Early in September, I found myself on a wild goose chase online. I had been listening to the eponymous debut album by the UK hip hop duo White Girl Wasted and there’s this grungy little keys-and-bass combo on the DJ Premier cut Doc Ellis that became an instant ear-worm. There was something about the way the track strutted and swaggered with cartoonish menace. Was it a sample, or just something Preemo had dug out of his archives? I checked the credit sheet and found out the song samples Victor Lustig by the iconic Washington, DC post-hardcore band Fugazi. Wait… what?!
It’s not the idea of a 2022 boom-bap nostalgia record sampling Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto’s punk-dub anthems that caught me off-guard (in fact, there’s a certain poetic rightness to it). The thing is, I have been a Fugazi fan since I first heard the warbling bassline on Waiting Room as a 12-year-old. I have listened to everything they have released—along with much of the band members’ extensive non-Fugazi catalogue—and I had never heard of Victor Lustig. This is the sort of mystery that’s irresistible to a writer trying to finish a music review on a deadline, so I decided to try and track down the song.
Two fruitless hours later, I had to email the label. Google threw up zero results for the track, as did Discogs. By the time the label confirmed that no, they were not playing a prank on me, I realised most of the other credited samples were similarly un-Googleable. I could only marvel. Not just at the awesome crate-digging abilities of producers Preemo and The Purist, but also the fact that there are still musical oddities like this waiting to be excavated.
This ability to reinject wonder and magic into the algorithmic data-stream of modern music consumption is just one of the ways sampling has transformed popular music and its relationship with our cultural and social past. It’s hard now, with our post-modernist Society of the Insta-Spectacle, to think of a world where sampling isn’t widespread in music and the arts. But there was a time when the sampler was every so-called music purists’ enemy No.1. Even up to the late 2000s in India, the rock underground was so wary of samplers that bands like Pentagram and Medusa were treated with jeers and bottles on Mumbai’s stages.
The anxiety behind this resistance—that sampling replaced “real musicianship”—seems ridiculous in hindsight, not just because instrumentalists continue to thrive a decade and a half on, but also because it was such a surface-level understanding of the sampler’s impact. While they were making snide remarks about “studio trickery” and “musical theft”, the sampler was reconfiguring contemporary music’s relationship with time, adding recorded sound as another layer for musicians to manipulate alongside things like harmony, tone and timbre. Completely upending, in the process, the white rockist canon and the linear view of musical progress these purists held so sacred.
Take a look at hip hop, the scene credited with making sampling a mainstream mainstay. Hip hop producers in the 1980s-90s weren’t turning to the sampler to cheaply imitate real instruments—for them, it was the instrument, allowing them to most faithfully reproduce the dynamic mixscape of a Bronx street party on wax. And rather than just “lifting” melodies from old songs, they were bringing those songs into conversation with contemporary music and technology, in the process telling a story of black music and culture that had been ignored by white cultural gatekeepers.
When Pete Rock was flipping 1970s soul and funk records in the 1990s, he was drawing a link between black American music traditions of the past and hip hop: part archive, part education for young black kids, part pure bop. They were breathing new life into these records, but not with the reverence of classic rock fans, who treat every throwaway Genesis track as an offering from the gods. No, producers like Pete Rock, the Bomb Squad and J. Dilla were alchemists, transforming and mutating the old to bring it into lockstep with the new, treating the past as living heritage to be used and (albeit lovingly) abused, not dead museum pieces.
The result is something Simon Reynolds once called “seance fiction”: the art of using samples to create musical events that never happened, a collaboration between the ghosts of music past and present. He meant it as a critique but it’s an excellent explanation of sampling’s mystique: how it uses recordings to create little time portals, every track holding within it a dialectic of musical and cultural evolution, from jazz to trap, from blues to house, from work-song to gangsta-rap revolution. In the process, it opened up new musical pathways for fans to explore and led to a reckoning with the oft-ignored history of American black music and a re-evaluation of their importance and impact. So maybe the rockists were right to be worried.
Of course, the industry hit back with copyright claims, and the odious process of clearing samples has made most mainstream producers look for sample packs or a much more limited palette of samples. But, as this excellent White Girl Wasted album shows, the dedicated crate-digger can still find records to sample that will surprise and delight music fans (or, to be more specific, music nerds).
Listening to the album made me think of the massive corpus of Indian popular music gathering dust in archives, waiting to be sampled and given new life by Indian producers. What could they make of these decades of varied and wonderful sound? What sort of narratives and histories—real or “seance fiction”—could emerge from smashing together musical artefacts from different eras? How much more fun could Indian dance music be if our musical legacies weren’t in the hands of 20th century holdovers, who only give out licences to awful but major label approved “remixers”?
It’s a nice little fantasy, one I am sure is shared by many producers across the country. Maybe, one day, we will have time to have a meaningful conversation about how copyright and song licensing is stifling musical creativity in India. But for now, I just have one question for readers: Can someone just please, please, please help me track down Victor Lustig?
Bhanuj Kappal is a Mumbai-based writer.
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