No Samples Were Harmed…
Kevin McKay’s new album invites open debate on sampling
Words: Jim Butler
The music industry has always contained its fair share of charlatans, chancers and outright crooks. Hunter S. Thompson might not have been talking about the music business (despite the web being littered with his oft-misquoted aphorism, he was actually referring to the TV industry) when he supposedly described it as a “cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs”, but he wasn’t far off the truth.
The flipside of this behaviour is that it can fuel extreme bouts of creativity. The notion that talent borrows and genius steals has underpinned some of the best dance music down the decades. In other words, sampling.
As an artist, label boss and producer – his most notable example being Mylo’s era-defining album, Destroy Rock ‘n’ Roll – Kevin McKay has first-hand experience of the thorny issue of helping yourself to a beat, section or riff from one song and applying it to a new track.
“Back in the ’90s when Glasgow Underground [his label] first started, the stuff we were doing was so low-level – 2000 12-inches,” he recalls. “We were operating in this slightly underworldly, underground, black market sort of place. But we were operating in the same sphere as everyone else. No-one else was clearing the samples at that level.”
This scenario meant records could grow organically. McKay points to the gradual progression of Blue Boy’s Remember Me from the mid-’90s as proof. Originally released on Guidance, after gaining popularity in clubland it was eventually picked up by Jive imprint Pharm and reached No.8 in the charts. “So many amazing dance records start off that way,” he says. “They don’t start off as obvious pop records. It takes that kind of snowball effect before they become pop records. As they grow and grow, eventually the sample is cleared.”
Today, however, the situation is different. Sophisticated digital technology means that samples can be spotted on platforms such as YouTube in seconds. Major labels are requesting sample clearance before a track has a chance to take on a life of its own.
This was the situation McKay faced when he began DJing at his new night, I Feel Love, at Mick’s Garage, in Hackney, London. To prepare for the club night – an unashamedly populist disco event which proclaims “Because nostalgia never dies” – McKay originally thought he’d make some remixes and re-edits of classic dance tunes so it wouldn’t be “just playing old records” next to modern dance tracks. One of the most requested tunes was, perhaps unsurprisingly, I Feel Love.
“I thought, ‘Honestly?’” he recalls, laughing in his warm Scottish twang. “You want me to play the original Giorgio Moroder mix next to a bunch of house music? It’s going to sound so… So I did an edit and that became really popular and that gave me the idea to make modern versions of other tracks so I could play them out.”
The result is his new album, the amusingly titled No Samples Were Harmed in the Making of this Record, which features modern versions of 14 classic dance, disco and R&B cuts – from Xpansions’ Move Your Body (Elevation), C + C Music Factory’s A Deeper Love and Daft Punk’s Technologic, to Brandy’s What About Us, Randy Crawford’s Hallelujah and Missy Elliot’s Get Ur Freak On. Rather than clear the samples legally (something he estimates would have pushed the budget towards a prohibitive £100,000), Kevin decided to re-record everything and release the tracks as cover versions.
Speaking to McKay on the album’s release day (“Some people call them ‘impact dates’ now,” he points out – a wry reference to his three-decade long career), he admits that part of the reason for releasing the album was to start a conversation about the endangered status of sampling.
“This record is a kind of flag to say it’s getting harder and harder to sample,” he states categorically. “YouTube can now spot a sample in a track, so the minute a label puts it out and uploads it to YouTube they’ll flag it. Either the copyright owner will say we’re happy for it to be used, but we want to monetise it, which is cool, or they won’t and they’ll take it down and you can’t have your record up on YouTube. And at some point you will not be able to put up a track that samples something unless it’s cleared properly. And that will change dance music completely unless people think about how those things could still work.”
Of course he could have made the album as a bunch of re-edits and remixes and thrown caution to the wind. Some online music sites still host these records – and McKay himself extols the likes of Butch Le Butch whose Borderline and Electric Dreams edits he has played out – but he says it’s a bit like the Wild West. And at this stage of his career he wants to do things properly and ensure people are getting paid. “A lot of labels are operating and not paying their artists or clearing the samples and I just don’t think that’s cool,” he states. “I feel like I’m a grown-up. Certainly in the music industry. I want to do the right thing as much as possible.”
Initially the reaction – online at least – was mixed. McKay says there were a lot of “keyboard warriors” who objected to him touching these classics. But recently producers and DJs have praised him both in person and by playing his versions out – the ultimate dance music compliment. “That’s the good thing about it being a cover,” he adds. “It doesn’t change the song. My version is just that, a version of a great song. A version that works on the dancefloor. People might google it and then listen to another version. This is all about the quality of the song for me. My production is my production – I’m not changing the songs.”
The album caps a remarkable turnaround for the one-time taciturn producer who would previously release records under all manner of aliases. Having psychologically come to terms with many of his life choices – and his need to make music – his rebirth this decade has been pleasing and righteous. He is, he concedes, in a much happier position these days.
“I mean, I was really happy in the beginning,” he concludes. “But then as you grow as an artist, and I think this might be a male reaction to things, but you start to see yourself in some sort of pecking order. All that stuff gets into your psyche, or it can do if you’re not the right person and it affects what you do. Do people think you’re cool? It took me a long time to realise none of that stuff matters. If it makes you happy just do it. Do what makes you happy and don’t care what other people think. Unfortunately, it took me about 15 years to work that out.”
The honourable conscience of dance music has spoken. Charlatans, chancers and crooks beware.