deep dives

Why is Contemporary Commercial Club Music So Indebted to Lazy Sampling?

Let's knock down the house that jack built and rebuilt and built again.

by Josh Baines
11 August 2015, 12:05pm

I try and stay positive, I really do. I try and keep upbeat in the face of blaring, bludgeoning mediocrity. I try to remember there's a Pender Street Steppers for every Pendulum, a Gerd Janson for every Galantis, a Jack J for every Jack U. Things aren't so bad, I mumble to myself, wearily dragging my husk onto the bus each morning. There is hope, there are possibilities, things don't have to be the way they seem.

Still, it only takes one little thing to ruin a pompous tosser like me's day. Recent mood-wreckers include a disappointing ham sandwich, Channel 4's Benefits Street, and all my t-shirts shrinking ever so slightly in the wash. Most of them I get over by the time I crawl into bed — I can just mute the word "selfie" on Twitter, I don't have to read Simon Jenkins' column in the Evening Standard, no one's actually forcing kale chips down my throat. Some, though, have the potential to smash through entire weeks, turning me into an irritable, wretched prick, a Comment is free commenter fleshed out into twelve stone of wasted energy. I glare and glower, I sulk and I'm sullen. The R&B sample slapped over the kind of Fruity Loops tutorial, shamelessly shallow-house that practically begs anyone with critical faculties to revert to screeching HUARACHES! ESSEX BOYS! ESSEX BOYS IN HUARACHES! over and over before drowning in a pool of their own ineptly furious saliva is one of them.

What I'm about to say is so painfully obvious that my fingers actually ache but a pertinent point is a pertinent point: dance music needs vocals. While I love chugging instrumental minimalism as much as the next man, there comes a point when I'm practically begging the DJ to feed me something that's recognizably human. I'll take diva wails and macho grunts, sultry subtleties and overt sexuality, anything, really, that reminds me that this isn't music made by machines, but rather the result of people fucking about with machines.

A trainer wearing festival-goer and her friend, refuelling before another Gorgon City set (photo via Antoine K)

Pinging round the internet as I do in my daily attempt to radically reshape dance music discourse, I listen to an ungodly amount of music that's pretty much undeserving of any kind of comment. Lumpen tech house blends into inert D'n'B which mutates into clumpy footwork and desiccated disco and the whole thing starts again day after fucking day. It takes a lot to make a track stand out, for good or bad. The good ones usually click instantly and the truly bad ones — the stinking slop at the bottom of the bin liner — make me want to make Vincent van Gogh look like the half-arsed wuss he was, and this current batch of R&B inflected dross is the ashy, scrambled eggs made by the flatmate you can't stand that slops out of the tatty binbag on your way to the wheelies.

Contemporary commercially leaning club music has a sampling problem. Originality — and at this juncture I want to stress that I don't want to come across as a grandad shouting about the good old days of Proper House Music to a bunch of disinterested youths in an abandoned precinct somewhere in small town England — has been traded in for rundown remakes of songs we all know and love. Turn on Kiss right now and you're likely to hear Sam Feldt's anaemic and utterly pointless cover of the imperious "Show Me Love" by Robin S. This is a record that doesn't need to exist, a record the sucks every ounce of passion, excitment, verve and sheer bloody minded joy out of the original. There's no reason for it to have ever been recorded and that, sadly, is emblematic of where things stand at this moment in time.

While this isn't a new epoch — chart bothering dance music, from "Music Sounds Better With You" to "You Don't Know Me" to "Needin' U" has always leant on the pre-existing — it is a depressing one. Have we slid so desperately into the myth peddled by postmodernists, that the original is no longer a possibility in an age of pastiche and parody, that to even consider the new seems like an impossibility?

For the sake of an argument, let's blame Cyril Hahn and Waze & Odyssey for this*. I have nothing against Waze & Odyssey or Cyril Hahn. Waze & Odyssey are absolutely fine. They did an alright Boiler Room session. They're probably both really nice to their mums. Cyril Hahn probably pays his gas bill on time. But they're responsible for this:

And this:

W&O's tepid take on R Kelly's overplayed and ironized 1994 hit is the kind of lazy, dispiriting record that spawns a thousand shitty imitators, spurred on by the apparent ease of slapping a tune together that does everything with minimal effort. The vocal's pretty much played straight and the Korg M1 melody is a bland approximation of everything MK did the first time round. It just plods along, doing pretty much less than fuck all for four minutes but somehow it manages to make me want to come on like some bedroom bound sixth former who just got really into Dream Theatre at the same time his older brother went through a bassline phase, raging at the 'artificiality' of dance music, claiming I'll never set foot in a club full of "townies".

Hahn's remix is similarly devoid of spark. It's a trundle through a park the local council can't afford to maintain. It's a Sunday night in November. It's unsugared Weetabix. It's Nuneaton.

Sure, there are plenty of predecessors — Le Youth's Cassie sampling damp squib "Cool" comes to mind, as does Huxley's Boyz II Men interpolating "Let It Go", and the evening I spent at an unnamed festival last summer left me feeling like I'd been bashed round the head with a sample-and-snooker-ball stuffed sock, like a ravey Ray Winstone — felt like being battered round the head with the clumpy H&B — and, yes, it can be done well — HNNY's "No" is a perfect example of how a few lines outsourced from a song you thought you knew intimately can take on new resonances, new forms, new identities through reuse — but the majority of this stuff is just...shit.

Songs like Tough Love's "So Freakin' Tight" or "Love Like This" by KANT are proof that the problem lies with the interpreters rather than the source material. Jodeci's "Freak'N You" and Faith Evans' "Love Like This" are both unequivocally good records — the former a slow jam par excellence, the latter the kind of rollerskate jam they just don't make any more. Importantly, both have been put through the remix wringer previously. We don't need to dwell on Fatman Scoop's "Be Faithful" for too long. It's a party record that probably still sounds good at parties if you've never been to a party before. The Jodeci track is a little more interesting. MK's mid-90s take on it is the blueprint for every shitty, underdone, bang-average dripper that's seeping out of car radios from Nantwich to Norwich. As a stand alone song, it's fine, it works, it's functionally effective and, it has to be said, quite fun.

It's that final quality that's missing from this current glut of main stage mainstays. There's nothing fun about "Nobody Else" by Dusky. There's nothing invigorating about Philip George's "Wish You Were Mine". There's nothing to say, at all, about "Freak" by Route 94 and Secondcity, or Duke Dumont's "I Got U'.

These are joyless apparitions, perversely de-sexed anthems for the white-vest-and-Jack-Wilshere-haircut crew, flaccid dicks flapping limply in the breeze. These are the records the Cheeky Nandos generation have chosen as their own.

The thing is, it goes beyond the R&B sample. Sampling, done well, is obviously a Good Thing. It's an effective shortcut, a useful bit of cultural shorthand. It's like eating a really fucking great burger — simple satisfaction delivered simply. Done badly, done clunkily, done without any pretence of artfulness or critique t's basically an under-studied undergraduate desperately quoting from the introductory pages of 15 secondary texts in a failed attempt at looking in control. And who wants to listen to that? Who fucking cares about that?

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*We don't actually blame them for anything and this article expressly expresses the opinions of the author. It does not represent THUMP as a whole.

cyril hahn