Next week, dance music maestros Daft Punk will release their terribly anticipated new album Random Access Memories [Ed. note. The album has appeared to leak early]. A series of videos preceding the album’s release highlighted the musicians they worked with on the project, from contemporaries like Chilly Gonzales to electronic music elder statespeople like Giorgio Moroder. Most notably, they’re working with Paul Williams, a songwriter who composed, among other things, “The Rainbow Connection,” and their first single (and the only music we’ve heard so far) “Get Lucky” used not only new vocals from Pharrell Williams but newly-recorded rhythm guitar from Chic guitarist Nile Rogers. Producing stuff from scratch like this would seem to be a break from their previous way of putting together songs, which relied heavily on samples. (A fantastically annotated list can be found at Spin.) If so, a strange thing is happening: Daft Punk is reenacting in 2013 the move from samples to new studio creations that happened in hip-hop after the legal crackdown on sample use.
Most early rap records were made by having DJs loop the instrumental sections from disco records and recording MCs’ vocals over them. Almost every instrumental element of “Rapper’s Delight,” for instance, is from Chic’s “Good Times.” Over the first decade of the genre’s existence, rap producers would use the newly available technologies of samplers and mixers to create masterpieces like Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet, weaving together laundry lists of samples into seamless new creations. What they usually wouldn’t do, though, is “clear” the samples, which is another way of saying that they would neither ask nor compensate the people who originally recorded the sounds. (Chic, for instance, had to sue to get credit on “Rapper’s Delight.”) Often this was done by “flipping” or manipulating the samples so that it was harder to tell where they came from, but this wasn’t always successful. Then a series of legal cases changed all that. Clearing samples became both necessary and very expensive.
But a loophole in the law provided a way around these issues for musicians with deep enough pockets. While copyright law allowed the people who owned the recordings of songs to charge whatever they wanted for a sample, there are set rates that the people who wrote the songs can charge. Thus, when making The Chronic, Dr. Dre would identify samples he wanted to use and then hire studio musicians to replay the section of music he needed; then, he could do whatever he wanted to that original recording and only have to pay the songwriters. In essence, he could sample Parliament Funkadelic without paying their full rates, by using live musicians.
Are Daft Punk doing a similar thing on Random Access Memories? Their landmark albums Homework and Discovery are built on samples, especially the big singles. The central loop on “One More Time,” for instance, is a few notes from Eddie Johns’ “More Spell on You” (check 2:23) repeated and rearranged — though the band still prefers not to admit Johns’ song as their source. But they did amazing things with these samples, even when the chunks they lifted were more sizable. The first four bars from Edwin Birdsong’s “Cola Bottle Baby” start off “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” and recur throughout the song, but that’s not what makes the song great. “Harder” is one of the greatest songs of the last twenty years because of the vocoder melody Daft Punk adds (that’s what Kanye sampled for “Stronger,” after all) and which eventually overtakes the Birdsong loop as the song develops. And even when the primary instrumental part of the song comes from a sample, Daft Punk often made them into entirely new things. “Digital Love” is essentially a series of layers on top of the beginning of George Duke’s “I Love You More” but the end result far surpasses the source.
They started to get into trouble, though, on 2005’s Human After All. The lead single “Robot Rock” didn’t just sample Shearwater’s “Release the Beast” — it did little other than loop it, with very minimal changes, for the length of a pop song. The album’s disappointing performance may have been a wake-up call that they had reached the productive limit of sampling as a creative strategy. Though none but the elect have heard the full album, Daft Punk’s move to collaborations with the people who made many of those samples in the first place, like Williams and Chic’s Rogers, signals that they’re trying something new.
It worked pretty well for rap. Though sampling is still used widely (especially once “unofficial” free mixtapes, which don’t need to clear their samples, became a major venue), and copyright law continues to be a contentious issue in music, producers like Timbaland have come up with some pretty incredible beats when starting from scratch. With Daft Punk, the switch didn’t come as a legal requirement or economic necessity, but as a restraint they may have imposed on themselves. If so, it’s another amazing demonstration of how creativity relies just on much on limitations as it does on freedom. Daft Punk have echoed rap’s history as a way of further developing their own.