While viewing the film Copyright Criminals in a Hip-Hop class I took with some friends at Drexel, I was shocked to hear of the many struggles and lawsuits that have recently occurred within the music industry. I could not help but become frustrated at the lack of logic that led to the development of an entire business focused around profiting off innocent artists. More a supporter of the artist rather than the critic, I feel that artists deserve respect and especially freedom to work without stringent barriers and laws. But the more I thought about these laws and listened to the views of artists like Biz Markie and Digital Underground, I started to realize that my frustration was causing me to overlook the rights that artists who preceded this younger and apparently less original generation deserve as well. And just with that thought, I realized how easily artists can be manipulated into a conflict against each other, even across genres and decades.
These disputes do not and could not simply occur by chance, for they require some sort of catalyst to hold ground. That catalyst, generally speaking, consists of executives that work within the reaches of the music industry (e.g. Record Executives, Music Copyright and Intellectual Property Lawyers, and Artist and Repertoire Associates). Yes, “using” someone else’s work to integrate into your own work may be looked down upon as unoriginal. But, can it not also be viewed as a tribute? Borrowing work can be an art in itself. To paraphrase Shock G from Digital Underground, “What the photographer is to the painter, the modern DJ is to the instrumentalist.” But still, there are those who feel that if a work is not completely original it is not respectable. But is anything truly original? We draw our inspirations from our experiences and exposures, whether we like it or not. Some are more subtle than others, but all artists are products of their environments. And thus, the copyright laws that have been enforced so thoroughly in recent decades have been taken too far, to the point where they are disruptive to the creative process that consumers and producers of music deserve.
Sampling in Hip-Hop started to popularize along with the development of DJ’ing. Almost acting as a one-man band, DJ’s could make a party rock with only a turntable and a few records. While some may have felt that this was an artificial and lazy approach to music production, supporters of sampling in Hip-Hop claim that it is an effective process that requires creativity. To mix and mash different sounds and styles of music to make one unique sound generated a lot of hype and approval. But soon enough, the process was attacked beyond moral grounds and brought into the court room by many dissenters. Since Hip-Hop was developing into a profitable industry, many saw an opportunity to take away from the proceeds of creative rap artists and producers. Unauthorized digital sampling would no longer be permitted.
On De La Soul’s debut 1989 album, 3 Feet High and Rising, a track called “Transmitting Live from Mars” sampled a 1960’s pop song performed The Turtles. De La Soul was sued by the Turtles to the shock of many artists across genres. What followed throughout the nineties was a series of copyright lawsuits that led to the tightening of creativeness and the discouragement of sampling. Now, while most mainstream artists can afford to get samples cleared and paid off via royalty checks, a lot of less wealthy artists and DJ’s purposely ignore copyright law. If general consensus within the music industry deems copyright legislation unfair, is it morally acceptable to disobey these laws? To answer this questions let’s look at some of the problems with copyright laws.
When you look at copyright law’s extension into music, it helps to wonder who benefits from all of the legislation, and more importantly who is hurt by it. It is obvious that minor artists and producers that have to deal with clearing sounds and songs are deterred. Even the original artist whose work is copyrighted will usually not benefit from these copyright laws. Usually, it is the publisher, not the producer, of the song who sees the monetary benefits of legislation. Just consider Clyde Stubblefield’s constantly sampled drum beats across genres. He gets absolutely nothing for the use of his own sound, yet the publisher gets royalty checks. So who is really benefiting? The record label and the publisher are at an advantage, but not the talent. Thus, generally speaking, copyright legislation in music is at least slightly unreasonable. Another factor that must be considered is the chokehold that this legislation can cause to the creative process for smalltime music producers. It seems that although copyright law applies across all genres, it targets Hip-Hop. And thus the issue is not only economically unjust, but also socially.
When social matters are considered, Hip-Hop has always been about dissent and resisting the “unfair” authority. This rebel spirit inspires many producers, artists, and even fans to challenge the copyright laws that take away from the best possible musical experience. Thus, some DJ’s and producers have learned to make it nearly impossible to track their sample-usage. Some “internet-artists” work from home and simply post their sampled music without any regard for sample-clearance; most of the time, this unlawfulness goes undetected. At the end of the day, Hip-Hop artists and producers (not considering mainstream, highly profitable material) are going to do whatever they want.
Some say sampling is as American as baseball. Even the Beatles sampled. It seems that while copyright legislation has good intentions, the approach is unwarranted. Hip-Hop is the genre that receives the low end of the legality. It begs us to question whether these laws are about morals or economics. Sampling is part of the core of Hip-Hop production. It is an ode to the genres, styles, and sounds that provide inspiration to the Hip-Hop audience. Sampling has become an over-complicated issue. To the producers of Hip-Hop music, I would advise them all with something a friend once told me that I can in this case apply literally, “Play your music—whatever.”