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​How To Piece Together an Album From 10,000 Different Samples

'Indians & Cowboys' is stitched together from bits of music from 75 different countries.
December 22, 2015, 11:00am
Image courtesy of Den Sorte Skole

Copenhagen-based DJ and production duo Den Sorte Skole is out with a new record, Indians & Cowboys, that fuses together a staggering 10,000 samples mined from 400 records across 75 countries around the world.

The album is making a political statement about broken copyright law, and, you could argue, redefining world music in the process. The sample fragments, culled from old vinyl records, cover genres as diverse as Middle Eastern dancehall, folk, electronic, noise and psych rock, from countries like Ethiopia, Albania, Congo and China.

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"The idea about sampling from all the different countries is one of our dogmas," the group's Martin Højland told Motherboard.

So how do you go about making an album that's enjoyable in its own right from such an eclectic mix of sources? Well, Indians & Cowboys isn't Den Sorte Skoke's first foray into sampling. As DJs, they often mixed and layered vinyl, which led to two sample-heavy mixtapes, Lektion #1 and Lektion #2, and the fully sample-based album Lektion #3.

They were big fans of DJ Shadow and RJD2, two legendary sample-based producers and DJs, but didn't want to just replicate those artists. "We put up some rules," said Højland. "One of those rules was to sample as many different musical cultures as possible—a thing that had become much more possible with the internet."

Through the web, the group could research and buy vinyl records from all over the world, growing their sample base. They added to this vinyl base by looking for obscure blogs hosting interesting music downloads, and then went out and found the vinyl version to add to the mix.

"When we look for samples, we look for isolated instruments or vocals—small passages where a flute, a kick drum, a bass note, a piano note and guitar melody lies all alone by itself, with no other sounds disturbing," said Simon Dokkedal, the other half of Den Sorte Skole. "Then it is perfect for sampling."

They also look for interesting non-musical sounds and textures like field recordings, mechanical noise, and early experiments in electronic music. All of it becomes, as Dokkedal explained, part of a "musical treasury" or archive they built on Serato Scratch, vinyl emulation software, which was the starting point for Indians & Cowboys.

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The duo used the digital audio workstation Cubase to cut the samples and compose each track. They also used vintage hardware like the Roland SP-404 sampler and a Roland Space Echo tape delay for effects. And a lot of the album's effects were created in producer 2000F's Moremax Studio, using the Yamaha E1010 and Lexicon PCM42 for delay, and the Great British Spring for reverb.

Unlike many other sample artists, the group doesn't manipulate the pitch of the samples to be in the same key. "We find that a very interesting expression evolves when we match stuff across time and space that is literally tuned the exact same way—maybe even off-key in the same way," Højland said.

The average listener will no doubt be able to spot some samples throughout Indians & Cowboys, some more obvious than others. But many of the 10,000 bits of sampled music and field recordings will be largely invisible because of Den Sorte Skole's seamless stitching.

In fact, you might be fooled into thinking that Dokkedal and Højland are playing instruments, or, as they imagine above, directing a studio orchestra like Phil Spector or Brian Wilson. In that sense, the album's sonic assemblage resembles the kaleidoscopic and psychedelic pastiche of The Avalanches classic sample-based album Since I Left You, though not as frantic or dance floor-ready.

"We wanted to combine the analogue, warm energies of the 70s samples with a more rough and for some parts industrial and almost mechanical sound," said Højland. "At the same time we had this crush on the atmospheres and energies from indigenous peoples, so we looked for samples from old field recordings from the Amazon, for instance. So that intersection between something ancient and tribal, warm and handheld, rough and noisy, futuristic and computer-like was the vision for the sound this time."

"The ambition is to make it sound like it hasn't been sampled, like a real band or orchestra with many many different members," Højland said. "But I think the main thing that differentiates our sound from most other sample-based music is that it is so eclectic and diverse."

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In a way, the record is redefining "world music" as not just music from Mali, Thailand or Finland, but music sampled and reconstructed from around the world, and unified in the process. The album artwork lists the source of every sample snippet on Indians & Cowboys, which the duo hopes will bring attention to the international artists.

"An Indian Bollywood vocal that is unknown to me, is very well known to a lot of Indians," said Højland. "We always search for what's unknown to us and by doing this, we inevitably help to put some focus on artists that maybe haven't gotten the amount of musical attention that they deserve."

A fragment of the full list of sample sources. Courtesy of Den Sorte Skole

Den Sorte Skole intentionally didn't obtain legal clearance for any of the samples that make up Indians & Cowboys—a decision they said was as much politically motivated as it is was an artistic impulse.

"Our music is inherently political because it's illegal, and we deliberately chose to continue on this path to challenge the system," Højland said. "To make sample-based music so musically convincing and from so many and so small building blocks that it's difficult to argue against it from an artistic point of view, and thereby putting focus on a flawed system that needs to change."

The group isn't really worried about lawsuits; the copyright issue has been part of their story since Lektion #1, and their native country, Denmark, has come to respect the work and the method. But Dokkedal said all it takes is one greedy copyright holder to take Den Sorte Skole down in the future.

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"We made it pretty easy for them by revealing our sample sources, so we can't really deny anything, but so far, so good," said Dokkedal. "And actually we get letters once in while from old musicians that we have sampled, that are super excited about it. That means a lot to us. The worst scenario is definitely if some of the original artists approach us, because they find our work with their original material artistically poor or even insulting."

Sampling as a musical practice generates a heavily binary view. On the one hand there's the music industry, which if it isn't suing artists for copyright is either extracting a pretty penny for the samples or categorically saying no to clearance attempts. And then there are the musicians who see sampling as an art form, which it most certainly is, regardless of legal definitions.

Two records stand out as sampling masterpieces: The Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique and The Avalanches' Since I Left You. The first came out in 1989, two years before the landmark case Grand Upright Music v. Warner Bros. Records changed the sampling landscape forever. Since I Left You hit the radio in 2000 with a brand of kaleidoscopic and psychedelic disco-pop. But both The Beastie Boys and The Avalanches ultimately cleared the samples. But other artists, like Girl Talk (aka Gregg Michael Gillis) and perhaps even J Dilla on his classic album Donuts, did not.

Højland said it's important to understand that the issue of sampling in the music industry is a matter of money and privilege—if a musician has money or corporate backing, they can sample legally. Plus it's often the big labels, not the artists, that own the rights.

He characterized the issue of copyright and even the fundamental belief in individual property rights as dominant, uncontested societal structures, but deeply flawed.

"Many of the most important challenges confronting this world, from climate change to poverty to refugees, simply cannot be dealt with appropriately without are more balanced and collective or communal view on ownership," Højland said. "And if our music can play just a tiny part in changing this, we would be very proud."