The nature of hip-hop music’s creative culture is introspective: artists are always studying existing music for inspiration. Music samples are interwoven into most hip-hop tracks, enabling artists to create lyrical collages. Snippets of songs and beats are flipped, sped up, cut, pitched up and are subsequently used as fragments of new songs. Yet, the act of musical sampling incites both ethical and legal debates.
Sampling creates an opportunity for artists to show their appreciation for other musicians’ work whilst putting their own spin on it. Consider Drake’s ‘Nice For What’, which samples Ms. Lauryn Hill’s ‘Ex-Factor’, or Travis Scott’s ‘Sicko Mode’, which samples ‘Gimme The Loot’ by The Notorious B.I.G. Both artists use samples to elevate their own work. Giving listeners sounds they already recognise and like means they are quicker to forge a connection with a new song. For smaller artists, sampling can function in much the same way as literary allusions do. Associating their work with world famous artists can serve to heighten the respect their own work is given.
Samples can also benefit those selling the rights to their use. Featuring in a well-known artist’s song can greatly increase the exposure of an artist’s work. Take Eminem’s ‘Stan’ for example, which uses a sample of Dido’s ‘Thank You’: The Marshal Mathers LP is the second-fastest selling album by a solo artist. The album’s success brought Dido’s debut album even more attention, and she was additionally paid via a thirteen-month long tour as a support act. Is this perhaps why ‘Thank You’ is Dido’s most popular song on Spotify? As well as providing a stepping stone for upcoming artists, samples can resurrect artist’s declining careers by giving a new lease of life into old work.
In order to use a sample of someone else’s song on your record, the sample needs to be cleared by its owner. This may incur an upfront fee or the owner may demand a percentage of the publishing or recording rights. Most people would agree that sampling a song with permission, crediting its maker as well as paying money where due, ensures that sampling cannot be considered plagiarism.
However, sampling culture seems to bear two main issues. The first is that that people simply do not get samples cleared. The act of sampling clearance is both expensive and complex, and, to the frustration of some artists, requests can be declined. Therefore, songs with samples on them are often simply released without being cleared. One of the reasons behind this is that the original artist may not notice that their song has been used, and if the song does not do well, which is often the case for small artists, paying for sampling rights is a waste of money. There is also a common misconception that mixtapes released for free do not need their samples cleared. This is incorrect. Samples need clearance regardless of whether the music is being released for free or not.
“sampling, an act ingrained and loved in hip-hop culture, also seems to be the bane of hip-hop music creation”
The second major issue which leads to a lack of sample clearance is that Intellectual Property Law (IPL) in America is extremely vague when it comes to music copyright. In 2005, Bridgeport Music Inc. famously won a case against N.W.A’s ‘100 Miles and Runnin’’ because of an uncleared sample of one guitar chord from ‘Get off Your Ass and Jam’, a song by Funkadelic. Arguments over the validity of this win are ongoing, highlighting the continuing instability of IPL. Furthermore, despite US courts ruling that you cannot sample without a licence to do so, there remains a ‘Fair Use’ loop hole. This allows using copyright material for ‘transformative’ pieces of work, perhaps to form a parody, to criticise, comment or recontextualise a work.
Sampling, an act ingrained and loved in hip-hop culture, also seems to be the bane of hip-hop music creation. Arguments surrounding who truly owns a beat, or whether said beat can be owned, has plagued the industry for decades. Thus, it seems the issue is not whether the act of sampling itself is a form of plagiarism, but instead how a sample is defined and whether the use of another artists work is permitted.
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