On a recent Sunday after Midnight Madness, Clutch and I were with the team clicking through songs on WhoSampled.com– a site dedicated to unearthing and presenting samples used in famous songs– to see which producers sampled what to create some of our favorites. The first noteworthy connection was between Eminem and singer/songwriter Paul Simon. Em’s “Murder, Murder” (1997) sampled Simon’s “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover.” Producer DJ Roc slowed Simon’s drum pattern down and expanded the song’s stereo field by adding a tremolo and slight distortion to the four bar guitar progression (as well as a handful of other noises and samples in the background). “Murder, Murder” also sampled Tupac’s “Outlaw,” recontextualizing Pac’s chant of ‘Murder, Murder!’ to inform Em’s introspective verses. From there, we moved chronologically through songs starting in ’94 and ending in 2000 with Jay-Z & UGK’s “Big Pimpin.”
The super-producer behind ‘Big Pimpin’ was Timbaland, who got four of the production credits on HOV’s Volume 3…Life and Times of S. Carter. He used the introduction from Egyptian musician Hossam Ramzy’s version of “Khusara Khusara” and added some ill drums (a mechanical, syncopated hi-hat, a handful of percussive sounds: cowbell, warps, pitched hand drums) to create one of the most memorable songs in rap history. Having done a good deal of sampling, the method behind the creation of “Big Pimpin” seemed to contradict my understanding of sampling etiquette. More than just taking one or several small slices of a song or songs and flipping them on their head, Timbaland took the entire introduction verbatum (as it were).
Then again, an introduction is technically just one small part of an entire song, so it’s understandable that Timbaland would feel comfortable using Ramzy’s for his own purposes. The real question is: how much is too much? Did DJ Roc manipulate his samples enough to escape criticism, or does using Simon’s drum pattern exactly constitute plagiarism? Better yet, should Timbaland owe compensation, at the very least in the form of royalties, to Hossam Ramzy, and Em to Paul Simon?
This may not be news to some, but since Big Pimpin’ Timbaland has used much more than just the introduction of an obscure non-copywritten song to make his own beats.
This is not a campaign against sampling. There’s no doubt that Timbaland, whose real name is Timothy Mosley, is one of the most prolific producers of our time. After ’96, he worked with Ginuwine, Aaliyah, Janet, Missy, Usher, Nas, Luda, Snoop, Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige, Jadakiss, KanYe, Fab, 50, M.I.A., Busta, and the list goes on and on and on. He’s made music for major motion picture soundtracks, several solo releases, and he’s ventured beyond hip hop and r&b into the pop world, where he’s been hugely successful.
His resume is as robust as they come, and yet out of his huge catalog there are several key instances that raise questions about his methodology and the virtue that informs it. In 2007 Mosley was taken to court on the grounds that his 2006 Nelly Furtado hit “Do It” infringed upon Finnish musician Janne Suni’s “Acid Jazz Evening.” Here’s a comparative breakdown section-by-section of the two tracks:
The similarities are undeniable, the evidence irrefutable. The melody, the chord changes, almost everything is identical but for the slightest manipulations. Once this went public, it was only natural that Mosley faced questions in subsequent interviews. In an interview on a DC-Richmond radio show called Elliot in the Morning, Mosley was asked point blank if he has ever usurped someone’s music. Go to 1:00:
Host: “Have you ever ripped anybody else off?
Mosley: “Uhh, I haven’t ripped nobody off, but have I sampled? Hell yeah. I didn’t go to them and say, ‘Hey, I’m gonna steal your beat.’”
They discuss the court proceedings (which are ongoing to this date), and then Mosley backs himself into a nasty little corner when he tries to make a distinction between sampling and stealing:
Host: “Give me the quick definition that splits those.”
Mosley: “Stole is like, I walked in your house, watched you make that beat, took your Pro Tools, and went to my place and gave it to Nel and say, ‘Hey, I got this great song.’ Is he crazy? I, I live in America, I don’t even stay in Fin– this dude, I ain’t even gonna get into it. And then sampled is like: you heard it somewhere, and you just sample it. But you didn’t know who, maybe you didn’t know who it was by because it don’t have the credits listed, so you just used it. “Hey, I don’t know. Well I like it, but im gonna use it.” Maybe somebody, you know, might put a sample claim in or, I don’t know. But, I like it, and I don’t have no research, and the time is coming up when I gotta turn the record in. So, that’s what sampling is. That’s not stealing, cause everybody sampling from everybody everyday.”
From a producer as established as Mosley, one would think he’d have a more well defined sense of the difference between sampling and stealing. In this day in age, to claim that you couldn’t have heard someone’s music because you are separated from them geographically teeters on the edge of ridiculous. Sampling is like: you heard it somewhere, and you just sample it. When you hear that ear-perking track that gives you the impulse to flip a beat, it is accompanied by an equally strong impulse to- if you don’t already know- discover its artist. So, that’s what sampling is. That’s not stealing, cause everybody sampling from everybody everyday. That is NOT what sampling is.
The Stealing versus Sampling argument applies to every art form, not just hip hop and not just music. Joe Biden was forced to drop out of the 1988 Democratic Presidential nominations after it was uncovered that he had plagiarized several speeches from other politicians, including Bobby Kennedy. The renowned historian Stephen Ambrose was accused on numerous occasions of stealing passages from other authors and incorporating them into his own books. In the on-screen realm, video bloggers are constantly swiping other bloggers’ material, TV stations are plagued with suspect reporting as well as subjects’ fabricated stories (although, shouts to that Yo-Yo guy), and several prominent directors have allegedly borrowed scenes, story lines, and more from other less well-known films.
Sampling, in its broadest sense, is utilizing a portion of a previous work to inform a subsequent one. At times the sample is more obvious, while at others it folds into the work and becomes an internal component of it. Sampling is done in good conscience, with complete knowledge that you are using another person’s ideas, but with the intent to re-contextualize them and give them new meaning, in an artistic sense. It’s born not out of a desire for personal gain, but rather out of a love for the art form. With that being said, how much sampling is too much? And once that is established, what is the best method of enforcing such guidelines?
Truth be told, there is no scientific or systematic way to discern how much a given sample infringes upon its original work, whether it be music, painting, sculpture. Some samples (like the one used in Big Pimpin’) are blocks of original pieces that are relatively untouched. Musical purists might argue that almost anything longer than four bar sample is too much, especially if the mix from the original song remains intact. Either way, it is clear there is no mechanism into which you can plug two songs and out of which pops a percentage-point-score of infringement. So then, it must be done on a case-by-case basis, for in every circumstance there are unique factors and motivations at play.
Raymond Scott – Lightworks
J Dilla – Lightworks
Relative to hip hop, some critics argue for a Compulsory Licensing System to regulate sampling because, among other things, it would establish a market of money to be paid out as royalties to artists whose songs are sampled. They correctly argue that neither users nor creators are being satisfied fully or efficiently under the current system, so it must change. Opponents of a CLS would claim that an arbitrary pay scale would have to be created based on the length of the clip or frequency of its use, or some other rubric that would not account for artistic infringement.
Those who blatantly lie about their sampling technique aside, perhaps the best prescription would be to administer a test of intentionality to the artist who has done the sampling. If they explain their rationale sufficiently, then a deal would be struck between sampler and samplee, and everyone would move on. If not, then the sampler would pay the according fine. (And just for kicks, wouldn’t it be great if the ‘court’ that heard the case was comprised of the most widely and intensely respected producers? Think: Preemo, Rock, RZA, Diamond D, Large Professor, Dilla, Clark Kent, Marley Marl, and Dre)
More than anything, it would be most beneficial if there could be some emphasis on detaching the money from the music; if students of the game, both producers and rhymers, were taught proper musical probity at a young age so that these kinds of incidents would be avoided altogether. Public Enemy’s production team, The Bomb Squad, is a great standard for proper sampling. Their use of many, varied samples, most of them concise and to the point, should inform any would-be sampler’s approach.
At its most basic, what most down-to-earth supporters of sampling want is a nod to the samplee from the sampler; a moment where the connection between the current song and the throwback song is visible (whether it be musically or textually). If that kind of intentionality is apparent, then many musicians whose music is sampled will have no problem at all, they might not even seek financial compensation. But those that do seek financial compensation will know that the sampler’s heart and mind were in the right place while sampling their music. This way, even if a financial agreement must be reached, the two sides will know that whatever happened was geared towards furthering the music.
For your own perusal, here is Complex’s list of the 50 Greatest Hip Hop Samples of All Time, courtesy of producer-DJ-vinyl-collectors Kon & Amir.