How to Sample the Beatles Without Letting Anyone Know
Last weekend I was blasting records on my newly reconfigured turntable set-up. I had been lucky enough to acquire a copy of the Beatles’ self-titled 1968 album — a.k.a. The White Album. In general the album bothers me, not only because I feel that it’s single-handedly responsible for a multitude of crappy double albums in the 1990s…but also because it’s erratic as hell. The album plays more like a collection of different recording sessions than a single cohesive entity.
Strangely I grew up listening to the the album on compact disc. My dad only had a copy of Let It Be, so I didn’t hear The White Album on vinyl until age 25. Back in the day I would repeat three or four songs: “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” as well as the trio of “Blackbird,” “Piggies,” and “Rocky Raccoon.” By the time I got to “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?” — as a pre-teen uncomfortable listening to such a suggestive song around my parents — I would press eject and put in some impotent rock group like Aerosmith or Stone Temple Pilots.
Audio: “Good Night” by the Beatles
Anyway, last weekend I played through all four sides of The White Album, and then the final track on side D came on and broke my brain. It was beautiful and vaguely familiar. I grabbed the packaging to look up its name: “Good Night.” And it’s a fitting name for such a song. The beginning fools you into thinking it might be Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World” (in fact that was released the same year). “Good Night” lifts off like it was arranged to play on repeat at the gates of heaven. An angel calls delicately, a harp rings out, and then the once-quiet violins flare up for a single orgasmic measure. But Ringo interrupts this serene moment with his goofy crooning, leaving one to wonder why they didn’t draw out that sublime violin part.
What’s worse is that I could swear I’d heard these violins before, albeit in a different context. I scanned my internal music index, trying to think of what artist might have sampled this song. Even that put my brain in a pretzel. “Sample the Beatles?” I thought. “Who the hell would be crazy enough to do that? They have the most expensive royalties in the music industry, and the penalties for copyright infringement are probably equal in severity.”
Still, I began to go crazy over the song. I thought of DJs, mash-up artists, electronic masterminds…anyone. Ringo did talk a lot about the sun going down and everyone going to bed. Maybe it was Daedelus on his album Denies the Day’s Demise. No, that wasn’t it. Could it be the Avalanches? No, I would have remembered that. Then for some reason, Burial came to mind. I don’t even think he uses samples, and his music is way too foreboding to have used a sample from this song.
I wanted to bang my head on the wall. I pride myself for being a human encyclopedia of music. Why the fuck couldn’t I think of this? Then suddenly DJ /rupture popped into my head. He just performed at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago. His debut album Uproot was hyped by Pitchfork last year, but it never really “took off.” I hadn’t gotten hooked on the album, but I recalled being extremely fond of one song in the middle of the record. I clicked play, heard what I had been seeking, and felt an enormous sense of relief.
Audio: “Plays John Cassavettes pt. 2: Ekkehard Ehlers” by DJ /rupture
The song, “Plays John Cassavettes pt. 2: Ekkehard Ehlers,” is essentially two minutes and 15 seconds of that amazing violin part, ripped, rearranged, and reborn as something new. I would have never thought that it came from the Beatles. I had read that DJ /rupture uses samples from others, but upon first listen it was clear that his intention was not to be viewed as a “mash-up artist.” In fact, calling oneself a mash-up artist in 2009 amounts to being lumped in with the hordes of artists who aren’t Girl Talk — in other words, all the musicians who critics and fans are too lazy to bother with. Of course Girl Talk isn’t the greatest mash-up artist, and his albums aren’t the best possible example of how to cross two unrelated songs together.
Part of the reason for this strange pooling phenomenon is that many mash-ups are gimmicky, employing indistinct rap vocals because they’ll mix with pretty much anything (Girl Talk is very guilty of this). It’s for that reason that artists like DJ /rupture may deserve a second listen. He clearly doesn’t give a fuck whether or not you can identify what samples he’s using. And yet his reimagining of other artists’ work might not be any less worthy of praise. More importantly, people have been using samples without obtaining permission for years — at least since the ’80s, when pioneering (and highly controversial) rappers started doing it. It just seems more prominent now because the Internet has sparked a much bigger debate about copyright law. But does Girl Talk really deserve to be the poster boy for the entire free culture movement?
Obviously this isn’t an essay about who’s the best sampler, remixer, or masher-upper. It’s just a story about the extraordinary frustration I experienced simply because I couldn’t figure out who sampled the Beatles. I’m trying to transition this into a statement about where electronic music is heading in this soon-to-be-done decade. Maybe there’s no statement to be made. All I know is that, when I figured out it was DJ /rupture, I felt like every cell in my body was on fire. Suddenly a lightning bolt struck through time from 1968 to 2008…and just hung there in the void. I know that culture builds on itself, but it usually happens in a more obvious way. Bands will revive a style from 20 years ago and pretend like they invented it. Or a band in one genre will borrow elements from a seemingly unrelated genre and claim to be experimental.
This case is different. The most subtle, unassuming connection seemed for a moment more substantial than any musical connection I had ever identified. It was only in my head, after all. But in my head is the only place where anything really happens…
This essay was originally posted in slightly different form on the MusicEdge Blog on 8/6/09.
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