinger Ostfriedhof.

2 I myself borrowed this term from Nietzsche because I find the combination of words suitable for the given context. By doing so I do not want to invoke the philosophical concept with all strings attached, just to maybe encourage an afterthought into that direction.

3 Of course, we are talking about tendencies. Dividing lines are increasingly blurry as a result of both appropriation and coalescence.

4 "a stock pattern or phrase" (Middleton 2002, p. 137) consisting of a short series of notes used in solos and melodic lines and accompaniment

5 passage heavily inspired by Kirby Fergusons video essay “Everything is a Remix”

6 The first sampler to use pulse-code modulation (the standard form of digitally encoded audio in computers) was Toshiba's LMD-649, created in 1981 and famously used by Yellow Magic Orchestra and other Japanese synthpop artists. However, the majority of working musicians, let alone kids from America’s underprivileged boroughs, could not afford such technology. It was not until the late 80s that samplers such as the E-mu SP-1200 became affordable, even then mostly because of its weaknesses – weaknesses that went on to define the sound of New York hip hop still emulated today.

7 An expression made popular by Isaac Newton who himself lifted it from Bernard of Chatres

8 In a talk with Hot 97 FM, Grandmaster Flash explains how he created the “peekaboo system”, a technological workaround that made it possible to listen in on the records over headphones to exactly time the start of the break. He also recalls the invention of the scratch by Grandwizard Theodore and gives an insight into what it meant to be a Hip Hop DJ in the early days: Having a broad knowledge of the records of the time and of the structure of each single record; as in the actual physical LP (what BPM is it in, where does the break start, etc).

9 Notably, the first Hip Hop records didn’t use actual samples but recreated the instrumental parts, such as the bassline from CHIC’s Good Times for the Sugar Hill Gang’s Rappers Deligt.

10 The general rule is that copyright is in effect for the lifespan of the author plus 70 years. For works by corporate authors the period can be up to 120 years after the creation.

11 There are two different copyrights: one protecting the musical composition and the other protecting one specific recording. Instrumentalists like drummers (who arguably are most prominently featured in Hip Hop samples) will almost never have songwriter credits, excluding them from half of the possible compensation ex ante.

12 The album has repeatedly been placed on lists of the greatest albums of all time, but to this day is not available for streaming – samples were only cleared for release on cassette and vinyl and Warner Bros has been reluctant to tackle the issue.

13 „Bridgeport Music Inc. Is a company of one man who buys the rights to various music catalogues and sues those who use the material without license” (Williams 2015, p. 212). 500 lawsuits were filed in 2001 alone.

14 Notably also supervising the pseudonymous British music project SAULT. The collective doesn’t name its collaborators, centring the aspect of communal creation.

15 It could even be argued that Inflos use of repetition is more ‘transformative’ than for example Olivia Rodrigo’s in good 4 u which uses the same chord progression as Misery Business from Paramore (who are also given songwriting credits). But then again, the debate is pointless as both Two Worlds Apart and good 4 u are great tracks beloved by their audiences and both credit their inspiration.

16 The ‚classic‘ ii-V-I moves from minor ii, to dominant V, to major I

17 Shout out to Spotify whose playlist names now define entire genres

18 The recordings are, though, which probably is one of the reasons why Kassa chose to work with a professional pianist for his re-interpretation.

19 Adam Neely is a good starting point.

19 of 19 pages


An exploration into the cultural politics of repetition through the lens of the hip hop sample
Everything is a Remix
University of Mannheim
Catalog Number
ISBN (Book)
Rap music, Hip Hop, Cultural Studies, Postmodernism, Poststructuralism, Intertextuality, Copyright
Quote paper
Lena Christ (Author), 2021, An exploration into the cultural politics of repetition through the lens of the hip hop sample, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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