Musical DNA: WhoSampled iPhone App Scours Tracks for Borrowed Riffs

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If you’ve heard all of the new Bruce Springsteen album, Wrecking Ball, you’ve probably wondered, listening to its final rousing track, “We Are Alive,” why that song sounds so familiar. Or maybe you got the riff right away on your own — a nod to the signature eight-note motif in Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” Because who hasn’t heard Cash’s song a zillion times, right?

But there’s another track on the Boss’s new album dubbed “Death to My Hometown” that I’ll bet you didn’t know contains direct samples from another relatively obscure musical group.

(MORE: Mashable Snags New Bruce Springsteen Single ‘Wrecking Ball’)

Ever heard of the early twentieth-century group Alabama Sacred Harp Singers? Their song “The Last Words of Copernicus”? From Southern Journey Volume 9: Harp of a Thousand Strings – All Day Singing From the Sacred Harp? Held within the Alan Lomax Collection of ethnographic materials?

Me neither. Except they’re just about the first thing you hear five seconds after Springsteen’s song starts — that glorious full-throated choir, over which Springsteen’s laid a rousing foot-stomp and bagpipes.

I got the “We Are Alive” Cash “hook/riff” reference on the first listen, but I never would have figured out the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers in “Death to My Hometown” on my own. I’d never even heard of them (despite, it seems, having heard songs inspired by them in the movie Cold Mountain). I just assumed the singing was by a contemporary choir done in the studio.

My tipster: WhoSampled, a musical search engine that can unearth who sampled or covered a song, building chains of connectivity that, in the company’s own words, allow users to “explore the DNA of music.”

Flattery Will Get You Nowhere. Sampling, on the Other Hand…

In this case, I was using the new $2.99 iPhone version of the technology, which not only offers access to the full gamut of WhoSampled’s online wares, but can scan your local music library and give you a rundown of your music’s history, so-to-speak, sorted by “tracks” or “artists.”

Since I have Wrecking Ball in my library, let’s finish WhoSampled’s insider rundown: There’s the song “Land of Hope and Dreams,” which WhoSampled tells me contains a “replayed sample” (a vocal or lyric line) from The Impressions’ “People Get Ready.”

There’s “Rocky Ground,” which employs a “direct sample” of Peerless Four’s “I’m a Soldier in the Army of the Lord” (from Southern Journey Volume 8: Velvet Voices, another Alan Lomax Collection recording). And there’s “Shacked and Drawn,” which references Lyn Collins’ “Me and My Baby Got Our Own Thing Going” by way of another “replayed” vocal/lyrical sample.

I’m assuming most will get obvious references like Springsteen’s “People Get Ready” quote 5:30 into “Land of Hope and Dreams,” but the one from Peerless Four? Lyn Collins? Who knew?

The app’s iPhone interface itself is elegant and uncluttered, and if you’re scanning sampled tracks, the application places the original and sampled versions left and right, respectively, with arrows indicating who sampled whom. And WhoSampled delineates between the kind of sampling, be it direct, an instrumental riff, or the interposition of another song’s lyrics.

If you drill on older, popular music, like Seal’s “Crazy,” you’ll find a wealth of secondary information as well. In the case of “Crazy,” for instance, there’s its sampling of Led Zeppelin’s “The Crunge,” but you’ll also note it was sampled (by Seal himself) in his cover of “Fly Like an Eagle.” You’ll see it’s been covered at least five times by artists including Iron Savior and Alanis Morissette. And you’ll discover any remixes, like the William Orbit version released on the “Crazy” maxi-single in 1990.

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Depending on the largesse of YouTube, WhoSampled even offers embedded YouTube versions of a sampled/covered/remixed song. Want to hear Alanis Morisette’s take on “Crazy”? Click the play icon and WhoSampled pops the iPhone’s YouTube player open fullscreen and runs the track. From here you can add the sample/cover/remix to your favorites, discuss it, rate it, look for similar songs and see who contributed the link. In the case of songs that sample other songs, WhoSampled lists where the sample appears, in minutes and seconds, just above the YouTube clip, so you can quickly find it.

If WhoSampled doesn’t have a YouTube link for a song, it offers clips from alternative sources, like iTunes (though in the latter’s case, you lose the “sample timing” and you’re limited to the iTunes preview length). And when you tap “Done,” the playback screen minimizes — there’s no kludgy inter-application switching.

Record Scratch?

For all the upsides, the app has a few serious downers. It doesn’t list the timing of the sample’s appearance in the original track itself, which can be confusing. Sometimes YouTube clips set the actual music playing later or earlier, say someone’s placed a silent text intro before the song starts. So in Bruce Springsteen’s “We Are Alive,” for instance, WhoSampled lists the Cash sample’s appearance in the YouTube video as beginning at 1:33, which is spot-on for the video.

But in the actual track off the album, the sample starts at 1:28, five seconds sooner. No big deal for an easily recognizable song like “Ring of Fire,” but you can see where it might be confusing as the samples get more obscure or they’re less obviously foregrounded in the mix.

It’d be nice to see WhoSampled add an “in the actual track” time listing. I initially misread the “sample appears at…” time as applicable to the track, flipped over to my iTunes library, scrubbed to 1:33 and overshot.

Another issue: Sometimes artists have multiple cover versions of a song, but WhoSampled doesn’t find them all. In the example above — Alanis Morisette’s cover of “Crazy” — WhoSampled only knew about the 5:22 version (with about 577,000 views). But there’s a shorter, much more popular (over 1.8 million views) and notably different (think dance) 3:41 version by her here that WhoSampled — both the app and website — didn’t seem to know about (it’s less a criticism of the app than the WhoSampled backend itself).

And sometimes the WhoSampled app misses tracks entirely. On George Michael’s 1990 album Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 — currently in my listen-to library — there’s a track titled “Waiting for That Day” with glaringly obvious references to The Rolling Stones’ 1969 song of the same name. In fact, the whole song is basically the Stones’ chords and rhythms with different lyrics (Michael even kicks in with the Stones’ chorus at 4:16 to close out the song, and both Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are credited as co-writers). And yet the WhoSampled app ignored that, too, even though the online version found it without trouble.

Conclusion

It’s enlightening to make the musical connections WhoSampled already knows about, but when you discover they’re incomplete, the app starts to feel more like a jumping off point than an encyclopedic reference database. After all, the last thing you want is to be second-guessing the completeness of something that bills itself as a musical DNA roadmap.

Factor in the app’s higher-than-expected $2.99 price tag (the service is available free on the web), and it’s hard to recommend. If the company can clean up its scanning technology so it’s not missing local tracks in your iPhone library during scans, as well as fill in the occasional referential blanks, like when a song has multiple different cover versions by the same artist, $2.99 for a complete cataloguing tool would be a bargain. But until then, your mileage may — and probably will — vary.

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