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TED2014

Mark Ronson: How sampling transformed music

March 17, 2014

Sampling isn't about "hijacking nostalgia wholesale," says Mark Ronson. It's about inserting yourself into the narrative of a song while also pushing that story forward. In this mind-blowingly original talk, watch the DJ scramble 15 TED Talks into an audio-visual omelette, and trace the evolution of "La Di Da Di," Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick's 1984 hit that has been reimagined for every generation since.

Mark Ronson - Music producer and DJ
His production credits range from Amy Winehouse to Paul McCartney -- ace DJ, musician and producer Mark Ronson has lived recent music history from the inside out. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
I'm assuming everyone here has watched
00:12
a TED Talk online at one time or another, right?
00:13
So what I'm going to do is play this.
00:18
This is the song from the TED Talks online.
00:20
(Music)
00:23
And I'm going to slow it down
00:30
because things sound cooler when they're slower.
00:31
(Music)
00:34
Ken Robinson: Good morning. How are you?
01:18
Mark Applebaum: I'm going to --
Kate Stone: -- mix some music.
01:22
MA: I'm going to do so in a way that tells a story.
01:25
Tod Machover: Something nobody's ever heard before.
01:27
KS: I have a crossfader.
01:30
Julian Treasure: I call this the mixer.
01:32
KS: Two D.J. decks.
01:33
Chris Anderson: You turn up the
dials, the wheel starts to turn.
01:35
Dan Ellsey: I have always loved music.
01:42
Michael Tilson Thomas: Is it a melody
or a rhythm or a mood or an attitude?
01:44
Daniel Wolpert: Feeling everything
that's going on inside my body.
01:47
Adam Ockelford: In your brain is
this amazing musical computer.
01:49
MTT: Using computers and synthesizers to create
works. It's a language that's still evolving.
01:55
And the 21st century.
02:07
KR: Turn on the radio. Pop into the discotheque.
02:09
You will know what this person
is doing: moving to the music.
02:12
Mark Ronson: This is my favorite part.
02:27
MA: You gotta have doorstops. That's important.
02:29
TM: We all love music a great deal.
02:34
MTT: Anthems, dance crazes, ballads and marches.
02:35
Kirby Ferguson and JT: The remix: It
is new music created from old music.
02:38
Ryan Holladay: Blend seamlessly.
02:42
Kathryn Schulz: And that's how it goes.
02:44
MTT: What happens when the music stops?
02:46
KS: Yay!
02:53
(Applause)
02:57
MR: Obviously, I've been watching a lot of TED Talks.
03:03
When I was first asked to speak at TED,
03:07
I wasn't quite sure what my angle was, at first,
03:11
so yeah, I immediately started
watching tons of TED Talks,
03:13
which is pretty much absolutely
03:16
the worst thing that you can do
03:18
because you start to go into panic mode, thinking,
03:20
I haven't mounted a successful
expedition to the North Pole yet.
03:22
Neither have I provided electricity
03:26
to my village through sheer ingenuity.
03:30
In fact, I've pretty much wasted most of my life
03:32
DJing in night clubs
03:35
and producing pop records.
03:37
But I still kept watching the videos,
03:39
because I'm a masochist,
03:41
and eventually, things like Michael Tilson Thomas
03:43
and Tod Machover, and seeing
03:46
their visceral passion talking about music,
03:49
it definitely stirred something in me,
03:51
and I'm a sucker for anyone talking devotedly
03:53
about the power of music.
03:55
And I started to write down on these little note cards
03:56
every time I heard something
03:59
that struck a chord in me, pardon the pun,
04:00
or something that I thought I could use,
04:03
and pretty soon, my studio looked like this,
04:04
kind of like a John Nash, "Beautiful Mind" vibe.
04:09
The other good thing about watching TED Talks,
04:13
when you see a really good one,
04:16
you kind of all of a sudden wish the speaker
04:18
was your best friend, don't you? Like, just for a day.
04:20
They seem like a nice person.
04:22
You'd take a bike ride, maybe share an ice cream.
04:24
You'd certainly learn a lot.
04:27
And every now and then they'd chide you,
04:30
when they got frustrated that you couldn't really
04:32
keep up with half of the technical things
they're banging on about all the time.
04:33
But then they'd remember that
you're but a mere human
04:36
of ordinary, mortal intelligence
04:39
that didn't finish university,
04:40
and they'd kind of forgive you,
04:42
and pet you like the dog.
04:43
(Laughter)
04:47
Man, yeah, back to the real world,
04:49
probably Sir Ken Robinson and I
04:52
are not going to end up being best of friends.
04:53
He lives all the way in L.A.
and I imagine is quite busy,
04:55
but through the tools available to me -- technology
04:58
and the innate way that I approach making music --
05:01
I can sort of bully our existences
05:03
into a shared event,
05:06
which is sort of what you saw.
05:07
I can hear something that I love in a piece of media
05:10
and I can co-opt it
05:13
and insert myself in that narrative,
05:14
or alter it, even.
05:17
In a nutshell, that's what I was trying to do
05:20
with these things, but more importantly,
05:21
that's what the past 30 years of music has been.
05:23
That's the major thread.
05:26
See, 30 years ago, you had the first digital samplers,
05:28
and they changed everything overnight.
05:30
All of a sudden, artists could sample
05:32
from anything and everything that came before them,
05:33
from a snare drum from the Funky Meters,
05:36
to a Ron Carter bassline,
05:38
the theme to "The Price Is Right."
05:40
Albums like De La Soul's "3 Feet High and Rising"
05:42
and the Beastie Boys' "Paul's Boutique"
05:44
looted from decades of recorded music
05:47
to create these sonic, layered masterpieces
05:49
that were basically the Sgt. Peppers of their day.
05:52
And they weren't sampling these records
05:54
because they were too lazy to write their own music.
05:57
They weren't sampling these records to cash in on
06:00
the familiarity of the original stuff.
06:02
To be honest, it was all about sampling
06:03
really obscure things,
06:05
except for a few obvious exceptions
06:06
like Vanilla Ice and "doo doo doo da da doo doo"
06:08
that we know about.
06:11
But the thing is,
06:12
they were sampling those records
06:14
because they heard something in that music
06:15
that spoke to them
06:17
that they instantly wanted to inject themselves
06:19
into the narrative of that music.
06:21
They heard it, they wanted to be a part of it,
06:22
and all of a sudden they found themselves
06:24
in possession of the technology to do so,
06:26
not much unlike the way the Delta blues
06:28
struck a chord with the Stones
and the Beatles and Clapton,
06:31
and they felt the need to co-opt that music
06:33
for the tools of their day.
06:36
You know, in music we take something that we love
06:37
and we build on it.
06:40
I'd like to play a song for you.
06:41
(Music: "La Di Da Di" by Doug E. Fresh & Slick Rick)
06:51
That's "La Di Da Di" and it's the fifth-most sampled
07:10
song of all time.
07:13
It's been sampled 547 times.
07:14
It was made in 1984 by these two legends of hip-hop,
07:18
Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh,
07:21
and the Ray-Ban and Jheri curl look is so strong.
07:24
I do hope that comes back soon.
07:28
Anyway, this predated the sampling era.
07:30
There were no samples in this record,
07:34
although I did look up on the Internet last night,
07:35
I mean several months ago,
07:38
that "La Di Da Di" means, it's an old
07:40
Cockney expression from the late 1800s in England,
07:42
so maybe a remix with Mrs. Patmore
07:45
from "Downton Abbey" coming soon,
07:47
or that's for another day.
07:49
Doug E. Fresh was the human beat box.
07:53
Slick Rick is the voice you hear on the record,
07:54
and because of Slick Rick's sing-songy,
07:56
super-catchy vocals, it provides endless sound bites
07:59
and samples for future pop records.
08:02
That was 1984.
08:05
This is me in 1984, in case you were wondering
08:06
how I was doing, thank you for asking.
08:09
It's Throwback Thursday already.
08:12
I was involved in a heavy love affair
08:14
with the music of Duran Duran,
08:16
as you can probably tell from my outfit.
08:17
I was in the middle.
08:19
And the simplest way that I knew
08:21
how to co-opt myself into that experience
08:23
of wanting to be in that song somehow
08:26
was to just get a band together
of fellow nine-year-olds
08:28
and play "Wild Boys" at the school talent show.
08:30
So that's what we did, and long story short,
08:33
we were booed off the stage,
08:35
and if you ever have a chance to live your life
08:37
escaping hearing the sound of an auditorium
08:40
full of second- and third-graders booing,
08:42
I would highly recommend it. It's not really fun.
08:44
But it didn't really matter,
08:46
because what I wanted somehow
08:48
was to just be in the history
of that song for a minute.
08:50
I didn't care who liked it.
08:52
I just loved it, and I thought
I could put myself in there.
08:53
Over the next 10 years, "La Di Da Di"
08:57
continues to be sampled by countless records,
08:59
ending up on massive hits like
"Here Comes the Hotstepper"
09:00
and "I Wanna Sex You Up."
09:04
Snoop Doggy Dogg covers this song
09:06
on his debut album "Doggystyle"
and calls it "Lodi Dodi."
09:08
Copyright lawyers are having
a field day at this point.
09:12
And then you fast forward to 1997,
09:14
and the Notorious B.I.G., or Biggie,
09:17
reinterprets "La Di Da Di"
09:20
on his number one hit called "Hypnotize,"
09:23
which I will play a little bit of
09:25
and I will play you a little bit of the Slick Rick
09:27
to show you where they got it from.
09:29
(Music: "Hypnotize" by The Notorious B.I.G.)
09:32
So Biggie was killed
09:59
weeks before that song made it to number one,
10:03
in one of the great tragedies of the hip-hop era,
10:05
but he would have been 13 years old
10:07
and very much alive when
"La Di Da Di" first came out,
10:09
and as a young boy
10:11
growing up in Brooklyn,
10:12
it's hard not to think that that song probably held
10:14
some fond memories for him.
10:16
But the way he interpreted it, as you hear,
10:17
is completely his own.
10:19
He flips it, makes it,
10:21
there's nothing pastiche whatsoever about it.
10:23
It's thoroughly modern Biggie.
10:25
I had to make that joke in this room,
10:28
because you would be the only people
that I'd ever have a chance of getting it.
10:30
And so, it's a groaner. (Laughter)
10:32
Elsewhere in the pop and rap world,
10:36
we're going a little bit sample-crazy.
10:39
We're getting away from the obscure
samples that we were doing,
10:41
and all of a sudden everyone's taking
10:44
these massive '80s tunes like Bowie, "Let's Dance,"
10:45
and all these disco records,
and just rapping on them.
10:48
These records don't really age that well.
10:50
You don't hear them now, because they borrowed
10:52
from an era that was too steeped
10:54
in its own connotation.
10:56
You can't just hijack nostalgia wholesale.
10:58
It leaves the listener feeling sickly.
11:02
You have to take an element of those things
11:04
and then bring something fresh and new to it,
11:07
which was something that I learned
11:10
when I was working with the late,
11:11
amazing Amy Winehouse
11:12
on her album "Back to Black."
11:14
A lot of fuss was made about the sonic of the album
11:16
that myself and Salaam Remi, the other producer,
11:19
achieved, how we captured this long-lost sound,
11:21
but without the very, very 21st-century personality
11:23
and firebrand that was Amy Winehouse
11:27
and her lyrics about rehab and Roger Moore
11:29
and even a mention of Slick Rick,
11:32
the whole thing would have run the risk
11:34
of being very pastiche, to be honest.
11:35
Imagine any other singer from that era over it
11:39
singing the same old lyrics.
11:41
It runs a risk of being completely bland.
11:44
I mean, there was no doubt that Amy
11:46
and I and Salaam all had this love
11:48
for this gospel, soul and blues and jazz
11:50
that was evident listening to
the musical arrangements.
11:52
She brought the ingredients that made it urgent
11:55
and of the time.
11:57
So if we come all the way up to the present day now,
11:59
the cultural tour de force that is Miley Cyrus,
12:02
she reinterprets "La Di Da Di"
12:05
completely for her generation,
12:08
and we'll take a listen to the Slick Rick part
12:10
and then see how she sort of flipped it.
12:13
(Music: "La Di Da Di" by Slick Rick & Doug E. Fresh)
12:18
(Music: "We Can't Stop" by Miley Cyrus)
12:31
So Miley Cyrus,
12:37
who wasn't even born yet
when "La Di Da Di" was made,
12:39
and neither were any of the co-writers on the song,
12:43
has found this song that somehow
12:46
etched its way into the collective
consciousness of pop music,
12:48
and now, with its timeless playfulness of the original,
12:51
has kind of translated to a whole new generation
12:55
who will probably co-opt it as their own.
12:58
Since the dawn of the sampling era,
13:01
there's been endless debate
13:05
about the validity of music that contains samples.
13:06
You know, the Grammy committee says that
13:09
if your song contains some kind of pre-written
13:10
or pre-existing music,
13:13
you're ineligible for song of the year.
13:14
Rockists, who are racist
13:16
but only about rock music,
13:18
constantly use the argument to —
13:20
That's a real word. That is a real word.
13:24
They constantly use the argument to devalue rap
13:26
and modern pop,
13:29
and these arguments completely miss the point,
13:31
because the dam has burst.
13:35
We live in the post-sampling era.
13:37
We take the things that we love
13:39
and we build on them.
13:41
That's just how it goes.
13:42
And when we really add
something significant and original
13:44
and we merge our musical journey with this,
13:47
then we have a chance to be
13:49
a part of the evolution of that music that we love
13:51
and be linked with it once it
becomes something new again.
13:54
So I would like to do one more piece
13:57
that I put together for you tonight,
14:02
and it takes place with two
14:04
pretty inspiring TED performances that I've seen.
14:07
One of them is the piano player Derek Paravicini,
14:10
who happens to be a blind,
14:13
autistic genius at the piano,
14:15
and Emmanuel Jal, who is an ex-child soldier
14:17
from the South Sudan,
14:19
who is a spoken word poet and rapper.
14:21
And once again I found a way to annoyingly
14:23
me-me-me myself into the musical history
14:26
of these songs,
14:28
but I can't help it,
14:31
because they're these things that I love,
14:32
and I want to mess around with them.
14:33
So I hope you enjoy this. Here we go.
14:35
Let's hear that TED sound again, right?
14:39
(Music)
14:41
Thank you very much. Thank you.
16:43
(Applause)
16:46

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Mark Ronson - Music producer and DJ
His production credits range from Amy Winehouse to Paul McCartney -- ace DJ, musician and producer Mark Ronson has lived recent music history from the inside out.

Why you should listen

Mark Ronson’s unusual path into the music world has led to an eclectic and multifaceted resume. Ronson began his career DJing hip New York City nightclubs in the heady 1990s. Since then, he’s scored his own hits with the help of Ghostface Killah and Amy Winehouse via his own first two albums Here Comes The Fuzz and Version, winning the Brit Award for best British male sole artist in 2008.

As a producer, Mark has helped create chart-topping albums for Adele, Lily Allen and Bruno Mars (nominated for 2014 Record of the Year for Locked out of Heaven), and won three Grammys for his work on Amy Winehouse's album Back to Black. 2010’s Record Collection featured collaborations with Duran Duran, Boy George, D'Angelo, Q-Tip and MNDR. Mark is the Global Ambassador for Arms Around The Child. 


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