Odd Frequencies: A Brief History of Sampling Radio Stations

How The Beatles, Public Enemy, Exile, and Swarvy used radio stations to their artistic advantage.

Welcome to Micro-Chop, a newsletter dissecting beatmaking, DJing, music production, rapping, and sampling — written by me, Gino Sorcinelli.

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Odd Frequencies: A Brief History of Sampling Radio Stations

In the fall of 1967 The Beatles were in the midst of recording their bizarre and endlessly enduring song “I Am The Walrus” when John Lennon happened to catch a BBC Radio broadcast of Shakespeare’s King Lear playing on a radio.

In an inspired moment, the group recorded the performance and incorporated it into the end of their song. The out of context dialogue adds a nice punch to the track, bringing in another surreal element to one of their oddest recordings.

Though the use of any radio sounds in recorded music was certainly an innovative recording technique at the time, the art of sampling radio frequencies would further evolve to new and unfathomable heights over the years.

Another notable moment in imaginative radio sampling took place 23 years later when Public Enemy started recording their third record Fear of a Black Planet. Chuck D, who employed pause tape techniques for the demo version of "Public Enemy No. 1," returned to his cassette tape roots for the album’s introduction.

On "Contract on the World Love Jam," Chuck and his fellow Bomb Squad producers somehow cram an unfathomable number of samples into a mere 1 minute and 44 seconds. Many of those snippets of sound had one common source: a cassette tape recording of the radio. "A lot of the samples on ‘Contract’ came from me taping radio stations, taking bites of interviews and commercials,” Chuck told Mark Dery in a 1990 Keyboard magazine interview.

Instead of creating a random hodgepodge of vocals, Chuck and the rest of The Bomb Squad were very deliberate in how they stitched the words together, with Chuck using his songwriting talents to give the composition a heightened intensity. “Sometimes I might go through the dial,” he told Keyboard magazine. “Iust sampling at random, keeping it on a cassette, listen to the cassette, and say, ‘Well, being that I'm the lyric writer, how should I arrange these fragments so they'll add up to a kind of a song?’”

There’s certainly thoughtful sound collage taking place on “Contract on the World Love Jam” to send a carefully crafted message to the listener (read the full lyrics here), but veteran producer Exile would bring yet another new level of artistry to radio sampling in 2009 when he decided to make an entire album out radio samples.

The idea first took root during a trip to Miami while other people took over driving responsibilities. After picking up an unspecified device at Radio Shack, Exile realized he could connect the radio directly into his MPC and cook up beats in the car while someone else drove.

When he eventually decided to make a full album out of nothing but radio samples, he committed to radio sounds for every single aspect of the song—not even allowing himself a single snare drum from a record. “I used some of the static as hi-hats,” he told XXL in a 2009 interview. “I used some of frequencies on AM, I put in key on the opening track.”

If you listen to the incredible amount of layering and swithups on tracks like “Mega Mix,” it seems like an otherworldly accomplishment that someone could make such impressive music out of an incredibly specific sample source. Despite the sampling dexterity demonstrated throughout the album, Exile kept his creative regiment rather loose and free flowing while he recorded. “I would just sit there and listen to the radio as I was recording and capture what came off to me,” he told XXL. “I would record the radio and then just start chopping it up.”

For an album where much of the music was born from spontaneity, Exile dedicated considerable time and attention to the messages he wanted to send to listeners through sampled dialogue and lyrics. “I realized that I could use volume switches as a cross-fader on my boombox, and that the vocal samples off the radio could be manipulated to communicate something that I believed to be true,” he told journalist Jeff Weiss in a 2009 L.A. Times Music Blog interview. “I tried to either sample things I agreed with or re-form things I didn’t, in a way that represented humanity.”

Four years after Exile’s memorable addition to the radio sampling canon, multi-instrumentalist and producer Swarvy released his Talking Heads EP. According to a 2016 Bandcamp Daily interview with Andrew Martin, the EP was a watershed moment that marked the producer’s newfound ability to fully translate the ideas in his brain into satisfying composition. “I was more comfortable than before, and I was able to clearly express my ideas,” Swarvy said.

This clarity in expression came from Swarvy’s ability to handle elements of post production and song sequencing that went beyond merely composing a beat. “This marks a transition in the way I made things, the way I sequenced and mastered the tracks, and the way I chopped everything up,” he told Bandcamp Daily.

Viewing the album as a form of sonic college, Swarvy tried to craft instrumentals that could different senses within his listeners. “It’s some collage-type shit,” he told Bandcamp Daily. “I tried to make it more visual.”

And what did he use as his one and only sample source? “I stitched everything together with radio sounds,” he told Bandcamp Daily.

Though Talking Heads is unfortunately unavailable at the moment, hopefully Swarvy will consider re-upping this important moment in radio sampling history.

As for the future of flipping radio samples, the next great artistic breakthrough is likely just around the corner.

Thanks for reading, see you on Friday!

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