Free Samples? At Costco, Yes. In Rap and Hip-Hop, No!

“I need a unit to sample and hold.”  Sample and Hold, Neil Young

Remember the glory days of Hip-Hop?  I certainly don’t, since I wouldn’t know “Daft Punk” from “Daffy Duck.”  But a recent Washington Post article explains how the Hip-Hop world has been upended by the most unlikeliest of sources–copyright lawyers and the courts.

Back in the day, “sampling” was the bread and butter of Hip-Hop.  Artists and producers would cut snippets from older recordings and weave them into elaborate tapestries of music fragments and dance beats.  They did this with impunity, not asking permission from the sample-ees and not paying a cent in royalties.

That changed when rapper Biz Markie sampled Gilbert O’Sullivan’s tepid 70’s hit “Alone Again Naturally” for Markie’s number “Alone Again.  As the Post reports, http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-court-case-that-changed-hip-hop–from-public-enemy-to-kanye–forever/2012/07/06/gJQAVWr0RW_story.html?wpisrc=nl_cuzheads,  the O’Sullivan camp sued, the court awarded damages, and the course of hip-hop history changed irrevocably.

Today, rappers who want to flavor their tracks with tasty bits of someone else’s recording must pay to play, or wind up in court.  Just recently, the Beastie Boys ended up on the wrong side of a lawsuit when they sampled from two Trouble Funk tracks.  Not getting permission and paying a fee meant trouble and funk for the Beasties.

Because of these lawsuits and the copyright law that underlies them, sampling has become something of a luxury, affordable only to the most succesful recording artists.  The ability to lard a record with pricey samples has become a status symbol.  As the Post reports, Kanye West flaunts his ability to afford costly samples from the likes of prog-rock icon King Crimson.

Less well-heeled rappers have, in Darwinian fashion, been forced to adapt in order to keep up with the Kanyes.  Some have taken to trolling through long forgotten recordings of yore to find aurally intriguing soundscapes fit for sampling.  These retro rummagers figure that the more obscure the sample, the lower the chances of being sued for copyright infringement. Risky?  Perhaps. But sampling is so ingrained in the hip-hop and rap ethos that it’s a risk emerging artists are willing to take.  When it comes to sampling, it’s apparently not an option to “just say no.”

The courts may have upped the ante, but artists are still finding creative ways to keep sampling alive.  As the Post’s Chris Richards concludes: “no court decision can regulate the imagination.”

QUOTE OF THE DAY:  “Hip-hop is more about attaining wealth. People respect success. They respect big. They don’t even have to like your music. If you’re big enough, people are drawn to you.”  Jay-Z

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