The Big Sample | Year In Review | Chicago Reader

The Big Sample 

"That's Sgt. Pepper," I said. "No," said the kid, "that's my new album."

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I took the call in my car, made a U-turn on Santa Monica, and headed back toward Century City. It was nearly Christmas, in the midst of the coldest winter we'd had in ten years. I had the heater on, which made the car run like a diesel truck.

My name is Hathaway. I'm what you would call a private eye, I guess, though I have a rather specialized clientele: the thousands of conniving, paranoid greedheads who make up the record business in LA. With a little luck, I've had some successes. It was me that found Jerry Garcia in a coma, just about 30 seconds before the start of that never-ending jam in the sky. Another big favor I did the world: Someone made off with the masters to Whitney Houston's second album. Clive Davis said he'd make me the godfather of his child if I found them. I did--at the home of a fanatical collector who knew more than you'd ever want to know about 50 pop stars and around 20 guns to boot. I took the tapes and his guns, but didn't bother to turn him in. Instead I accidentally let it get out that he was still running around loose; the knowledge that guys like him are out there helps keep a lid on things in LA. I gave Davis back the tapes, but haven't heard from him lately.

I also have another sort of rep: less action, more problem solving. Again, it's not that big a deal--in LA, Paula Abdul is considered to be quite the mistress of the brainwaves. But I did tell Bono that The Juniper Bush was not the right name for a breakout album. So when people have a problem, they call me.

Which explains why I was walking into this Century City office on the coldest morning I could remember. I can't tell you what label it was, or the name of the guy whose office I was in. I can't even tell you the name of the kid he pushed in front of me when I walked in the door. But you'd know them all. In a second. The kid had sold ten million records the year before. The office was the size of a small airplane hangar. Its owner was a thin guy whose painted-on tan couldn't hide the fact that his skin was nearly translucent. He tended to stay near the walls, wraithlike in the shadows. He grinned terribly, so that you could see only his teeth.

The kid sat in front of a desk; three henchmen sat rigidly on a sofa. The wraith had a small cassette in his hand; he kept fumbling it around, like some pathetic executive-suite version of Captain Queeg.

"Mr. Hathaway," said the wraith to those assembled, by way of introduction, "is something like a private investigator, something like a lawyer, and something of an expert on certain aspects"--he spoke with distaste, like he'd swallowed when he hadn't meant to--"certain philosophical aspects of our business. Isn't that right Mr. Hathaway?"

"Well, I--"

"Mr. Hathaway," he said, interrupting, "I want you to listen to something."

He put the tape in a DAT deck and didn't say another word for about 40 minutes. What came out of the speakers, from start to finish, was Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Not the song, the album, the whole thing. It was a little before my time, but I thought it was OK. I listened and thought about how I like it when McCartney yells "Rita!" just before the piano jam on "Lovely Rita." I tried to hear if there was anything different about it. There wasn't.

As the last notes of the chord-to-end-the-world drifted off, the wraith took the tape out of the deck. He stared at the kid. "This is his new album," he said, like a mother showing off her four-year-old's artwork. "He wants us to release it."

"Very funny." I turned to the kid. "I don't get it."

"It's my new album," he said, with a touch of stubbornness.

"No, it's not," I said. "It's Sgt. Pepper. It was recorded about 25 years ago by a group called the Beatles," I added sarcastically.

"No, it's not," said the kid, cool as can be. "It's a sample."

"You're the lawyer," breathed the guy from the shadows. "You can imagine what his contract looks like; he releases what he wants to. He gives us the tape and artwork, and we release it, pausing only to throw truckloads of money at him. Will you," he concluded savagely, "please inform us all what the implications of our releasing this particular album will be?"

Everyone started talking at once.

"It's impossible!" cried factotum A.

"We'll get sued," said factotum B.

"We'll get laughed out of LA." C.

We all sat quietly for a second, contemplating life outside Los Angeles.

The third one started squealing again. "This doesn't count as an album. It's just a replica of another record!"

"It's not a replica," insisted the kid. "It's a sample. There's a difference. If Rick Rubin can lift Zep riffs, and Hammer can take 'Superfreak' and turn it into 'You Can't Touch This,' and Vanilla Ice can take 'Under Pressure' and make 'Ice Ice Baby,' why can't I sample Sgt. Pepper?"

"We won't release it!" crowed C, out of control.

"Fine," said the kid. "I'll take it to Geffen."

Pandemonium. The wraith took a languid swipe at the operative who'd spoken out of turn; it must have been like getting kissed by a vampire, and he shut right up. The kid's feathers were smoothed, and everyone tried to relax.

"Wait a bit, now," cooed our host. "This is why Mr. Hathaway's here: so you can release your album, and I . . ." He didn't finish the thought.

"Mr. Hathaway, what do you think?"

I looked around the room. Jesus, what a bunch. A punk kid and four guys who'd sell their own kids into slavery to keep this one on the label.

"We're dealing with a pretty complicated issue," I began. I was still standing, because no one had offered me a chair. I decided to start out slow, a good thing to do in this business. I've found that industry types get uneasy when you start using words bigger than "money," "Porsche," or "lunch."

"The first problem is that this is all a new area, and there's no real law. Strictly read, copyright law might simply prohibit any kind of sampling without express permission from the owner of the original work; but there's a strong feeling that once a serious court takes on the issue, anything could happen. The legislative implications," I continued, "are scary. This is a nation of people who think the remote controls for their TVs are getting too complicated. It's an easy issue to play to the cheap seats with--across the country and in Congress--and it might not be long before someone does it.

"There's a lot of not-very-latent hostility to the very idea of sampling. Among dumber people it tends to be viewed racially; it's another way to dump on rap, which is still viewed as black music. It bugs white parents that their kids eat the stuff up. But sampling's not really popular anywhere. It makes record companies nervous, and no one else really understands it.

"I was on an industry panel just a week or so ago. Some clown from Warners started talking about how sampling was unmusical, didn't really involve creativity and so forth. I jumped all over him. I said that 'Ice Ice Baby' was a better song than Bowie or Queen had released in about 50 years. What's wrong with that song being sampled, I said, when every hack rock band in the world is going to repeat the same old three-chord riff until we all decide to put ourselves out of our misery. Said that pond-scum major-label employees should maybe just shut the fuck up and be thankful society doesn't decide to use them for cosmetic experimentation."

"Now hold on just one minute." Henchman B. "I don't think it follows to say that just because you work for a major record label your intellectual opinions are necessarily invalid."

He looked around for support. There was a moment of silence as everybody considered the issue.

"The point," I continued, "is that if you release the album, and if Paul McCartney sues you, you're going to have to argue that it's not a rip-off, it's art."

"Can we make such an argument?" The wraith.

"Sure. I would argue that there's an authentic process of decontextualization going on here. That's a big word, but stay with me. A riff exists, part of a discrete whole. The sampler then removes it--or, importantly, part of it--wrenching it out of its proper place, and sticks it into a new one, a new context that transforms it."

I paused. "Do understand," I said, "that I'm using the words like 'proper' here stripped of any sort of positive connotation. Current theory would hold that the concept of sampling invalidates those sort of judgments."

The factotums were looking at me wildly. The kid looked bored. The wraith hummed from the shadows like a missile about to go off.

"We understand, Mr. Hathaway. Please continue."

"OK. So we have a process of de- and then recontextualization, and if we keep all our judgments value-neutral, it's an interesting process right there. But let's think about what a particular sample means. With the Zep riffs that dominated the Beastie Boys' first album, Rick Rubin practically singlehandedly rehabilitated Led Zeppelin; that giant guitar riff on 'She's Crafty' is implicitly approving. The sample is saying, in effect, 'What a motherfucking great guitar sound!' Or here's a better example: On the 3rd Bass album they swipe the synth riff from Gary Wright's 'My Love Is Alive' on the song 'Wordz of Wizdom.'

"Now, there're a number of things going on here. First of all, it's a blast from your past--Oh, yeah, what was that song? Then you remember and say, wait a minute, that was an awful song. But then you say, yeah, but that's a cool riff nonetheless.

"That's how it might work on me. The great thing is that other interpretations are possible. A kid who misses progressive rock is going to think either 'Hey, that's cool, they like Gary Wright too!' or 'How dare they steal that!' It doesn't matter which; the act of sampling remains confrontational and sharp.

"Now, I think that's an amazing process. It's almost like trash-picking; it's discovering discarded, forgotten treasures. And if this is indeed the process, even a marginal song like 'My Love Is Alive' is being treated not like a song, but as something iconic, something culturally indelible. It recalls what Andy Warhol did with the Campbell's Soup can. The riff is essentially unchanged, but it becomes something different."

The ghost in the shadows stirred. "Mr. Hathaway, I'd like it very much if you would make a substantive point germane to the matter at hand."

"Fine," I said. "What I'm saying is, we'd argue in court that the kid's doing the same thing, only on a grander scale. So maybe he wasn't born when Sgt. Pepper came out. He's making a point about the record's continuing influence; he's saying that even a new generation of performers like himself have to deal with it--or at least symbolically dispose of it. And you have to admit that the process of sampling has a particularly trenchant force given the record he's doing it to, itself a technological icon. Surely you can appreciate the irony of its now, more than 20 years later, being sampled."

C knew he was buried, but he couldn't help himself. "But it's . . . it's Sgt. Pepper!"

I was ready for him. "Please, don't get all weepy on me. Capitol Records cheerfully prostituted the hell out of it for their big 20th-anniversary release of the CD version. They remastered it for disc; you could say that was the real violation. You might say Sgt. Pepper doesn't actually exist anymore, at least not on CD. The kid here could argue that he's actually restoring the thing to something approaching its original condition."

"See? See?" said the kid, all excited, like he'd just found an alibi. "I told you. I told you!" He scowled at the factotums, then turned to me. "So I can release the album?"

I cuffed him upside the head. "Of course not. I said I could argue the case, I didn't say I could win it in front of a jury of normal people. Look at you--they'd strip you down to your socks, if you were wearing any. You'd be left with your variety of irritating personal characteristics and not much more. And our pals here would be back doing promo work in Kansas City."

The kid held on. "I don't care," he said petulantly. The factotums did a slow burn. The wraith hovered in the shadows and seemed to disappear.

"Yes, you do." I said. I pulled him out of his chair and headed him toward the door. "Besides, you'd get laughed out of LA."

We took the elevator down together. "What the fuck was that all about?" I said.

The kid leaned into the corner of the car. He shrugged. "I don't know. I just wanted to fuck with them. I have another album already done." He sighed. "I'll give it to them next week."

We went out into the lobby; through the glass you could practically see the cold. I watched a clown in a uniform dash to get a limousine door open for the kid. I looked for my Honda.

"Hey, shamus!"

Shamus? It was the kid. Jesus, I thought. "What?"

"What about Milli Vanilli? Should they give back the Grammy?"

He looked interested, like he really wanted to know.

"Of course not," I said. "They did what they were told. They earned it."

The door closed behind him. I bunched up my shoulders and walked off into the cold.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Pablo Montes O'Neill.

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