From sound collages of spliced tape in the 1940s to the pre-recorded riddim tracks of reggae pioneers King Tubby and Lee "Scratch" Perry in the '60s, sampling has a long, rich history that continues to evolve as technology advances. When Moby released his breakthrough album Play in 1999, sampling was hardly groundbreaking at the time, but what made that release so distinctive was how he combined everything from early blues to African-American folk music to gospel and more into something so aurally enticing. Since then, he's continued to take creative approaches to sampling, while still staying true to his techno roots.
In the liner notes for Play, Moby sends a thank you "to the Lomaxes and all of the archivists and music historians whose field recordings made this record possible." Since the early 1900s, the Lomax family — particularly John Lomax and his son Alan — dedicated their lives to collecting field recordings of music, everything from spirituals to cowboy songs. Together, they recorded thousands of interviews and performances for the Archive of American Folk Songs, which can be accessed via the Library of Congress website. Play, in particular, sourced the bulk of its samples from the Lomax collection; later albums dug into gospel, disco R&B, and country soul.
Moby returns to Seattle on Thursday, December 6th to perform at KEXP's Yule Benefit at McCaw Hall. He'll be backed by members of the Pacific Northwest Ballet Orchestra in a special night of music spanning the decades of his work. With the show on the horizon, KEXP is taking a deeper look at ten of the artists Moby has sampled over the years. Learn more about them below.
Ernest Gold was an Austrian-born American composer who worked on such films as Girl of the Limberlost (1945), Not as a Stranger (1955), and most famously, the 1960 Otto Preminger film Exodus. His musical score for the film earned him a Golden Globe nomination for "Best Original Score", won him the Academy Award for "Best Best Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture", and even won him the Grammy Award for not only "Best Soundtrack Album" but also "Song of the Year" for the film's theme song. (Currently, the only instrumental song ever to receive that award.) The accolades don't even stop there: Gold became the first composer to ever receive the honor of having his name added to the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
For his song "Porcelain," Moby sampled from the track "Fight for Survival", extracting the chords at 0:41, 0:40, 0:39, and 0:37 (as helpfully pointed out by a YouTube commenter). According to Rolling Stone, Moby said, "I actually had to be talked into including it. When I first recorded it, I thought it was average. I didn’t like the way I produced it, I thought it sounded mushy, I thought my vocals sounded really weak. I couldn’t imagine anyone else wanting to listen to it." Thankfully, his manager talked him into keeping the song on the album.
Moby discovered this track via the Alan Lomax field recording collection Sounds of the South: A Musical Journey from the Georgia Sea Islands to the Mississippi Delta (1961), but Alan Lomax himself is said to have discovered it in 1959 at Charley Houlin's juke joint in Hughes, Arkansas. In the liner notes, Lomax describes Houlin as a "gambling tout, whiskey merchant, and sometime bootlegger who migrated to Hughes from eastern Texas. He became a U.S. Marshall, demonstrating his reputation as a sharpshooter, and set up shop running a whiskey store/juke joint where many blues musicians (such as B.B. King) played." As for Boy Blue, his real name is Roland Hayes. The song "Joe Lee's Rock" was inspired by his bandmate of the same name "whose hard-drinking girlfriend evidently was a two-timer," reports the Washington Post.
Moby told Rolling Stone that this song is "basically just me playing slide guitar over a vocal sample. I added what I thought were hip-hop drums to it. In the ’80s I was DJing a lot of hip-hop. At one point I was working at Mars and I used to keep a microphone by the turntables. Big Daddy Kane and Run-DMC and 3rd Bass and Flavor Flav and everybody would go to this club and get drunk, and I had the microphone. I was the weird white DJ for all these rappers where were drinking and rapping to impress their girlfriends."
Founded in 1945 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the Davis Sisters was formed by Ruth "Baby Sis" Davis after a religious experience: she slipped on a trolley track in front of an oncoming train on a particularly rainy day and felt someone pick her up off the ground and lead her to a dry spot on the sidewalk beneath a store awning. When she turned to thank the heroic person who came to her aid, there was no one there. Davis felt that God had laid His hand on her, giving her life a new purpose: to spread his word through song. Ruth rushed home and recruited her sisters to join her group. Using Baptist hymnals and songs from the radio, the girls practiced and soon began performing in churches and on radio programs. By 1947, they signed their first recording contract with Apex Records. For his song "In This World," Moby takes Jackie Verdell's passionate vocal, pairing it with swooning synths, to create this gorgeous tune.
Born in Smithville, Georgia in 1902, Mary Elizabeth "Bessie" Jones has been credited with keeping traditional songs, games, and stories of the past alive. Jones grew up in a financially-poor, but musically-rich family: her mother sang and played the autoharp, the men in her family played guitar or banjo and would handcraft their own musical instruments, and all four of her grandparents would share stories and songs that they had learned from their grandparents. One grandfather, Jet Sampson, was a former slave born in Africa, and he would teach young Bessie many of the songs they would sing in the fields.
As an adult, Jones eventually relocated to the Sea Islands, a series of small islands along the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina. She joined the Spiritual Singers Society of Coastal Georgia and became a founding member of the Harlem Church of God in Christ in St. Simons. Archivist Alan Lomax had visited St. Simons in 1935, accompanied by author Zora Neale Hurston. When he returned two decades later with more modern recording equipment, he met Jones for the first time and was struck, not only by her passion for music, but also by the extensive library of songs, stories, and games she held in her memory. "She was on fire to teach America," Lomax said. "In my heart, I call her the Mother Courage of American Black traditions."
In 1961, Jones traveled to Lomax’s New York City apartment to record her music and life history. (These recordings can be heard here.) "The Lord blessed me not to forget these things," she explained, "and keep them up among people who weren't studying it. White people know our backgrounds, but they're going to try to hold it back and keep us back as long as they possibly can."
Nearly 40 years later in New York, a friend of Moby's gave him the Alan Lomax box set, which included Bessie Jones' a cappella performance of "Sometimes." Moby told Rolling Stone, "I wrote 'Honey' in about 10 minutes. My girlfriend at the time really liked it. And that surprised me because she didn’t really like my music."
Sadly, information on Bill Landford and the Landfordaires is pretty scarce, but it would appear they were active in the late-'40s to early-'50s. The 1993 edition of the encyclopedia Gospel Records 1943-1969: A Black Music Discography lists that Bill Landford and The Landfordaires recorded a six-song session for Columbia Records in December 1949, and in May 1953, the Bill Landford Quartet recorded two songs for Victor in Nashville, but that seems to be it.
Their music resurfaced not only in the Moby song "Run On," but in the 2004 movie The Ladykillers, a remake of a 1955 British movie from Joel and Ethan Coen. Grammy Award-winning producer T Bone Burnett curated the soundtrack (as he did for the Coen Brothers' films The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou?), sourcing both contemporary and vintage African American gospel music.
Moby told Rolling Stone: "'Run On' was one of the first songs written and it was really hard to put together because it has so many samples in it. I didn’t use computers at this point, it was all done with stand-alone samplers. When it was finished, I collapsed in exhaustion. I didn’t know this when I recorded it, but it’s a standard. Everybody’s done it. Elvis Presley did a version of it, Johnny Cash did it. If you were a gospel or country star, everyone covered that song. And I had no idea."
One of the more modern songs that Moby sampled was Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Long as I Can See the Light," the b-side to their 1970 hit single "Lookin' Out My Backdoor" and the closing track to their fifth LP Cosmo's Factory.
Moby told Rolling Stone, "There’s only three elements in the whole song: really bad drum samples, and old Oberheim Matrix 1000 synthesizer and vocals. It was intentionally very minimal, very austere, very simple."
Adell Hall Ward, better known as Vera Hall, was born in Livingston, Alabama in 1902, and like Bessie Jones, was raised singing spirituals and work songs rooted in the slavery era. Ethnomusicologist John Avery Lomax recorded her in the 1930s for the Library of Congress, and in 1948, his son Alan brought Hall to New York to perform at the American Music Festival at Columbia University, declaring: "Her singing is like a deep-voiced shepherds flute, mellow and pure in tone, yet always with hints of the lips and the pleasure-loving flesh...The sound comes from deep within her when she sings, from a source of gold and light, otherwise hidden, and falls directly upon your ear like sunlight. It is a liquid, full contralto, rich in low overtones; but it can leap directly into falsetto and play there as effortlessly as a bird in the wind." Hall passed away in 1964; in 2005, she was posthumously inducted into the Alabama Women's Hall of Fame, who noted that "her contributions to the Folksong Archives of the Library of Congress are invaluable resources for both scholars and lovers of folk music. One of the most stunning voices of American folk singers."
Moby discovered the track via the Alan Lomax collection Sounds of the South. The liner notes state: "'Trouble So Hard' represents the old and simple type of Negro spiritual, consisting entirely of alternating lines for the leader and the chorus. Here Vera Hall, one of the finest American folk singers, sings in her kitchen, performing both lead and chorus parts and brooding about the tragedy of life and turning to her Lord for comfort." Moby admitted to Rolling Stone, "It almost didn’t make it on the record. I had some friends over and I was playing them songs off the record and they thought it was too weird. I couldn’t get a good mix of it. This guy in England, 1 Giant Leap, he mixed that song and did a really great job so I was able to include it on the record."
Spoonie Gee (real name: Gabriel Jackson) is one of the first rappers in music history. Born in Harlem, New York, Jackson garnered his nickname at an early age, because a spoon was the only utensil he would eat from. When he was twelve-years-old, his mother passed away and he moved in with his uncle Bobby Robinson, who happened to be a thriving record producer and songwriter. From the 1950s through the mid-1980s, he produced hits for artists like The Shirelles, Elmore James, Lee Dorsey, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, and eventually, his own nephew Spoonie Gee. The 1979 single "Love Rap" was one of the first for Robinson's new label Enjoy! Records.
Twenty years later, Moby's managers were trying to get him not to release the song. "They thought it was really tacky. They thought it sounded like a Fatboy Slim ripoff — which I guess it kind of did," he admitted to Rolling Stone. "I like it because the hip-hop sample was off the first mixtape I ever got, maybe in 1981, off the Mr. Magic Show on WBLS. The guitar is directly inspired by 'What We All Want' by Gang of Four. And I thought it was kind of funny to have an orchestral chorus on what is essentially a hip-hip song."
Sylvia Robinson had an amazing career spanning four decades that concluded in her being crowned the "Mother of Hip-Hop." Born Sylvia Vanterpool in 1935, she dropped out of school at the age 14 to record music for Columbia Records under the name "Little Sylvia." In 1956, she formed the duo Mickey & Sylvia, landing a Billboard hit song with their cover of "Love Is Strange." In the '60s, she and her husband Joseph Robinson formed the record label All Platinum Records, with Sylvia herself producing and co-writing songs for the artists on their roster. When Al Green turned down a song she wrote titled "Pillow Talk," she decided to return to center stage herself as just "Sylvia." The song became a number one hit on the R&B charts, and reached #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts. (The album of the same name is where the song "Sunday" can be found.)
And then, in 1979, she and her husband launched Sugar Hill Records, named for the historic district of Harlem, New York. Sylvia produced the label's very first single herself, none other than "Rapper's Delight," one of the most influential musical pieces of the 20th century. Sadly, Robinson passed away in 2011 at the age of 75 from congestive heart failure; a film about her incredible career, particularly as a woman of color in the male-dominated music industry, is in the works and has been picked up by Warner Bros. Malcolm Spellman and Carlito Rodriguez, writers on the Fox TV show, "Empire," have been tapped to craft the script.
For his track "Sunday (The Day Before My Birthday)," Moby loops Sylvia's breathy, cooing vocals over a plaintive, yet infectious piano riff. The song appears on his 2002 album 18.
Much like Sylvia Robinson, Barbara Lynn was a formidable force in the male-dominated music world as a woman of color who played guitar and wrote her own material. Born Barbara Lynn Ozen in Beaumont, TX, in 1942, Lynn grew up admiring blues artists like Guitar Slim and Jimmy Reed, as well as pop acts Elvis Presley and Brenda Lee. From local talent shows to Texas clubs, her reputation started to spread, and before she knew it, she was touring with artists like B.B. King, James Brown, Al Green, Sam Cooke, and many others. Her song "Oh Baby (We've Got A Good Thing Goin')" was covered by the Rolling Stones on their 1965 album The Rolling Stones Now!, and her 1966 song "You Left the Water Running" was covered by Otis Redding. But by the '70s, she stepped away from the stage to focus on raising her three children.
Earlier this year, Barbara Lynn was honored by the National Endowment for the Arts as an NEA National Heritage Fellow. During the ceremony, Mary Anne Carter, acting chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, had this to say about Lynn:
"A rhythm and blues guitarist whose unique left-handed technique has helped to define the Gulf Coast Sound; a singer and songwriter whose music has topped the R&B charts, and whose songs have been sung by the likes of Aretha Franklin and the Rolling Stones; and an artist who has been encouraging the careers of countless women in professional music. In recognition of a gifted singer, songwriter, and guitarist whose heartfelt songs have earned her the title of 'The Empress of Gulf Coast Soul,' the National Endowment for the Arts honors Barbara Lynn."
In his song "Another Woman," Moby transforms Lynn's bad-ass soulful strut (with lyrics like "I'm a good woman / So don't treat me like dirt") into more of a lament. Lynn's voice is processed with a haunted echo effect with Moby focusing on the lines "You leave your home for days and days / And I know I said I know / You got another woman somewhere around," omitting the part where she berates the guy and sings "Yes I know what I'm gonna do / I'm gonna leave you."
Moby performs on Thursday, December 6th at KEXP's annual Yule Benefit concert at McCaw Hall, accompanied by members of the Pacific Northwest Ballet Orchestra, with Emil de Cou conducting. All proceeds will benefit KEXP Programming. Tickets on sale now!
With Moby performing at KEXP's Yule Benefit concert on Thursday, December 6th, KEXP looks back at some of the recent memorable uses of his songs in film and television.
On Thursday, December 6th at McCaw Hall, musician and activist Moby will showcase the breadth of his career with the Pacific Northwest Ballet Orchestra, to benefit KEXP.