Genre of the Week: Plunderphonics

by Zac Kerwin (Music Industry), published December 11th 2016

The music scene has always been full of tiny artistic pockets. All it takes is a small group of likeminded artists, a splash of good luck, and willing fans, and before you know it a Scene has evolved. This is where we get gems like vaporwave, witch house, and lots of other genres that probably seemed very cool at the time. This week, we’re featuring…


Key artists: The Avalanches, DJ Shadow, DJ Food, John Oswald

Peak years: 1996-2003

Tracks to check out: The Avalanches’ “Frontier Psychiatrist,” DJ Shadow’s “Midnight in a Perfect World,” U.N.K.L.E’s “U.N.K.L.E Main Title Theme,” RJD2’s “Ghostwriter”

The concept of sampling has become one of the most popular production techniques in today’s music world. Essentially, sampling is the practice of incorporating bits and pieces of previously recorded material into a new, different song. This technique has helped define a genre, as just about every hip-hop song makes use of this method. However, most of these songs consist of just one or two samples. This is where Plunderphonics comes in, a revolutionary genre wherein songs are made completely from samples.

The term was coined by the influential composer John Oswald in his essay “Plunderphonics, or Audio Piracy as a Compositional Prerogative,” which, compared to other genres, is easily the most uncool origin in music history. It began with composers like Oswald physically slicing and merging tapes of popular songs into massive, strangely pretty sound collages. This was then coopted many years later for more mainstream usage by late-90s producers like DJ Shadow, J Dilla, and most notably the Australian duo The Avalanches.

There is something about this genre that is inherently affecting. Despite there being no original vocal or musical performances, there is still so much authentic emotion in every track. For example, take the Avalanches’ breakout album Since I Left You, which has been said to make use of over thousands of different samples. At points, it is everything from nostalgic, to beautiful, to straight-up hilarious. It’s crazy to think that a song containing a sample of a horse whinny, audio from a 50’s golf instructional video and a mariachi band can, first, hold someone’s interest for more the 3 seconds, and second, actually have an effect on someone. Each sample just blends and meshes in a way that a whole, utterly new sound develops.

One of the most important and inevitable aspects of Plunderphonics is the attention drawn to copyright laws regarding the use of samples. Many artists usually don’t have the resources or access to properly clear most of the samples in their albums, and often this results in legal action from huge studios. With this, greedy record labels have found yet another way to make a quick buck whilst also limiting artists’ ability to create music. Some Plunderphonics artists therefore make a point to protest these overly-oppressive laws with their albums, and aggressive strides have been made recently in combating these laws.

Inspiring different artists like MF DOOM all the way to house DJs like Madeon, Plunderphonics has quietly become one of the most influential genres in modern music. A trip into the depths of the genre is definitely worth it.

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