Traditionally, cover versions have got a bad rep (Fall Out Boy doing ‘Ghostbusters’ anyone?) but when skilfully done a good cover version can breathe new life into a classic track and introduce it to a whole new audience. As making music with samples becomes trickier than ever, perhaps it’s time to turn to the humble cover version?
Kevin McKay, the founder of much-respected house label, Glasgow Underground, has released an album existing entirely of covers. The aptly titled, “No Samples Were Harmed In The Making Of This Record” is first and foremost, an expertly produced piece of work featuring fourteen new cover versions of timeless house and disco tracks. But it came to life after McKay wanted to make up-to-date edits and reworks of his favourite house and disco tunes for use in his DJ sets, and with the advance in audio recognition technology, found it nearly impossible to test out these sample-based tracks without months of legal work and extortionate clearance costs. Side-stepping any impact on his creativity, McKay’s answer was to create brand new versions of those very classics, including Move Your Body, I Feel Love, Get Get Down, Technologic, and A Deeper Love (currently #34 on Beatport), and bring them bang up to date for a modern dance floor.
Here the platinum-selling producer discusses the use of samples in the current world of dance music, addresses how the current system impacts on the creative process of making sample based music, and what can be done about it.
It must have been difficult selecting just 14 classic tracks for the album. How did you decide which tracks would feature?
It wasn’t a difficult process to select the tracks, but it was one that took up a reasonable amount of time. First of all, I wanted to make sure that the songs were still relevant to dance floors today and so I did edits of the original tracks to play out. I tried out loads of ideas and I’m lucky that the crowd at Mick’s Garage, where I play regularly, has been open to my reworks! I had some ideas that were quirky that worked (taking Randy Crawford’s not-really-a-dance version of “Hallelujah” and making it a gospel house thing) and others that didn’t (I have a rework of Madonna’s “Angel” that is going nowhere just now and – surprisingly to me – a club mix of Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy The Silence” that fell completely flat when I played it out). Out of the ones that worked, I had to make sure that Tyrrell, the vocal producer I work with, could get someone that could either imitate the original or deliver a vocal that wasn’t a soundalike, but was in a similar style. After a track satisfied all those credentials, it was more than likely going on the album!
Making a high-quality cover version must be a challenge. Any tips for producers who might be thinking of taking a similar route?
I think the best advice I can give is that you should know your strengths and also recognise your weaknesses. That way you can concentrate on the things you are good at and then get help for the things you aren’t so brilliant at. I often say to DJs who have made the transition into music production who often don’t have years of learning instruments behind them, that if it is their name on the record, they have to think of themselves as a producer (in the old school sense). If they think a record needs X to make it better, find someone who gives you that X. If you’re not capable, don’t try and do it yourself. One of the worst things you can do when making a record is think “that’ll have to do” when it comes to a musical part etc. I am an okay keyboard player but there are lots of people better than me and – more often than not – if the keyboard parts are complicated, I’ll get someone in to do them. It’s the same with mixdowns. I’ve mixed some big records – the whole of Mylo’s platinum-selling “Destroy Rock’n’Roll” and all its 5 Top 40 singles – and my mixes are good enough to test things as a DJ, but I’m not as good as others. I now use an engineer to mix my records because I want them to be the absolute best they can be.
What steps do you think the industry should take to make the sample clearing process faster and cheaper?
I think first of all there should be more education. The internet has been brilliant for democratising music. There are virtually no barriers to market now and I love that. However, the fact that anyone can start a record label has meant that there are a lot of people out there that don’t know what they are doing. It feels to me like it would be a good idea to have something similar to a driving test that label owners had to complete before they began putting out music. It might not be ideal, but it would be one way of making sure that everyone was operating with at least a solid knowledge base.
From there I think there are two issues. Firstly, I don’t think clearing master samples is ever going to be easy. You’re never going to get the major labels to give you a fair and easy shot at sampling Prince’s catalogue, for example. There will always be samples that are cleared for certain artists and not others and there will always be some samples you have to pay a fortune for. That said, clearing the publishing side, or asking the songwriter if you can adapt their song in the way you would like with your sample could be much easier.
There are some basic guidelines and unwritten rules for how much of your song you should give away to the writer of the sample. From my experience, for a classic “song”, 50% of the copyright is in the lyrics, 25% in the melody attached to the lyrics (or other topline melodies) and 25% to the backing track. I’ve also experienced things from a dance point of view where an artist samples one or two phrases from a song but has their own track underneath with its own hooks (bassline or synth for example), and those tracks get shared 50/50 between the writers. If these “rules” were adopted by a government-backed body like the PRS/MCPS and they gave out sample licenses, then the process would be much smoother for everyone. It might not be an ideal solution, but it would go some way to making sure samples were getting cleared and original writers were getting paid.
What’s your favourite sampled record of all time?
I have two categories for this. The first is records that the use of samples is so good that the new record is greater than the sum of its parts. For me, that one is the Moodymann favourite “Lose My Mind” by House of Jazz. Secondly, there are records where the artist has sampled so creatively that they take a distinctly average track and turn it into something genius. My two favourite ones for this are Grum sampling Don Johnson’s “Heartbeat” for his track “Heartbeats”, and Daft Punk sampling Eddie John’s “More Spell On You” for “One More Time”. Both cases the artist takes a small amount of the original track and then transposes it to create a hook that is better than (and importantly not infringing) anything in the original song.
And the one that should never have been touched?!
I think it’s hard to say that something should never be done. I’m not sure music works with that kind of rule. There are loads of keyboard warriors that are up in arms about the covers I’ve done! I’m all for rules when it comes to making sure the right thing is done (in terms of rights, samples, etc), but I don’t think creativity should be confined by them. There are some edits that I would be very wary about turning into full-blown covers because I think it would be very hard to compete with the vibe of the original (I have edits of Fleetwood Mac and Empire Of The Sun that will probably stay as edits for that reason), but I wouldn’t say, “never”!
Were there any covers that didn’t make the album that we can expect for release on Glasgow Underground?
I did a version of Global Communications’ “The Way” that was released this year that I didn’t put on, mainly because it’s a pure club track and I wanted this album to be something that would work for people at home, by the pool, at a party, etc. I have a few more up my sleeve too but since I have started doing them, quite a lot of producers have joined in and the whole thing has become more popular so I don’t want to give away anything that’s in production now!
Album aside, what else is coming up on Glasgow Underground that we should keep an ear out for?
We have our usual mix of house and tech coming up with – I hope – a nice balance of underground jams and party-starters (which is how I think I DJ!). The label is starting to form a solid core of artists so you can expect more things from Sam Dexter, Joshwa, Alaia & Gallo, Qubiko & CASSIMM.
What production are you most proud of from your 20-year career?
Oh wow, that’s a tough one! I’ve made hundreds of records and I’m probably going to think of a better one, but I’m going to go with what first came to mind. Initially, I thought of Mylo’s album, but I think that is my ego talking because it was the most successful! Immediately afterwards I thought of a record I made in 1994 with Andy Carrick at his family home in Eaglesham, Scotland. At the time I was trying to create these warm, emotive records that would really tweak your heartstrings as they made you move on the dancefloor. I think “Stella Sunday” was the best one we made. We originally recorded it for Junior Boys Own’s Jus’ Trax imprint and the name comes from the all-day pub sessions my friends and I would have after a big Saturday night out.