[1.3] Free Samples

This episode explores the origins of sampling within the music landscape – how sampling isn’t merely a modern trend within popular music, how sampling and sampling controversies demonstrate the vast network that underlies the consumption and creation of musical innovation.

Podcast audio:


The Golden Age of Sampling

And just what era, would you prefer to live in, Miniver Cheevy?

The above video is an independent, collage-style documentary that provides comprehensive coverage of the sampling issue.

[Daft Punk – “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger”]

[De La Soul – “Plug Tunin'”]

The 80s and early 90s contain a significant series of moments in musical history that many endearingly and nostalgically refer to as Hip-Hop’s “Golden Age of Sampling.”  During this time period, our modern conception of the art, maybe the crime, of incorporating previous pieces of music into one’s own composition and recording was born.

[Midnight in Paris (2011) dialogue]

But does this notion of incorporating and building upon previous music indicate something uniquely innovative to the 1980s and 90s? Or is it, as rock producer Steve Albini proposes, indicative of something uniquely lazy?

  • “As a creative tool, like, for someone to use a sample of an existing piece of music for their music, I think it’s an extraordinarily lazy artistic choice. It’s much easier to take something that’s already awesome and play it again with your name on it.” [Copyright Criminals]

[Nirvana – “Smells Like Teen Spirit”]

[Queen & David Bowie – “Under Pressure”]

Some cases of sampling are relatively simple, heavily sampling the entire framework of preceding tracks. This brings to mind the Vanilla Ice’s transparent repurposing of “Under Pressure” by David Bowie and Queen for “Ice Ice Baby” – a track that drastically and infamously outsold its predecessor.

  • “But what the photographer is to the painter, is what modern producer/dj is to the modern instrumentalist”

[Public Enemy – “Fight the Power”]

Vanilla Ice, while something of an archetype and not entirely unoriginal or kitsch as a pop artist, only represents a fraction of the time’s sampling movement. On the opposite side of spectrum, were the sound collages of a diverse set of hip-hop acts, such as Public Enemy and De La Soul. The producers of these tracks would dexterously isolate, manipulate, and patch together a handful of elements from a handful of different songs, movie clips, and historical speeches to synthesize a single track.

[Midnight in Paris (2011) clip]

Take, for instance, Public Enemy’s iconic track “Fight the Power.” Over the course of five minutes, the collective raps over and intricately weaves together about 19 samples – ranging from the break beat from James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” to a two-second riff from Syl Johnson’s “Different Strokes.”

A History of Thievery

Website and mobile app dedicated to revealing sampling connections.  Click on the screenshot to visit the site.
Website and mobile app dedicated to revealing sampling connections. Click on the screenshot to visit the site.

Regardless of whether we’re talking about sampling’s intricate, involved sound collages or simple patchworks, we still need to answer the first question – is the notion of incorporating and building upon previous music unique or innovative?

In this broad sense? Absolutely not…

[Octave Minds – “Initials KK”]

When approached by those who realized his First Symphony borrowed musical phrases from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, 19th century German composer Johannes Brahm asserted “Any jackass can see that.”

[The Colbert Report – Steve Jobs]

Romantic composer Gustav Mahler responded to similar allegations concerning his Third Symphony’s utilization of one of Beethoven’s themes with a slightly less aggressive, “Any fool can see that.”

[Copyright Criminals clip – “Rock and Roll is lazy…”]

Musicians and innovators across artistic and intellectual fields have always been consuming and creating – building upon and directly borrowing from each other’s work. Creation has never been about reinventing the wheel, but rather it’s been about continuously improving and building upon the invention of the wheel.  To risk sounding like a broken record, what’s unique about sampling is the way it demonstrates the evolution of musical space.  Let’s briefly re-re-visit David Byrne’s talk about music venues:

So I ask myself: do I write stuff for specific rooms?  Do I have a place, a venue, in mind when I write?  Is that a kind of model for creativity?  Do we all make things with a venue, a context, in mind? [David Byrne]

[Zodiac – “138”]

In our previous two episodes, we discussed how a music is a product of the space it navigates:

  • In our first episode, we discussed how a space’s acoustic characteristics promote and demote certain musical forms are embedded in a venue’s physical space.
  • In our second episode, we discussed how – through censorship – a space can promote and demote certain lyrical content and certain lyrical content form.

In concerns to sampling, musical spaces are largely concerned with granting an audience access to music. The extent of this access has evolved as music has evolved to navigate new spaces in new ways.

The way Mahler consumed Beethoven’s Symphony as an audience member and then reincorporated and recreated elements into his own composition and performance is drastically from the way Public Enemy samples the Isley Brothers.

Recording Revolution and Complications

[Copyright Criminals montage]

[Flying Lotus – “Tesla”]

With the advent of the turntable and other digital performance equipment, tools which originally were meant to grant the audience access to vinyl or digital recordings were turned on their heads, becoming the very tools that enabled artists to reincorporate recorded music into their own recordings. Never before had music creators been able to take music in the exact way that it had originally been performed and splice it directly into their own recordings.

[Copyright Criminals montage]

What made the late 80s and early 90s the Golden Age of Sampling wasn’t solely access to music digitally. In conjunction with access to music in this particular format, this period provided an unobstructed window of access to copyrighted music property largely free of legal and economic structures.

[Copyright Criminals montage]

Albums such as the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique and Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back utilized about 110 samples each over 16 or 17 tracks. These works flourished in this time simply because the country’s economic and legal structures were a grey area – no copyright laws specifically addressed sampling because it hadn’t existed, nor was the legal system particularly concerned with addressing the wave of sampling. That is, until the wave became economically viable.

[J.G. Wentworth commercial clip]

[Drake – “Pound Cake”]

As the movement began to take over the spotlight, the owners of the copyrights of the music being sampled began to take notice and began to demand compensation.

After a handful of cases settled out of court, two cases fundamentally changed the way sampling artists navigated the musical spaces to access samples.

First, in 1991, rap group De La Soul was sued for $1.7 million after they failed to obtain a license to loop a few seconds of an obscure song performed by psychedelic rock band The Turtles. This sent a pretty clear message to sampling artists to obtain copyright permission.

[Copyright Criminals montage]

[Wu Tang Clan – “CREAM”]

Shortly after, Biz Markie was sued and then taken to criminal court over a sample/parody of Gilbert O’Sullivan’s song “Alone Again (Naturally).” Markie’s label had approached O’Sullivan before the song’s release to clear the sample, but O’Sullivan denied access. Markie proceeded to released the song as part of his album and O’Sullivan accused him of theft. Kevin Duffy, the judge presiding over the case, infamously declared – in explicitly biblical terms “thou shalt not steal.”  He also declared that Markie’s album had to be removed from the shelves of music stores.

Mind you, this didn’t kill sampling-heavy collage music. It did make commercial sampling more difficult to access through the newly reconstructed musical space.

[Atoms for Peace – “Ingenue”]

These cases fundamentally changed the way artists are able to access and utilize samples. The easy access that accompanied the digital format was qualified by the looming economic and legal threats. In fact, sampling became a matter of cost analysis for the samplers. Sampling artists had to estimate whether or not their utilization of a sample would bring in enough income to cover accompanying legal fees – not only would artists have to pay for the licenses, but they’d have to hire a legal team to track down all the licenses surrounding a recording. Economically vulnerable and burdened labels had to okay potential samples before songs were even constructed, ultimately, reversing the order of operations.

[Copyright Criminals montage]

[Kanye West – “Amazing”]

Ostensibly, this process seems fair. When artist directly borrows from the work of another artist, they obtain a copyright license from the artist and pay them royalties whenever they sell the sampled record.

Yet, this reorientation of access yields some ramifications concerning sampling and compensation. Whereas the late 80s/early 90s featured artists using over a 100 samples per album and thousands of samples across their careers, the heaviest commercial samplers of the 2000s utilized a drastically lesser amount of samples. For instance, Kanye West, one of the heaviest sampling producers today, uses at most 30 samples per album. Public Enemy’s albums contained individual tracks that integrated 25 samples themselves. In the span of 15 years, and the landscape of access was regulated drastically with the introduction of economically-motivated legal standards.

[James Brown – “Funky Drummer”]

As for compensation, these new legal standards often fail to compensate the artists being sampled from digital recordings.

The most infamous example is of drummer Clyde Stubblefield. Known as the most sampled artist of all time, he has been sampled thousands and thousands of times by popular artists including Prince, LL Cool J, and Dr. Dre…and he while these artists all obtained proper licenses, Stubblefield never got paid.

[Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1971) clip]

[Mos Def – “Mathematics”]

Royalties paid by samplers to the copyright owners go two places – one, to the owners of the published recording – usually the sampled artists record label – and two, to the owners of the composition. Often, only the band’s vocalist or lyricist is the only one to get listed as composer. So for all of Clyde’s break beats as the Funky Drummer, James Brown was the only musician compensated.

This legal labyrinth that this is emerging as artists sample other sampling artists also illuminates the ubiquity of sampling throughout music history.

A comprehensive project (book, mixtape, etc) that centers around the complex legal system that upholsters intellectual copyright in the music industry. Click on the screenshot to visit the site.

Screen Shot 2014-10-30 at 12.32.41 PM
A comprehensive project that centers around the complex legal system that upholsters intellectual copyright in the music industry.

[Jay Z – “Takeover”]

Let’s quickly break down Jay Z’s track titled “Takeover,” published in 2001. Strangely enough, because of the way Jay Z says the word “Fame” on this track, he has to obtain a license from David Bowie — for his song “Fame.”  But this doesn’t seem so strange in comparison to the rest of the song’s licenses:

  • Because it samples a brief lyric from 80s/90s rapper KRS One’s “Sound of Da Police,” it accordingly has to obtain the licenses for that song.
  • But “Sound of Da Police” samples a song by the 1960s British Rock act “The Animals” called “Inside Looking Out” and Jay Z  hat to obtain a license even though his song contains no direct elements.
  • Furthermore, “Inside Looking Out” is a cover of a 19th century folk song called “Rosie” that was recorded by Alan Lomax  in the 1940s –  Jay Z has to obtain yet another license for a record that can’t be heard on his song. In fact, Alan Romax is credited as a cowriter on Jay Z’s track.

[Flying Lotus – “Zodiac ****”; “Robo Tussin”; Zodiac – “Loss Config.”]

Ultimately, we can clearly follow a line of musical influence, from folk music to British rock to modern hip-hop – a network of innovation and creation that we never would have realized previous to the advent of the legal structures surrounding sampling, let alone sampling itself.

In the decades since the law has been reapplied because of sampling, Led Zeppelin has been taken to court dozens of times for allegedly stealing bits and pieces of other artist’s work 40 years after they published the material. Before sampling reshaped the music landscape, noone would have considered ownership over snippets of Led Zeppelin recordings.

All of the complications and moral quandries surrounding sampling ownership and compensation today make explicit what formerly had been left implicit — or, maybe, audible what had been left inaudible.

[Spongebob Squarepants: 3:52a “Chocolate with Nuts.”]

[Kanye West – “Stronger”]

The new act of trying to economically compensate a copyright owner is problematic, as those who are ultimately granted copyright ownership only represent a small fraction of the people directly contributing to the record.

But, when we discuss and debate compensation, we consider the vast complicated network that contributes to a creative musical act. We consider that music isn’t and never was a singular act of expression in a studio. We consider the conglomeration and collaboration of a singer’s voice, a drummer’s beat, a guitarist’s riff, and a producer’s assemblage of sound. We consider the contribution of a recording and publishing label. We discover the contribution of musical predecessors. Each of these components claiming partial ownership of the right to access and play that piece of music reveals the complex landscape of musical creation and innovation that has always existed.

The introduction of modern sampling and its surrounding economic and legal structures have effectively changed the way society considers ownership of creativity and innovation.

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