The creative limitations of sampling

Ben Johnson and James Perla Aug 20, 2015

As part of a series about music technology called “Noise Makers,” we’re talking to musicians about their favorite noise-making device. For our last installment Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson visited El-P’s apartment studio in Brooklyn where they talked about his favorite keyboard sampler.

In his studio filled with select synthesizers, drum machines, and records, El-P explains why the Ensoniq EPS-16+ keyboard still stays at the figurative center: “I keep it here because it’s been the most important thing for me to even become a musician or to even learn what I’m doing.”

According to El-P — real name Jaime Meline — most rap producers start out with either a drum machine sampler or a keyboard sampler. With a sampler, the performer triggers pre-recorded sounds and edits them to create a composition. Rather than a short, percussion-based sample triggered by buttons on a drum machine sampler, the keyboard sampler is advantageous for El-P because it deals with longer iterations of sound.

He describes sampling as “using sound to create sound” and employs this technique to spawn otherworldly sounds. But El-P also acknowledges the hip-hop history behind this technique: “The creativity popped out of limitation. The idea of using two records to perpetuate a groove that was limitation.”

Limitation leads to creative solutions in his own music: “I have a track, I know I need a kick and a snare, I can pretty easily get that. I know I want a bass line. Can I find a bass line? Or do I need to find a bass line? Can I find a horn that I can slow way down and make it sound bassy and take the place of that?”

This process requires a give-and-take relationship with the equipment.

“You sort of paint yourself into a corner,” he says, “just as much you’re working with trying to find something that fits an idea you’re having. You also are working with responding to the thing you’ve put into the machine. And you’re always making the choice between bending to the sound or trying your best to bend the sound to the thing you have in your head.”

Ultimately, El-P finds this feedback productive and profound because it puts his musical genre in perspective, vis a vis the larger world of music. Through the keyboard sampler El-P says he has “an unlimited sound source. Every record from every genre that has ever been made but it all has to go through this one box.”

“You stop thinking about them in terms of category,” he says. “It doesn’t matter to you that you got a snare from a rock record, a blip from a soul record, or a recording that you just made in your living room. It all loses its original meaning and it’s there for you to manipulate and turn into something else.”

Click the media player below for an extended interview with El-P about other rap producers that use the EPS-16+, Blade Runner and video game sounds, and the one guy in California who replaces El-P’s equipment.

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