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Subgenre of the Week: Plunderphonics (feat. Kanye West)

We live in an age where our post-modern sensibilities have translated into flourishing musical creativity. This, paired with the death of radio, has led to the creation of nearly every subgenre imaginable. But how do you keep track of them all? Each week, we here at the Quest do our best to help you make sense of all this alternativeness.

This week, it was revealed to me that I have a reputation for being something of a Kanye West apologist. I’m a little bit confused by this. “Apologist” implies that I don’t think he’s a jerkoff. Don’t get me wrong; he totally is. At the same time, I love Kanye West. So a bit of clarification is necessary here.

Kanye West is a musical genius. An asshole, but a genius, nonethless. Seeing as how these concern two different parts of the man –the person and the musician – I don’t really see how that’s difficult to understand. A decade ago, he practically revived East Coast hip hop with his sampling technique. Back when Kanye kept his mouth shut–both figuratively and literally (an interesting side note: ironically, Yeezy’s hitmaking career began with “Through the Wire,” a song he rapped through a wired-up  broken jaw)–he was producing The Blueprint, the masterpiece that seamlessly blended Jigga’s choppy flow with the chopped up, soulful verses of Bobby Bland. By using samples to put rap music through the lens of soul, Kanye added emotion and complexity to a genre that had previously been musically (but not lyrically) heartless.

West’s use of samples ten years ago was but the first indication of his great musical prowess. And while he’s gone to unpredictable and even disturbing places since then, there really is no one like ‘Ye. And I say that fully aware of his position atop his high horse. So, for this week’s subby, let’s have a toast for the douchebag with a celebration of the art of sampling. Our subgenre this week is plunderphonics, compositions built from the compositions of others.

The term “plunderphonics” comes from essay written by composer John Oswald in 1985, in which he discusses the creative viability of sample-driven music: what is, in essence, “stealing” recorded material and transforming it anew. As far as the genre itself is concerned, “songs” are synonymous with “collages”: outside of the occasional drum machine, they are made entirely from samples. This means that they are  basically sonic piles of vocals, instrumentation, effects, and sound production artifacts. Results range from the absurdly strange to the insanely beautiful.

The evolution of plunderphonics as a musical niche is difficult to trace, but generally, the genre has evolved resampling one song over and over to using millions of samples to create compositions. A quirky trait of plunderphonics – and perhaps something that also distinguishes it – is the usage of old television and radio show clips.

In a sense, making “good” plunderphonics is the ultimate task for a musician, as one is given total creative liberty while really having none at all. As far as music is concerned, there is no greater exercise in creating the new from the old than producing plunderphonics.

Perhaps the greatest expression of plunderphonics as a genre is Since I Left You by the Avalanches, the greatness of which comes from the fact that it created real music – real music – from over 3,000 samples.

It takes amazing creative wit to make good – much less listenable – from samples, and in light of this, it comes as no surprise that Kanye could pull it off with such exuberance and style. However, plunderphonics takes the challenge of sampling to an entire different level. The proof is in its great and simultaneously ability and inability to inspire. Check out some of our picks below.


Choi’s Plunderphonics Picks

“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” -Negativland
“Replica”- John Oswald
Since I Left You – The Avalanches

You Know Wanted Some Kanye

“Through the Wire” & “All of the Lights” – Kanye West

3 Responses to “Subgenre of the Week: Plunderphonics (feat. Kanye West)”
  1. Iggy Wobble says:

    The Avalanches? Really? *cough* endtroducing *cough*……

    Man, you really think you know your shit. HA! Did you just start reading Pitchfork a year ago? Kanye’s use of samples is well documented as being cribbed directly from the RZA. Do your homework, before you shove your “hip” and “well-informed” opinion on us all.

  2. Andrew Choi says:

    Iggy, you’ve got some fair points, but you misunderstand me. We’re talking about sampling as a musical prerogative, not simply just a means to an end. Case in point, Oswald argues that “the reuse of existing recording material is not restricted to the street and the esoteric.” In other words, plunderphonics transcends what is traditionally understood to be sample-based music (e.g., old school hip-hop and experimental). In this sense, Endtroducing — while composed entirely of samples (and admittedly, should have been mentioned in my article) — is, on a compositional level, is not so much “plunderphonic” as it is a culmination of a preexisting tradition of sampling. By staying within the realm of hip hop, Shadow’s work simply lacks that transcendental quality of Since I Left You. Maybe you agree with that, maybe you don’t.

    And this is what makes Kanye West so fucking great. He broke away from that Endtroducing style of hip hop sampling almost entirely, seamlessly interfacing his samples with contemporary hip hop production. And that’s something that DJ Shadow, or the RZA for that matter, was never able to do.

  3. fat albert says:

    “Kanye added emotion and complexity to a genre that had previously been musically (but not lyrically) heartless.”

    HAHAHA dude, like, no.

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