Dave's Disco Connections: Joey Negro Goes Dot to Dot with His Favourite Samples
A UK house luminary gives us the lowdown on the politics and pleasures of sampling.
Dave Lee's better known to most of us as Joey Negro, a man forever entwined with the story of house music's emergence in the United Kingdom. From setting up Rough Trade's dance division, Demix, in 1986 to releasing disco-tinged cuts on labels as vital as Azuli, Nu Groove and Transmat, Lee's importance and influence can't be overstated. In addition to releasing his own material and playing out for the past twenty odd years, he's also an adept talent-spotter and crate digger, assembling classic compilations and magnificent mixes for the likes of Strut and his own Z Records imprint. Ahead of his installment of Defected's House Masters compilation series, Lee decided to give us the low down on the art of sampling.
The basic rule of sampling is that if a track starts to show signs of getting big, labels will rush to license it and clear the offending sample, or samples, in question. Take a track like "American Dream" which I released under my Jakatta alias. That one used a few bits from the American Beauty soundtrack by Thomas Newman and a spoken word accapella lifted from Stacey Q's "Two of Hearts". With a track like that, things get complex in terms of legal logistics. Both parties who've been sampled want a cut of the profits. Thing is, there's only 100% to go around so when you've got two people asking for a 75% cut, obviously, things aren't going to work out so easily. Though in my experience they are normally more reasonable about percentages of publishing if there is another sampled work then if the artist is trying to get some of the writer's share.
In terms of actually working with those samples, before I had to worry about majors, clearance rights and striking deals, I went to see American Beauty and loved it, bought the soundtrack and I was just playing it out at home and thought a little section of one of the tracks would work over a house beat. I took it to the studio and I got round to doing it on a quiet day. Then I added the Stacey Q spoken word vocal over it, put it out on a white label, called it "American Booty" and it did OK, sold a couple of thousand but didn't set the world on fire. Then I re-edited it, added this chanting Indian vocal, fleshed it out a bit and that was the version that took off. Ministry of Sound got involved and cleared the samples.
Often people don't know how to clear samples. I'll get people messaging me on Facebook asking about how you actually go about doing it. If you're a small label and you want to clear something on a major label it can be quite daunting. People don't really know the protocol. It can take up to a year sometimes. Often they have to send your track to the original artist and they've got to find the time to listen to it and they might have a big pile of stuff to clear and you get lost. You've also got to clear the sound recording as well as the publishing side of things, which are often with different companies. If you're signed to someone like MOS or a big label it can be quicker because they're familiar with the process and do it all the time.
Samples don't have to be the short snippets like they used to be in the days when samplers only had seven second memory. Think about a song like Whitney Houston's "Million Dollar Bill" which borrows a Loleatta Holloway track, "We're Getting Stronger". Most people might know her from being sampled on "Ride on Time" by Black Box. This one just uses the instrumental track and not the vocals. The Whitney version isn't really much more than a re-edit with a new song written over the top of it, hence it sounding so authentic. They didn't really add drums, it's pretty much what it was. That's why it sounds so organic - because it is.
People often think of sampling as taking stuff from dusty old 7"s but a lot of records sample really contemporary stuff. I really like that Oliver $ and Jimi Jules tune, "Pushing On", which puts together a vocal from an Alice Russell tune – which was a funky, James Brown kind of thing – with the music from the intro of "William's Blood" by Grace Jones. They just work together really well. The vocal sounds like it's a raw street funk track from the early 70s. Sampling a vocal can be tricky. If acapellas have a tonne of harmonies it's really hard to work with. Single voices are a tad easier. Certain records you hear used in mashups a lot, are single voices. That's why spoken word vocals are popular for samples - there's no key. They work over anything.
You've got to be artful about vocals though. Basically I don't want to look at a track title and be able to guess what it's going to sample. The first volume of the famous Accapella Anonymous bootleg LP came out in '88 and all it was stuffed with the vocal tracks from all these classic disco cuts – "Ride on Time", "Son Of a Gun" and many others came from here. The ones on there have now been absolutely rinsed. Thing is, though, I'm a lot older than people who've just got into house, or are in their mid 20s. For me, it's boring because I heard the first wave of tracks that sampled them and the avalanche that followed. But if you've not heard 50 songs that use the same vocal then maybe it's exciting. It's like these new records that sound like 90s garage. I heard a lot of that at the time. If it sounds interesting and exciting then of course great, good music is good music - but if it sounds like an average track from back then then I can't get too excited about it.
I can get excited about a sample to this day, especially when it takes you a little time to work out what it is. I think, though, my favourite sample tracks are the ones where I end up working backwards. If I know the original well I might think, "yeah, good idea" but I don't get that buzz out of it. Like I would hearing that piece of music for the first time. You end up missing the 'other bit'. Unless someone's done something amazing with it I tend to prefer the original.
Something like Kenny Dope's "The Bomb!" gives you that buzz. It samples Chicago's "Street Player" to wicked effect. That's a classic New York tune by a group most mainstream punters only know for their ballad "If You Leave Me Now" but they were a pretty tight, funky white jazz soul group. "Street Player" is their most obvious disco outing - it's a cover of an early track by Rufus. To be fair to Rufus, who made some great records, Chicago definitely did the vastly superior version. Most of the bits Kenny Dope sampled were bits that Chicago added to their arrangement. Which was weird because even though that's the case, the guy who wrote the original got all the publishing, David Wolinski, who also wrote "Fate" for Chaka Khan which Stardust sampled on "Music Sounds Better with You" so he did alright out of sampling!
I think something like "The Bomb!" was definitely a record that wasn't made to be a hit. It was so underground and it just so happened to go from being a pure club track to a really, really popular crossover hit. Sometimes the best dance records, the hit ones, are the ones that aren't made to be commercial. Over the course of a few months of club play it just grew and grew in popularity. It has a really long intro which built up anticipation. It's a pretty original arrangement, one of those expectation records. That's the power a sample has on the dancefloor. You wait and wait for it. And there it is.
Joey Negro's House Masters compilation is out now on Defected