Risky business

Seventeen years after its advent, sampling remains mired in legal and aesthetic controversy

Obtaining permission would have prevented his dilemma, but Markie had a point: Like, who in the hell ever remembered Gilbert O'Sullivan? But the constant threat of lawsuits from artists and publishing companies established an unprecedented demand for "sampling administration."

Sample clearance houses, such as Diamond Time and Sample Clearance Ltd., are in the business of obtaining legally binding copyright clearances for their clients. When a label or sampling artist submits a tape of sampled works, these companies spend two to three weeks investigating and confirming writers, publishers, and owners of the original work and master recordings. Once contacts are established, the company will then begin negotiating terms for fees to be paid--one for publishing and another for use of the master. Of course, there is a substantial fee for these services on top of all that.

And all of this gets real expensive when you have a whole album full of samples. A company called Songwriter Services shuffled paperwork for the crunch-funk band Phunk Junkeez, and a $39,200 sampling bill was sent to its label. The forthcoming album, Fear of a Wack Planet, is to be released by Trauma/BMG, which refused to pick up the tab. The maddening expenses are even more appalling for the band because, as front man Joe Valiente exclaims, "There are absolutely no musical samples on the album--these are all just vocal scratches!"

"We wanted to use a vocal scratch from Run D.M.C.: 'Best DJ in the US of A!'" he explains. "We were quoted between 25 to 50 percent of our publishing on the new song and an advance of $3,000 to $5,000, which they would have to get in cash before our record is even released. Then you gotta pay the label who owns the publishing a rollover, which is $3,000 to $5,000 cash after every 100,000 units we sell."

Without the label's help, Phunk Junkeez came up a little short at the sampling supermarket checkout line and decided to put some things back on the shelf. The group went back in the studio and re-created many of the vocal blips themselves and brought the sampling expenses down to about $10,000. These types of hassles contribute to the love-hate relationship often associated with sampling.

An artist's take on the craft of sampling often reflects the manner in which he deals with legalities. Abstract-sampling artists rarely pay, because no one will ever recognize something sampled from an old 78 still covered with attic dust. Others are historians with vast musical knowledge and a collection to match. For hip-hop producer extraordinaire DJ Premier, samples are only credited when they absolutely have to be; the gamble is that most of the others will fall upon ears that are none the wiser.

"Why give up everything on an album?" Premier says. "There's a chance it may never be recognized, so I don't let 'em know beforehand."

Geoff Barrow, the mastermind behind the trip-hop duo Portishead, is also considerate of the source. The group's hit "Sour Times" borrows nearly as much from Lalo Schifrin's "Danube Incident" as Will Smith's "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It" takes from Sister Sledge's "He's the Greatest Dancer." The difference here is knowing musical history rather than just being doomed to repeat it. The artistic difference between these two examples is like comparing the popularity of Nagels to Basquiat.

Sampling artists are like impressionists; their samples, like paint. Individual samples are chosen, but when mixed together, the timbres begin to change. By the time you stand back and look at the whole picture, it's impossible to tell exactly what colors were on the palette. Obviously, those who choose only one color paint a less interesting picture.

Mike Simpson, one-half of the production duo known as the Dust Brothers, understands this well. "We really feel like we're creating new works, and a lot of people out there sampling, especially in the rap world, aren't creating new works," says one of the men behind such cut-and-paste classics as Paul's Boutique and Odelay. "They're basically putting new lyrics to another person's song."

Simpson is undoubtedly speaking about Combs, the king of blatant sampling. The businessman-turned-rapper enjoys quadruple-platinum sales, but endures considerable criticism for his lack of originality. If music sampling is a Garden of Eden filled with temptations, then Combs has embodied sin by swallowing the apple whole. Combs helps himself to entire song loops and choruses like a customer obtaining self-service copies at Kinko's: His "remakes" are just old hits with better videos.

Prophets of pop predict that Combs eventually will pay a different sort of price for his sampling. Financially, he can actually afford to surrender 75 percent or more of his publishing to the original artists--mo' money, no problems with clearances. Echoing the defensiveness of MC Hammer, Combs admits, "Yes, I sample records...that's my shit! But you can't say you ain't gonna dance to my shit. When that muthafucka comes on, your ass is jigglin.'"

At least he admits it. The Verve copped a sample and then an attitude when the whole thing blew up in its face last year. The group's hit song "Bitter Sweet Symphony" contains a four-bar loop of an orchestral version of the Rolling Stones' song "The Last Time." ABKCO Music owns 100 percent of the publishing rights and denied clearance, stopping the single's release dead in its tracks. Only after 50 percent shares were negotiated for both Keith Richards and Mick Jagger was the single released.

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