Mark Ronson established his reputation as a stylistic visionary largely through his solo albums and much-heralded production work — most notably alongside Amy Winehouse on the late singer’s monumental 2006 breakthrough Back to Black. The English musician, however, got his start as a fixture in New York City nightclubs, DJing and remixing hip-hop cuts and culling from a love of Nineties East Coast hip-hop samples. Ronson proved to be a fitting choice then to deliver a TED talk on the power and influence of sampling in music, explaining to an enraptured, if not slightly bewitched, crowd how the practice has impacted music over the past 30 years.
Following an opening performance, during which he dropped a visceral remix incorporating TED’s signature chiming theme music with previous TED speeches and on-point vinyl scratching, Ronson proceeded to deliver a heartfelt 15-minute oration that both traced the history of sampling in music and explained his personal predilection for excavating from the musical past.
“I can hear something I love in a piece of media and I can co-opt it and insert myself in that narrative or alter it even,” Ronson said of his innate impulse to sample. The 38-year-old, who famously DJ’ed Paul McCartney’s wedding, credited the advent of digital samplers in the early Eighties with freeing up musical creativity, allowing artists to more easily draw from the musical past.
“They changed everything overnight,” he offered. Artists, he explained, could now sample anything “from a snare drum from the Funky Meters to a Ron Carter bass line to the theme to The Price is Right,” referencing seminal hip-hop albums like De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising and Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique as landmark LPs that “looted from decades of recorded music to create these sonic-layered masterpieces that were basically the Sgt. Peppers of their day.” In Ronson’s opinion, sampling’s impact affected Gen-X musicians much in the way that discovering the delta blues impacted artists like The Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton years earlier.
In one of the talk’s most fascinating and poignant moments, Ronson traced the musical evolution of Slick Rick & Doug. E. Fresh’s “La Di Da Di” — a song he claimed is the most-sampled of all-time — from Snoop Dogg‘s cover to the Notorious B.I.G’s interpretation for “Hypnotize” to Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop.”
He also addressed claims that sampling is pilfering from the past, using his work with “the late, amazing” Amy Winehouse on Back to Black, and its contemporary interpretation of gospel and jazz as a prime rebuttal. “Without the very, very 21st-century personality and firebrand that was Amy Winehouse and her lyrics about rehab and Roger Moore and even a mention of Slick Rick, the whole thing would have ran the risk of being very pastiche,” he admitted. But, he said, “she brought the ingredients that made it urgent and of the time.”