Risky business

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

The digital sampler, the most utilized musical-production tool of recent years, is the perfect invention for the here and now. The sampler is attuned to every hedonistic and automated whim; for many musicians and producers, a guitar is like a pinball machine in an arcade full of digital Playstations. With the push of a few buttons, samplers can copy and manipulate any sound, loop any beat, and sequence and sound endlessly. This may seem much too easy, but despite the cries of a generation that won't let go of the power chord, such devices have become real instruments.

As the sampler's most successful--and controversial--current user, Sean "Puffy" Combs, recently conceded: "I never played no instruments. I never programmed no drum machines. So if I was at a party and heard a record that I loved, I would figure out a way to bring that record to life."

Combs' technique often is reduced to what he unabashedly calls "beat jacking," but sampling succeeds in more subtle ways as well. These machines have gone so far as to fatten the sound of real drums in the studio and onstage. The regimented and rhythmic sounds they produce so well can be heard in almost every type of music, even that of fossils such as the Rolling Stones. And when they are not merely exploited as copy machines, samplers hold the key to unlimited resources in the hands of those who wish to create.

The way in which music evolved could explain just how powerful and indispensable samplers have become. During the disco-funk '70s, there was a demand for drummers who could play simple beats in perfect time; dance tracks were very long, and studio engineers soon found it easier to record segments of live drums and splice the tapes in a continuous loop. Then, European electronic groups such as Kraftwerk began to emerge, and the influence on pop music in the U.S. helped create a market for drum machines and synthesizers.

The runaway success of synth-pop had keyboard companies panting in an effort to keep up. At the same time, DJs in New York were attempting to extend the breakbeats on old James Brown records like "The Funky Drummer." With their hands, DJs had to alternate and synchronize two identical records on two turntables just to keep a beat going. The pause button on tape decks was also used in primitive attempts to loop grooves.

In 1981, the first machine dedicated to digital sampling arrived and was appropriately titled "Emulator." No longer would new sounds be limited to presets, and DJs could now loop their favorite beats all night long. The births of "electronica" and hip-hop owe a great debt to early sampler technology.

As hip-hop began, two turntables were the only "instruments" that creative DJs could afford. Consequently, sounds were lifted from records, and the new sounds that were created became known as hip-hop. MCs would rap over loops sampled from whatever was in a DJ's crate. For hip-hop enthusiasts, a new song that reinvented a favorite beat or tune was a way of paying tribute, a chance to bond the new and old.

But then the music became more popular, and regardless of origins, sampling of this type involved taking elements of someone else's music and making it your own. The increasingly popular process of production was making a good dollar, and the publishing companies of the original artists began to seek compensation. One of the first cases to come about was Castor v. Def Jam in 1987. Jimmy Castor sued the Beastie Boys' label over unauthorized use of drum beats and the phrase "Yo, Leroy" from Castor's 1977 hit "The Return of Leroy (Part 1)," which was sampled for the Beasties' song "Hold It Now, Hit It."

Then in 1989, De La Soul was sued for lack of permission to use a few seconds of the Turtles' 1969 hit "You Showed Me," on De La's "Transmitting Live From Mars." Both cases were settled out of court for an undisclosed amount. Two other artists down with O.P.P. (Other People's Publishing) were the much vilified Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer. In 1991, these salt-and-pepper hip-pop artists made millions by taking entire chunks of earlier hits. Vanilla's "Ice Ice Baby" nabbed Queen and David Bowie's "Under Pressure," and Hammer's "U Can't Touch This" looped Rick James' "Super Freak." Both of these artists steered clear of major legal problems by paying off the original artists.

Biz Markie was not so fortunate. The rapper was not only sued, but went to court for the use of Gilbert O'Sullivan's 1972 hit "Alone Again (Naturally)." Markie borrowed the title, looped eight bars of music, and even included the song's chorus, "alone again, naturally." In 1991, a judge quoted the Seventh Commandment, "Thou shalt not steal," and ordered all copies of Markie's album to be pulled from the shelves. Markie was quoted as saying, "I felt that I was made an example of." Like many hip-hop artists who sample archaic songs, Markie believed that "we just bringing it back to life. They ain't doin' nothing with it anyway, so why just let it sit?"

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.

Verve frontman Richard Ashcroft admitted that he rushed home to sample it, but arrogantly proclaims, "We sampled four bars, and we put that on one track and laid down 47 tracks of music beyond that little piece. We're talking a four-bar sample turning into 'Bitter Sweet Symphony'--and they're still claiming it's the same song." Apparently, the pissed and percentageless Ashcroft bought into one of sampling's biggest myths: It's OK if you only take a few bars.

But such attitudes are nothing new. With all of the risks involved with today's sampling, perhaps today's artists feel that it's unfair that the earlier days were more lenient. Current sampler scientists such as the Chemical Brothers and DJ Shadow have fond memories of the days when De La Soul and its sampling lawsuit were something completely new.

"It was just so hip-hop," Shadow says. "They were the underdogs going up against these bloated rock and roll mind-states. And as a result, I got really rebellious and just sort of took a stance of, 'Fuck it. I'm just gonna use it.'" Sometimes, a little crime does pay.

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
Sort: Newest | Oldest
 

Concert Calendar

  • April
  • Sat
    19
  • Sun
    20
  • Mon
    21
  • Tue
    22
  • Wed
    23
  • Thu
    24
  • Fri
    25
Dallas Event Tickets
Loading...