TED Radio Hour
10:06 am
Fri June 27, 2014

Why Would More Than 500 Artists Sample The Same Song?

Originally published on Sat June 28, 2014 10:56 am

Part 1 of the TED Radio Hour episode What Is Original?

"Since the dawn of the sampling era, there's been endless debate about the validity of music that contains samples," Mark Ronson told an audience at a TED conference in Vancouver earlier this year. He should know: The Grammy-winning DJ and producer has built a career on artful appropriation, be it the literal samples he employs on his solo albums or the broader style exercise of Amy Winehouse's Back to Black, which he co-produced with Salaam Remi.

Though the tools associated with sampling have changed over time — yesterday's used-vinyl crate diggers have become today's digital foragers, yanking their source material straight from YouTube — its power to shape culture has not. In his TED talk, Ronson offers a case in point by charting the 30-year journey of one of the most sampled songs of all time: Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh's 1984 hit "La Di Da Di," a bare-bones rap and beatbox duet, which has been borrowed by everyone from The Notorious B.I.G. to Miley Cyrus to Spoon.

Currently at work on his own fourth studio album, Ronson spoke with TED Radio Hour host Guy Raz about why certain samples work, the legal hurdles of using them and why discussions of originality in music often miss the point. Hear the radio version at the audio link, listen to a mix of popular "La Di Da Di" samples here, and read more of their conversation below.

GUY RAZ: I want to ask you about the Amy Winehouse album. The sound that was created on that record — that was built on sounds that had occurred over the previous three or four or five decades, right? It was a modern sound, but you couldn't have had that sound if you didn't have The Supremes and all of those kinds of voices that came before her.

MARK RONSON: Well, it was completely influenced and inspired by that stuff. When Amy first came to the studio, I had this great love for Motown and all this classic funk and soul — especially because I became a DJ because of my love for hip-hop, and hip-hop sampled all of those old records. So I kind of discovered Motown and soul music backwards, through hip-hop and the records that had borrowed from it.

Amy was really in love with this other era that even predates that, which was the Shangri-Las, and Phil Spector and the Wall of Sound. We got on like a house on fire the first time we met — you know, playing each other records for hours on end. And it inspired me. I mean, I had no idea how to recreate that sound or that vibe; I had never done anything like it up to that point. But I was just so enamored with her and what she wanted to do that I was like, "However it happens, I'm going to find out how to do it, even if we get it wrong." And I think we did get it wrong just enough to make it its own new thing — which is kind of what you want to do.

You spoke in your TED talk about "La Di Da Di." When did you first hear that song?

Who knows — I might have heard it growing up and not realized it. But when I started to DJ in hip-hop clubs in the mid-90s in New York, like, it was a staple of your set. Especially because of massive records like Notorious B.I.G., "Hypnotize," Ini Kamoze, "Here Comes the Hotstepper," and with Snoop Dogg covering it, it's literally like chapter one of the hip-hop DJ bible. And it's an incredible song because it has no actual beat: It's just a beatbox and a rap over it. It's not even really that in time. It's completely, like, a free-formed, improvised record. Yet you can play all five minutes of it on a dance floor and have the entire dance floor sing every word of that song. It's almost like the national anthem or alphabet song of hip-hop.

This is one of the most sampled songs ever. How did that happen? What is it about this song?

Because Slick Rick's voice is so iconic, and "La Di Da Di" has all these little sing-songy turns of phrase — like, 'One two, you don't stop.' Hip-hop is built on creating these kind of sonic beds, so all these amazing little things have become the fabric of hip-hop and R&B tracks over the past 30 years. It's like a grunt from James Brown or a saxophone blurt from Junior Walker. It will sound good over everything, and it will always make your track sound more legit and more real and hip-hop. It just became the de rigueur, go-to thing if you wanted to make your track sound kind of awesome and familiar at the same time.

And all of these DJs who took elements of these songs and sort of remixed them and reinterpreted them — would you say they weren't stealing this stuff, they were trying to celebrate it?

I think most people that sample have the utmost reverence for the people who created the music that came before. Because they realize that without this music that came before, they wouldn't even have [today's music]. You look at the way people treat composers like Galt MacDermot, who — although he wasn't a massive figure in the pop world — wrote all this amazing '70s music that was sampled so much by hip-hop, because the tempos and the feel and the grooves and the rhythm of it really lent itself. People like Charles Stepney and the Rotary Connection — you know, hip-hop has its own class of people that we celebrate, beyond just the obvious people like James Brown, because they're these people that have been sampled over and over. And most of the time the producers who make this music are people that are at the heart of it. We're all in it because we love music.

I think at the beginning, you had these lawsuits because the rule book was a little unclear, and I think people do also like to see what they can get away with. But for the most part, yeah — when you find an old break and you sample that record, you want people to discover that record that you sampled. If it's some obscure little jazz-funk group, hopefully you're excited for the next generation to discover that music through your use of it. You know, the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique — I get the feeling when I listen to that record they were just looting bargain bins of records, pulling out anything that sounded great. I have a feeling they probably didn't even know half of the artists they were sampling before they made some of those songs. But at the end of the day, I feel like we all appreciate where the source music comes from.

Do you remember a time in your career when somebody came up to you and just said, 'All you guys do is reuse other music. You're not creating anything new'?

Well, I guess my position is a little bit unique, because as much as I consider myself a sort of child of hip-hop culture — you know, I came up DJing hip-hop clubs in the late 90s in New York, and I discovered funk music and soul music through the hip-hop artists that sampled it — I always wrote music myself, anyway. On all my own records, I do write all the chord progressions and things like that.

But I have been in those kinds of conversations. And it's just like, how many rock bands have re-tried, over and over again, the same chord progressions from our favorite music from the '60s and '70s? It's pretty much the same thing. I'm not here to stand up and say that stealing is as valid as sitting down at a piano and writing "Yesterday" or "Imagine." But I think that great music — and some of my favorite music, certainly — has come from borrowing and re-appropriating. It doesn't have to be a whole melody or chord progression. It could just be the sound of a snare drum. It could just be the sounds of a rain dropping, off an old soundtrack record.

I think it was Paul McCartney who famously said — I'm sure I'm going to mess this up, but — he said that by the year whatever-it-was, 2007, all chord progressions were going to be used. It was going to be impossible to write anything new. And the only way that we manage to progress is by taking what's there and ripping it apart at the fabric of it. Whether it's some insanely progressive drum programming — something like what Squarepusher used to be or what Hudson Mohawke does today — I think things that are progressive are things that are taking found music or found sounds and sort of tearing them to the very brink.

Can you really call any piece of music completely original? Even something that was composed by somebody from scratch?

I think you'd be really hard-pressed to listen to something today and not be able to at least find four bars of it that's completely derivative of something else. And that's why I think it's through playing with technology and sounds and atmospheres that original stuff comes. That doesn't mean that's my favorite stuff, or that I would rather listen to some kind of blip-electronica kid making music in his basement than to the new Black Keys album or an old Stevie Wonder record. Just because it's progressive, I don't think it necessarily makes it more valid than something else going on.

We sort of celebrate things that seem original. But then, what is original?

Well, what's the T.S. Eliot quote, which apparently he even stole from Picasso, about "Genius steals ..."?

"Good artists borrow, great artists steal." Something like that.

Yes. Even if you're telling yourself you're not stealing, subconsciously you are influenced whether you like it or not. Through The Beatles' songbook or Stevie Wonder or all the things that you've heard playing in post offices, elevators, and on the radio since you were 2 years old. But the most important thing is what you do on top of it, and how you make it your own and combine all those influences to make something new. I think of it like Play-Doh: You have all these different colors of Play-Doh, and you hope to make this ball that, by the time you mix it all, it's indistinguishable what the original colors are. And it's hopefully not this ugly kind of diarrhea brown, [but] it's this really kind of interesting thing that people want to listen to.

So say you're working on a song and you're like, "I want to put in five seconds of this other song." You can't just put it in, right?

You can't just put it in. Basically, you go to the person that wrote it, or maybe the person that owns that song now — because it could have been sold, the rights to it, years ago. You have to play them your song, and then you guys kind of come to agreement about how much you're going to give them.

I mean, if you use a tiny two seconds of a Led Zeppelin song, it doesn't matter how important it is to your song — you can pretty much guarantee you're going to give up 100 percent of your publishing to Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. And then you could use a tiny bit of an old spoken-word performance from an old Jesse Jackson speech or something, and maybe give 10 percent of your publishing away for it. I've been on both sides of that equation. Sometimes it's so important to your song. It could be this little saxophone move or something, but to you it defines the entire feel of your song. And it's worth is to give away all that publishing, I think, if it's something you really think makes your song truly special.

Have you ever really wanted to use a piece of music in something you're working on, and lawyer says to you, "Mark, just drop it — it's too much of a hassle"?

No, I'm pretty headstrong on those things. In fact, I had a song on my first album, which was a song with Ghostface Killah and Nate Dogg, and it was called "Ooh Wee." I had a string sample, which was from a cover of "Sunny," and then I had a drum sample from Dennis Coffey. "Sunny" wanted 100 percent of the publishing, and the drum sample wanted 25 percent, so basically it was like The Producers — I was selling off more of a percentage than I owned. By the end of it I had to pro-rate my entire album down so I could rob this song to pay that guy and whatever it was. You know, those things are important. I know if took one of those things out of the song it wouldn't have had the same emotional effect or the same kind of toughness of the beat. That's why it was important to keep it.

So you were in the red 25 percent?

Yeah, I'm in the red. And then you've got to tell everyone else on the album, "Oh, I'm sorry — you're getting paid a little bit less because I've got to pay these guys for that other song." But you know what? That song was the only hit I had off of that album. I guess if it wasn't for that song, I probably wouldn't be making records still today. That was the thing that put me on the map a bit.

We still tend to think of copying as a bad thing — something we shouldn't be doing.

Back to what I was saying about what you add to the equation, in hip-hop there was the expression "jacking" — like when you just steal something. There is no merit in that, especially if you're trying to steal and get away without actually paying the people that wrote it in the first place. That's the absolute worst. But I think that if you're taking something and building on it, like the way that the Stones and The Beatles and Eric Clapton did with the Delta blues to make their own music, and it's truly become something that can enrich somebody's experience in a different way.

Take "Sunshine of Your Love," for example. Without the great blues guitarists of the '30s and '40s, "Sunshine of Your Love" never would have existed. But I can definitely argue that I get something out of listening to "Sunshine Of Your Love" that I wouldn't get from listening those records. It gives you a different experience. I think that's what deems it worthy; that's what gives you your merit. If you really manage to be influenced or borrow or copy without making it a carbon copy, something that truly provides its own experience, it's own thing for the listener, it is original. It does sound like nothing else that came before.

Do you think we live a post-sampling era?

You know, we used to go to record stores or record fairs to find these rare breaks. I see young producers today, kids who are 19, 20; they stay up all night just sampling straight from YouTube. I think things like YouTube kind of have made a lot of today's younger generation think that, "Well, everything kind of just belongs to us, right?" Because it kind of does: Music has been free for a long time now, for better or for worse.

In some ways, the culture of today is really just about taking whatever you feel like and making it your own. Which is dangerous — there are troubled lines there — because at the end of the day, credit needs to go to the people that created the stuff in the first place. But it does make for some incredible, exciting art. And it does mean that some little kid sitting in his basement in Ohio with a laptop can be making some of the most interesting music around.

Something completely different.

Yeah, absolutely. There's a producer named Arca who comes to mind, who produced a lot of stuff with this interesting singer from England called Twigs. Basically what they're doing is using this program Ableton to take things like orchestral samples and stretch the very fabric of them until you don't even know what's going on any more. But they're creating something truly sonically and contextually original. And I find it doesn't matter what they're borrowing from or sourcing from, because you listen to it and you would never know anyway.

When you sit down to write or produce something and you've been listening to all this music, how do you separate yourself from what's in your head, or sort of put your own spin on a sound that's just been swirling around inside of you?

Well, I DJ a lot as well. I still DJ at clubs, and all these festivals in the summer. And when it's time for me to make my own record, I really do have to stop doing all that — because you never know. You've been playing all this other music for an hour and a half the night before you get into the studio, and you don't want that stuff to sort of filter into you.

I used to read interviews with Prince where he said he never listens to anyone else's music but his own. I guess if the songs I wrote were as good as Prince's maybe that would apply to me — but the truth is, I really enjoy listening to other people's music. But you do have to draw the line at some point, so that you don't become a sort of walking jukebox when you get into the studio.

When it's time to work on a record I put the blinders on a bit more and make sure that I'm not listening too much to something, especially if it's something everyone is making a big fuss about. That's the last thing that you want: You put out a record you've worked on for a year and half, and someone says, "Oh yeah, it sounds like Arcade Fire!" And you just want to go jump out a window.

Has that happened to you before?

It hasn't, but it's something I'm wary of. If you gave me a choice — you can make music for the rest of your life but you can never listen to anybody's else music, or you can just be a supreme music fan — it'd be a really tough call, you know? I'm not sure which is the worst one.

You've used a lot of samples in your songs and I wanted to ask about one in particular: "Alouette," on your track "Bang Bang Bang." Very interesting choice.

Yes. Well, that was a song that I'd written the music for on my last album, and I'd given it to this singer named MNDR, who was really excited to try to write melody and lyrics to it.

She started singing, sort of, like nonsense words. You know, a lot of singers that I work with, they just get on the mic and they kind of freestyle, and the first thing that comes out, they take that as what they make the lyrics fit to. So I think what she sang the first time sounded a lot like "ah-boo-dett-dah," or something like that. And then she was like, "Oh, can I make it 'Alouette?'" And then just made the whole song around that. So yeah, French-Canadian nursery rhymes. Anything's game.

Can you imagine what music is going to sound like 20 years from now?

I was thinking about this, because when I was first asked to do the TED talk they gave me quite a general topic: They wanted me to talk about the evolution of music over the last 30 years. And I wasn't quite sure what my angle was. I started reading all these crazy books and researching all this stuff about Billboard, and I looked at the charts, the No. 1's, from last year. And whether it was "Thrift Shop" by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, or Katy Perry, or Miley Cyrus, none of those songs wouldn't have been able to have been made 10 or 15 years ago. Some of the technology today might make them sound a bit more sonically whiz-bang. But for the most part, you could have probably created them in 1998 and they wouldn't have sounded so different.

I think the 80s was a particularly exciting time. You think of records like Duran Duran or Van Halen, "Jump," or Cindy Lauper or Madonna, and you could honestly say in 1984, when those records were No. 1's, that there's no way that they could have been made in 1979. I think, part of the reason why we regard that music in such high esteem is because it was quite refreshing and groundbreaking when it came. Now, I'm not knocking any of today's music, but I would say that probably "Harlem Shake" by Baauer was the only song that came out that was No. 1 last year that you could honestly say wouldn't have been able to be made in 2005.

So, I'm not sure. I don't want to sound depressing, but I'm not sure if music 15, 20 years from now is going to sound so different from how it sounds today, or even how it sounded in 1998, unless people are sort of willing to push it forward a bit. I think with record sales being so low and with downloads, people stress so much on having this one hit single that we just go for the most obvious thing so much of the time. Everyone's terrified of not having their smash single, so we just go the same tropes, the same tried-and-true tricks, the same chord progressions.

There's one thing that's a little bit different, though, in the last 10 years, which is people like you — DJs — working with pop artists, especially American pop artists. EDM, that whole sound, has entered pop music. It's existed in Europe for probably the last 25 years, but electronic music is now a staple in pop music in the US.

Yeah. I think so. But — and I hate to rag anyone — but I wouldn't say it's especially progressive. I don't think there's much of the pop music around using EDM that you couldn't have heard in Ibiza 12 years ago. But that is the way with pop music: It always takes a little while to catch up to what's progressive. You know, I'm not knocking anybody out there hustling, making their EDM stuff, but it's just not really my bag. I like songs. I like real people playing instruments most of the time, at least on my own records.

Are you playing a lot of festivals in the UK this summer? Are you going to be on the road a lot?

I'm playing around, mostly in Europe. But to be honest, I've got my new record coming at the end of the year that I've been working on for the past year and a half. So I've really just been kind of sitting the summer out and waiting for the record to come out.

Are you singing on it as well?

I've done everyone the favor of not singing on the album. I sang on the last one and it was a nice challenge, but it made me so terrified before each show that it just took all the fun out of it. I would just be throwing up in a corner each time before we had to go on stage.

Really?! Oh no!

Like, 20 minutes of vocal exercise, throw up in a corner, 10 minutes of vocal exercise, go on stage. That was pretty much it.

Because you were worried you couldn't quite replicate that sound live, with your voice?

Yeah, of course. And also just the pressure of doing it live. You know, I've worked with, I'd like to think, some of the greatest singers around. Working with people like Amy Winehouse and Adele and Paul McCartney doesn't exactly make you think, "Oh, I could do that. That would be fun." So I don't really know what made me think I could do it in the first place. I'm proud of those couple of songs I sang on the record, but and I think it's back to letting the maestros handle it. So I have some pretty amazing singers, some absolutely brand new, some of my favorite singers in the world, some of my favorite musicians and writers. And I can't wait.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, BYLINE: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, what's original? How every idea, every invention, every song is built on something that came before it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA DI DA DI")

SLICK RICK AND DOUG E. FRESH: (Singing) OK, party people in the house. You're about to witness something you've never witnessed before.

RAZ: And this song will make you wonder about this whole idea of originality because this song is one of the most sampled songs of all time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA DI DA DI")

SLICK RICK AND DOUG E. FRESH: (Singing) Doug E. Fresh and his partner...

RAZ: The track is by the rappers Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick. They released it in 1984, and the story behind the song, we heard about it from this guy.

MARK RONSON: My name is Mark Ronson.

RAZ: He's a DJ, record producer and kind of a big deal.

RONSON: I guess the thing that I'm most known for is production on Amy Winehouse's album "Back To Black." I produced records for Lily Allen, Paul McCartney's last album. I just sound like I'm name dropping. I'm just trying to grab onto the things people might've heard of.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA DI DA DI")

SLICK RICK AND DOUG E. FRESH: (Singing) Ah, yeah.

RAZ: OK, so back to this track.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA DI DA DI")

SLICK RICK AND DOUG E. FRESH: (Singing) You know what? La di da di.

RAZ: It's called "La Di Da Di"...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA DI DA DI")

SLICK RICK AND DOUG E. FRESH: (Singing) La di da di.

RAZ: ...And back in the early 1990s, if you were a DJ in New York, like Mark was, it was a staple of your set.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA DI DA DI")

SLICK RICK AND DOUG E. FRESH: (Singing) La di da di, we like to party. We don't cause trouble. We don't bother nobody. We're just some men that's on the mic.

RONSON: It's literally like Chapter 1 of the hip-hop DJ Bible. And it's an incredible song because it's just a beatbox and a rap over it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA DI DA DI")

SLICK RICK AND DOUG E. FRESH: (Singing) But that's true. That's why we never have no beef.

RONSON: Yet can play all five minutes of it on a dance floor and have the entire dance floor sing every word of that song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA DI DA DI")

SLICK RICK AND DOUG E. FRESH: (Singing) ...For my fingernails. Chew to the...

RAZ: But what makes "La Di Da Di" more than just a really good rap song and why so many artists have borrowed from it in their own music is that it's full of these little, lyrical moments. And those moments, those samples will become the building blocks of hip-hop for years to come.

RONSON: Especially 'cause Slick Rick's voice is so iconic and has these little kind of, like, sing-songy turns of phrases. All these little, like, tick-tock you don't stop. As we go a little something like this, hit it. All those soundbites sort of become like...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HERE COMES THE HOT STEPPER")

INI KAMOZE: (Singing) Hit it. Na nananana nananana nanana...

RAZ: And that hit it - just that moment has been sampled in hundreds of songs from...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HERE COMES THE HOT STEPPER")

KAMOZE: (Singing) Hit it. Na nananana nananana

RAZ: Ini Kamoze in 1995.

RONSON: They used the hit it.

RAZ: Way back to the Beastie Boys in 1986.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLD IT NOW, HIT IT")

BEASTIE BOYS: (Singing) Hit it.

RONSON: They used the hit it.

RAZ: And it's not just this one line that's been sampled over and over again since 1984, as Mark explained from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

RONSON: Over the next 10 years, "La Di Da Di" continues to be sampled by countless records, ending up on massive hits. Snoop Doggy Dogg covers the song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LODI DODI")

SNOOP DOGG: (Singing) Lodi dodi, we likes to party. We don't cause trouble. We don't bother nobody.

RONSON: On his debut album, "Doggystyle," and calls it "Lodi Dodi." Copyright lawyers are having a field day at this point.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA DI DA DI")

SLICK RICK AND DOUG E. FRESH: (Singing) Ricky, Ricky, Ricky, can't you see, somehow your words just hypnotize me.

RONSON: And then you fast-forward to 1997.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HYPNOTIZE")

NOTORIOUS B.I.G.: (Singing) Biggie, Biggie, Biggie, can't you see, sometimes words just hypnotize me.

RONSON: And The Notorious B.I.G., or Biggie, reinterprets "La Di Da Di" on his number one hit called "Hypnotize." So if we come all the way out to the present day now, the cultural tour de force that is Miley Cyrus, she reinterprets "La Di Da Di" completely for her generation. And we'll take a listen to the Slick Rick part and then see how she sort of flipped it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA DI DA DI")

SLICK RICK AND DOUG E. FRESH: (Singing) La di da di, we like to party. We don't cause trouble. We don't bother nobody.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE CAN'T STOP)

MILEY CYRUS: (Singing) La da di da di, we like to party

RAZ: (Singing) La di da da di. We like to party.

RONSON: Right, exactly.

RAZ: You know, I did the backing vocals for it.

RONSON: You did, I can tell.

RAZ: I didn't want to tell you before this began.

RONSON: That's very humble of you. I appreciate it.

RAZ: And there are so many more.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA DI DA DI")

SLICK RICK AND DOUG E. FRESH: (Singing) OK, party people in the house.

RAZ: That 'party people in the house,' sampled by Beyonce and Kanye West on this track.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PARTY")

KANYE WEST: (Singing) You a bad girl, and your friends bad, too.

RAZ: Even by the indie rock band Spoon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FINER FEELINGS")

SLICK RICK AND DOUG E. FRESH: (Singing): OK party people in the house.

RONSON: It's like a grunt from James Brown or, you know, a saxophone blurt from Jr. Walker. It's, like, it will sound good over everything, and it will always make your track sound more legit and more real and hip-hop.

RAZ: And the other thing about sampling, it's like reinventing something to such an extent that it becomes something new.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

RONSON: See, 30 years ago, you had the first digital samplers and they changed everything overnight. All of a sudden, artists could sample from anything and everything that came before them, from a snare drum from the Funky Meters, to a Ron Carter bassline, you know, the theme to "The Price Is Right." Albums like De La Soul's "3 Feet High And Rising" and the Beastie Boys' "Paul's Boutique," looted from decades of recorded music to create these sonic, layered masterpieces that were basically the Sergeant Peppers of their day.

But the thing is they were sampling those records because they heard something in that music that spoke to them that they instantly wanted to inject themselves into the narrative of that music. They heard it. They wanted to be a part of it, and all of a sudden, they found themselves in possession of the technology to do so, not much unlike the way the Delta blues struck a chord with the Stones and the Beatles and Clapton, and they felt the need to co-opt that music for the tools of their day. You know, in music, we take something that we love, and we build on it. That's just how it goes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "4 CHORDS")

AXIS OF AWESOME: (Singing) Forever young, I want to be forever young.

RAZ: So the idea here is that a lot of songs...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "4 CHORDS")

AXIS OF AWESOME: (Singing) I'm your biggest and I'll follow you until you love me, up a, up above me.

RAZ: Come from other songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "4 CHORDS")

AXIS OF AWESOME: (Singing) I can't believe.

RAZ: And of course is not just true for music. It's the same for film or novels or technology - pretty much every idea out there. Like, we sort of celebrate things that seem original, but, like, what is original?

RONSON: What's the quote which is the T.S. Eliot quote - isn't it? - which, apparently, he even stole from Picasso about, you know, genius steals great artists...

RAZ: Good artists borrow or copy, great artists steal...

RONSON: Yes.

RAZ: ...Something like that.

RONSON: Yes, we all - whether we steal or we borrow - it's impossible, even if you're telling yourself you're not stealing, subconsciously, you are influenced whether you like it or not.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "4 CHORDS")

AXIS OF AWESOME: (Singing) Can you feel the love tonight?

RAZ: We'll hear more of this song throughout show, by the way. Its from a group called Axis Of Awesome, and the song is called "4 Chords."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "4 CHORDS")

AXIS OF AWESOME: (Singing) Oh, country road, take me home.

RAZ: OK, so in music, there is a fine line between sampling, borrowing, paying homage and just plain ripping off. Here's more of Mark Ronson from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

RONSON: Since the dawn of the sampling era, there's been endless debate about the validity of music that contains samples. You know, the Grammy committee says that if your song contains some kind of prewritten or pre-existing music, you are ineligible for song of the year. Rockists, who are racist but only about rock music, constantly use the argument...

(LAUGHTER)

RONSON: That's a real word. That is a real word. They constantly use the argument to devalue rap and modern pop, and these arguments completely miss the point because the dam has burst. We live in a post-sampling era. We take the things that we love, and we build on them. And when we really add something significant and original, and we merge our musical journey with this, then we have a chance to be a part of the evolution of that music that we love and be linked with it once it becomes something new again.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REHAB")

AMY WINEHOUSE: (Singing) They tried to make me go to rehab, I said, no, no, no.

RONSON: Which was something that I learned when I was working with the late, amazing Amy Winehouse on her album "Back To Black."

WINEHOUSE: (Singing) Yes, I've been black, but when I come back you'll know, know, know.

RONSON: A lot of fuss was made about the sonic of the album that myself and Salaam Remi, the other producer, achieved, how we captured this long-lost sound. But without the very, very 21st-century personality and firebrand that was Amy Winehouse and her lyrics about rehab, the whole thing would have run the risk of being very pastiche, to be honest.

WINEHOUSE: (Singing) I ain't got 70 days.

RONSON: I mean, there is no doubt that Amy and I and Salaam all had this love for this gospel, soul and blues and jazz that was evident listening to the musical arrangements. So it was - she brought the ingredients that made it urgent and of the time.

WINEHOUSE: (Singing) Didn't get a lot in class. But I know it don't come in a shot glass.

RAZ: When you sit down to, like, write or produce something, and you've been listening to all of this music and you always listen to music, how do you sort of separate yourself from what's in your head or put your own spin on a sound that's just been swirling around inside of you?

RONSON: Well, you know, I DJ a lot as well. I still DJ, like, at, you know, clubs and all these festivals in the summer. And when it's time for me to make my own record, I really do have to just stop doing all of that 'cause you never know. You know, you've playing all this other music for an hour and half the night before you get in the studio. You're like - you don't want that to sort of filter into you. I mean Prince - I used to read interviews where he said he never listens to anyone else's but his own music. I mean, I guess if the songs I wrote were as good as Prince's, maybe that would apply to me.

RAZ: (Laughing).

RONSON: But so, you know, when it's time to work on the record, I kind of put the blinders on a bit more and make sure that, you know, I'm not too much listening to something - especially if it's something everyone is making a big fuss about 'cause that's last thing that you want to do - have that filter into your work. And by the time you put out this record you've worked for a year and a half and, someone says, like, oh, yeah, it sounds like Arcade Fire. And you just want to go jump out a window.

RAZ: (Laughing) Has that happened to you before?

RONSON: No, it hasn't. But it's like it's something that I'm, you know, wary of because, you know, at the end of the day, like, I think you'd be really hard-pressed to listen to something today and not be able to at least find four bars of it that's completely derivative of something else. Like, and that's why when I see young producers today, like kids who are 19, 20, they stay up all night just sampling straight from YouTube, which is dangerous in the kind of, you know, there's troubled lines there 'cause credit needs to go to the people who created the stuff in the first place, but it does make for some incredible, exciting art and, you know, it does mean that some little kid sitting in his basement in Ohio with a laptop can be making some of the most interesting music around.

RAZ: DJ and producer Mark Ronson. We asked him what he's borrowed for his own music. He mentioned a song called "Bang Bang Bang" that uses this 19th century nursery rhyme.

(SOUND BITE OF SONG, "BANG BANG BANG")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in French).

RAZ: "Alouette." A very interesting choice.

RONSON: Yes, that was a song that I had given to this singer named MNDR.

RONSON: You know, a lot of the singers that I work with, they just get on the mic and they kind of freestyle and the first thing that comes out - so I think what she sang the first time sounded a lot like abu datt ta or something like that, and she was like, oh, what if I - can I make it alouette? Yeah. It's kind of a French-Canadian nursery rhymes - anything's game.

RAZ: Mark Ronson's TED talk on sampling is at ted.com. Stay with us for more ideas about what's original. I'm Guy Raz and this is the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "4 CHORDS")

AXIS OF AWESOME: (Singing) Save tonight. Gonna take a lot to drag me away from you. There's nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.