WhoSampled is the leading destination for sample-based music, covers, and remixes, housing the world’s most comprehensive database of music with more than 730,000 samples spanning more than 1,000 years. The UK-based company founded in 2008 was the first to really map out music in a way that allows you to explore its DNA.
Chris Read is the Head of Content at WhoSampled, where he produces much of the site’s written, video, and audio content. He’s also an accomplished DJ and producer. In this Q&A, he opens up about what drives this powerhouse of a music discovery service, and breaks down the deep history of sampling as well as the direction it’s pushing music in today.
WhoSampled is definitely a gift for us music mavens. Who is your target audience?
Chris Read: People who get the most out of WhoSampled are probably die-hard music fans who would really want to dig deep into the history of a particular song, or do a deep dive on a catalog of a particular artist. It’s also just a lot of fun for more casual music fans. If someone hears something that sounds kind of familiar, but they’re not really sure why, we’ve got the answer to that question. Maybe they’ll discover something they didn’t know or rediscover something they’d forgotten about. So, I think it’s got appeal for multiple audiences, age group-wise, as well.
WhoSampled is a place that picks up on the trends. A lot of the commercial and hip-hop and R&B in the last few years has been really hitting ’90s R&B and even early 2000s hip-hop and R&B for sample sources. If you think about the fact that a lot of the people that listen to this music are going to be in the mid to late teens demographic, even records from the early 2000s might be before they were born. So, there’s a discovery layer, even.
As a listener you don’t always know you’re listening to a sample. Like the beginning of “Ray of Light” by Madonna, or the guitar line from that Gotye record . . . what’s your favorite unexpected sample?
Well, I guess within hip-hop, the stuff that people really geek out on is stuff that was buried for years and years and then gets unearthed. So, there’s always a buzz when a sample in a popular hip-hop record, like a big ’90s classic that has been previously unknown for 25 years, suddenly comes up.
But I mean, the samples that I really like are ones where the use is very creative, but the original record is also a great record. I know it’s maybe an obvious choice and it’s an all-time classic, but Pete Rock and C. L. Smooth, “They Reminisce Over You.” I love the hip-hop record and I also love the Tom Scott original and I also love the way it’s been used. When you hear the horns, you know instantly where it’s from. When you go listen to the Pete Rock track, you hear the way he’s used loads of little parts of it and there’s filters of it in the main bit.
It’s both clever and obvious at the same time. He’s used one big chunk where you can recognize it, but also those tiny little subtle bits, which are really creative and cleverly done. So, that for me is perfect sample usage, in a way. It’s like two great records. And the use is both clever and recognizable. So, it ticks all the boxes for me, that one.
To the less informed, sampling can have a negative connotation, especially in regards to artistic merit. When do you think the general public started to accept it as a valid artistic expression?
It’s difficult to say, really, because I think there will always be people who don’t like the idea of it. There will always be people who will see the art in it. I also think it’s really difficult to generalize, because there’s such a broad spectrum of things, which can determine sampling.
On the extremely creative end of it, you might find a person who only ever samples individual notes, or individual drum hits and pairs it with something that doesn’t sound like any of the source material, out of tons and tons of tiny fragments of other things. That is a very difficult thing to do. I would argue it’s just as difficult to do, as playing some of those instruments yourself. It’s no less creative, because they have used sample material.
And then at the other extreme end of the spectrum, you might get someone who really is taking an extremely large chunk of something and not doing a great deal with it. So, in terms of talking about creativity, it’s very hard to generalize. There’s all kinds of people doing all kinds of different things between those two extremes.
In terms of where it sits in popular music: samples in most big records are cleared. I think people enjoy the nostalgia element of it, if they’re familiar with the original. And if they’re not familiar with the original, they might enjoy discovering that record for the first time. If you ask Timmy Thomas, whether he thinks being sampled by Drake on “Hotline Bling” was a good thing, I guarantee you he’s going to say, yes.
Because for one thing, he got paid really nicely for it and it gave his career a second burst. He’s in the later years of his musical career and suddenly a song that he made 40, 50 years ago, is kind of trending again off the back of a Drake song. He’s an absolute winner in that situation. Others, maybe don’t like it so much from a creative point of view. There’s never going to be a case where all musicians feel the same way about any topic. I think it is a spectrum.
With more recent songs that are charting and hitting the radios and more people using samples in their music, do you notice any trends with traffic on WhoSampled?
In terms of traffic, yeah, definitely. WhoSampled makes a big effort around New Music Friday, every week. We’re looking at new releases. We’re looking at the playlists and trying to make sure that we’re as up to date and comprehensive as possible. We have a Hot Samples Chart on the front page, which essentially documents the most visited pages in the last 24 hours. So, that’s quite a current, accurate window into what the current popular trending and most searched for tracks are.
So, what we usually see is if one of the real headline artists like a Kanye, or Drake, or someone, drops a new album on Friday, tracks from that album will be dominating the Hot Samples Chart by Saturday morning and will stay on that chart for several weeks. Then, there’s one-off hits. Occasionally, a viral song that’s got a sample in it will end up on the chart for weeks, if it’s big on TikTok, or something at the moment, which is the source behind so many big records at the moment. They blow up on TikTok.
What inspired the conception of WhoSampled?
Just to put it in context, I wasn’t around when WhoSampled first started. So, the site’s been around for about 12 years now and I joined somewhere around the four- or five-year mark. So, I wasn’t around for their sort of conception as it were. The founder is Nadav Poraz, and he is still our CEO, so I work closely with him. He was just a fan of sample-based music and had done that same thing that so many of us do, which is to be into either hip-hop, or electronic, or dance music and make that journey of discovery. Discovering Isaac Hayes, or James Brown, or Sly Stone through the contemporary music that was influenced by it, or sampled it.
So, he discovered loads of music that he already loves, through contemporary music. He thought it’d be great if there was a resource where you could discover those connections and actually hear the music as well. There were other sites talking about samples and some of them in the early days of the internet were a bit more like lists: People trying to join the dots between a couple of songs and posting it in lists.
So, it was really just by him and a friend as a fun project. They added the first handful of samples themselves that they knew from their own record collections and just started adding stuff as they discovered it. They quickly realized that this wasn’t something one person or two people could build on their own. So, they made it a crowdsourced thing where anyone can submit and quickly, it just started building. It just ran away. They started getting more and more stuff being sent in and then it evolved over time. But now we have processes for reviewing all the inbound content. We obviously have a team of people doing that stuff.
What does that process of compiling the data look like?
So, anyone can sign up for a WhoSampled account and anyone could make a submission, but it’s not like a Wikipedia where whatever you submit gets published. When you make a submission, it goes into a queue where it waits to be moderated by either a member of staff or one of our moderators. They’re kind of like super users of the site: people who have been long-term users with a proven track record of accuracy will also have the right to moderate incoming content. So every item before it’s published is reviewed to check if both the connection between the two songs is accurate and also that all the data attached, like your release details for each track is correct, the release year and record label and all of that sort of stuff.
We use a variety of resources online to check the data sides of things. But checking the actual accuracy of the samples themselves is largely what you could say is an expert opinion. It’s someone who’s familiar with the processes of sampling. Most of the WhoSampled moderators are producers or beat makers themselves. They understand the process behind it and are able to make that call, as to whether something’s correct, or not. But generally speaking, we’re cautious on the other side of making sure everything is accurate. So, if something sounds like it might be correct, but we can’t say absolutely, then that won’t get published. Only if we can say with almost complete certainty, “This is how this was made.” Then, we publish. WhoSampled publishes about 1,500 new pages a week, at the moment.
1,500 a week, just new discoveries?
WhoSampled lists cover versions and remixes, as well. So, there’s an awful lot of content coming from those categories, as well. But it’s largely samples and those numbers for cover versions and stuff are always stacking up, as well. But of one type, or another, new entries around 1,500 a week.
Another great thing about having a community-based thing, is that there’s people out there who are super passionate about all sorts of obscure corners of the musical spectrum. There’s someone out there who’s an expert on Polish jazz, or Turkish psych, or niche regional hip-hop subgenres, just filling all the gaps in that particular world that they’re passionate about. That’s what’s really cool about it. Obviously, we make sure we cover all of the biggest new records that come out. The trending tracks are quite often, fairly closely aligned with what’s in the Billboard Top 100, or the UK Top 40, or whatever it is. But there’s also just that massive, deep, deep layer of really obscure stuff. That’s there, as well, if you want to go looking for it.
What job do you hope WhoSampled will accomplish, for the artist and for the listener?
I mean, fundamentally WhoSampled is a music discovery service. So, that’s the principal thing we’re offering. We hope what people enjoy from the site is finding a pathway into discovering new music, or new-old music, in some cases. The idea being that, if you came to the site and you’re a fan of say, Michael Jackson, for example, you’re only a few steps away from discovering Quincy Jones and then hip-hop records that sampled Quincy Jones, and then other hip-hop artists that they’ve work with and stuff that they’ve sampled. There’s a rabbit hole there for everyone. If you’ve got a starting point, you can find something cool that you didn’t know about before. That’s the essence of it."We hope what people enjoy from the site is finding a pathway into discovering new music, or new-old music, in some cases." —@SubstanceMusic from @WhoSampled Click To Tweet
I saw that WhoSampled has several partnerships with labels. Could you tell me more about that?
They’re mostly around the idea of demonstrating the influence of a particular catalog or artist. One that we did that I particularly enjoyed was with the Isaac Hayes catalog, because it is obviously very heavily sampled. It was like a mini site, which really delved into his history as an artist, where he came from, and all of his creative accomplishments. But also showing how much his music influenced the current generation.
Check out ‘The Story of Isaac Hayes: The Spirit of Memphis.’
So, we’re about those stories, as well. Also, because WhoSampled is the leading destination for information about this stuff, we also want to bring a positive voice into the discussions around sampling. So, we’ve done initiatives. We have a project called Samplethon, which is essentially a hackathon for a music producer. So, whereas in hackathons they might be given access to some code, or some data, or something to work with, in the Samplethon, they get access to samples, which we’ve cleared with the label upfront. Then they have a time window to make a track from those samples.
Are these available to watch?
Yeah, we’ve done three of them so far and we’ve released two records with those tracks. One will be coming early next year. The idea is to partner with a label that owns some really cool catalogs and clear it up front and make it available to producers, so they can sample it legally without any concerns about clearance and all that kind of stuff. Then, we give them an opportunity for that music to be released on one of these labels.
It’s really just about kind of fostering that relationship and discussion between the sampled and the sampling. It feels like a collaboration between them and just encourages that positive dialogue between those two sides of this story. We’d really like to be a positive voice in doing more of that kind of stuff as well.
Check out the WhoSampled Samplethon here.
Do you use samples in your music?
For the most part, yes. I sample and I guess my approach is to try and treat sampling like producing a band.
What do you look for when you use samples in your music?
Rather than look for something that’s a complete piece of music, I tend to look for isolated instruments in other records, which can be used almost like a sort of toolkit. So, I like ideally to take drums from one place and take my keys, or whatever else it is, from another place and horns from another place and try and construct something new out of multiple parts and layers. I like to do as much for the challenge and the creative processes, as anything else, to try and build things from the ground up.
If you had to pick between some of the most famous sampled records, “Amen Brother,” “Funky Drummer,” or “The Big Beat,” as far as what people were able to do with it over the years, which one do you like best, as far as the original sample?
Okay so, you can take “The Big Beat” out of the equation straight away. It’s iconic and obviously it invokes memories of very raw early hip-hop. But I’m not really a rock fan. I don’t really love the record as a whole, even though the drums are really cool.
I’m a fan of funk music. So, both “Funky Drummer” and “Amen Brother,” are good, listenable, iconic records in their own right, aside from the drum breaks. But I think really, in terms of influence on hip-hop as a whole and from having a complete signature sound, which is so deeply embedded in hip-hop, you can’t deviate from James Brown. I mean, that has to be the one, I would say.
My one caveat to that would be that the way the Amen Break was used in hardcore and drum and bass and jungle and UK dance music, from the early through to the mid ’90s in particular. I mean, obviously it’s been used in lots of music, as well. But particularly during that period, it’s so rare that one sample could absolutely dominate an entire evolution of a sound of music. It’s hard to think of another example where that’s happened. I mean, the Amen Break is so completely integral to drum and bass and jungle. You can’t imagine that music existing in the same way, without it. So, that is its defining thing for me. In terms of a broader influence, I think “Funky Drummer” definitely takes the crown.
Where do you think the industry is headed, as far as the rules of sampling, with how many people use it and just how influential it is with new music? Do you think these rigid rules and regulations with sampling will remain, or do you think they’re going to change?
The laws around sampling are horribly out of step with the realities of how music is made. If you take a much broader view . . . I’m talking about looking back, not just over music from the last 40, or 50 years, but music over the last several hundred years and beyond. The concept of borrowing ideas from the people that went before you and reworking them, or adding to them or changing them, has been part of the way music has evolved forever. If you look at folk music, there’s this lineage of what was a popular folk song. After however many years, someone added lyrics to it and then it became something else. Then, that was set to a new tune, or it became popular in a certain way.
These songs are like living things, each borrowed from what came before and that’s how music evolves. You see it in classical music all the time—people quoting phrases from other well known composers, as almost a little nod to them. Or maybe even just doing new arrangements of a piece of music that was written 100 years before. All of these things are, in my mind at least, parallel to sampling. It’s just that wider practice of taking something that already exists that you like and either making it your own, or paying homage to it, by doing something different with it. That’s been part of music forever.
The law, sort of saying what you can and can’t do with music, that’s fairly new. We’ve had music borrowing from itself forever. Only in fairly recent history have we had someone say, “Actually, you can’t do that, but you can do this.” Why should the law restrict what you can and can’t do with music?
Since, I would say, probably the mid ’80s, when hardware samples became affordable, sampling has been a super integral part of the way that music is made. Not just hip-hop and dance music, but pop music and so much new music across the spectrum, rely on sampling.
Having said that though, I don’t think the law has stifled creativity entirely. There’s probably more people sampling now than ever before. Part of the reason for that is tons of people out there now have access to the technology. Anyone who owns a computer can sample and anyone can self-publish music.
People are publishing music on SoundCloud and Bandcamp. There’s a huge volume of really creative music being made by people for relatively small audiences. So, you might say, to an extent, that the laws around sampling are a bit of a self-regulating market. The very big high-profile records, that use large recognizable chunks of other popular songs, are clearing them and agreeing on royalty deals for the clearance of the samples.
There’s also a large tier of people just making music for their own fun and for their own smaller audiences, for whom the law isn’t really particularly a concern. I think the danger areas—or a kind of gray zone in between those two extremes—is where people who are making some kind of living out of music, but not to the point where they could afford to clear everything. They’re potentially in a dangerous position. So, I really think changes in the law are needed and it will be for that tier of artists that it will make the most difference for.