Written By: Sharon Ayi
For the past 50 years the culture of Hip Hop has transcended boundaries in more ways than one becoming one of the most popular music genres to travel worldwide whilst still keeping its core essence firmly on the ground. From its birthplace at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the South Bronx to the cultural revolution that it has now become, Hip Hop has inspired a generation in various forms giving rise to an unprecedented number of businesses, moguls, executives, and sub-cultures. Some would even argue that Hip Hop has profoundly influenced our perception of society, whether viewed through the lens of music or that of socio-politics.
Now, whilst Hip Hop continues to evolve and inspire many of us who have been touched by its impact, it remains essential to recognise its foundational pillars: DJing, MCing, Breakdancing and Graffiti. These elements woven together by the common threads of music and community bring together a melting pot of people and culture. As Daymond John would put it, ‘For Us, By Us – FUBU.’
Widely recognised as the God-Father of Hip Hop, DJ Kool Herc grew in popularity in the Bronx area during the 70s due to his unique approach when ‘playing only the break sections of his records’ as part of his DJ set. He would layer copies of the same record on top of each other to create an extended break and loop this with other tracks to create a melodic feeling and hardcore style that spoke to the crowds pulling up to his large sound system (a nod to his Jamaican roots and gathering of the community). This technique represented an early manifestation of what we recognise as Sampling.
Mastering the turntables in such a way would go on to become one of the pivotal ways in which DJ’s would set themselves apart as the music laid bare to the energy and the soul that was being pushed by the youth in America at the time. DJs such as Grandmaster Flash, Jam Master Jay, Pete Rock, Jazzy Jeff, Kid Capri and a host of others would follow in Herc’s footsteps taking syncopated beats, scratches and soul funk melodies to the masses worldwide.
What is Sampling?
So what is sampling? There are various definitions associated with sampling but at its core, sampling (in music) is the reuse of audio from a pre-existing song (or other audio excerpt) into another musical piece. From a creative perspective, it is an art form in and of itself which weaves its own story when creating an audio experience for the listener. Certainly, the debate between creativity and commerce often halts at a crossroad when the discourse involves copyright and ownership. The topic spans various aspects ranging from reinterpretations, remixes, interpolations and covers and is encapsulated by the saying, ‘where there is a hit, there is a writ.’
For the purposes of this paragraph, we focus on sampling and the approach taken in the UK.
If you use a sample in a song or another recording (no matter how long (or short) the piece of music or excerpt is) you are required to seek clearance i.e. a licence. There is a right of copy within the sample that must be cleared and it is a two pronged approach i.e. copyright in the sound recording (owned by an artist or record company) and copyright in the song itself (owned by the songwriter/composer or the music publishing company). In the UK, the Performing Rights Society (PRS), the Mechanical-Copyright Protection Society (MCPS) and Phonographic Performance Limited (PPL) are organisations that both rightsholders and individuals seeking clearance for such samples should seek further guidance from when navigating sample clearances. PPL pay equitable remuneration to all performers who are legally entitled to receive such payments in respect of their performances on the sound recordings that PPL license. Additionally, PRS and MCPS independently compensate their members for use of their registered music through royalties. Depending on the sample being used, the involvement of record labels and publishers (rightsholders) is often crucial and they will play an integral role in clearing the sample. This is especially true during the negotiation of fees and the share of royalties so it is important to seek legal advice from a qualified professional as early as possible.
Why Is Clearance Necessary?
Towards the end of the 80s, Hip Hop was moving to another level by way of development in technology and a broader approach to melodic sounds and frequencies. The next wave of artists and producers who had seen the b-boys dancing at the local parks and had grown up in and around the bold colours and calligraphy of graffiti were were entering their own creative realm and taking the concept of looping sections of music beyond just the turntables. The use of an Akai Midi Production Center (MPC) and a drum machine to bring another layer of life to records that were becoming hits on the charts would go on to become a staple piece in the studio for many Hip Hop producers through the years. Figures like J Dilla, RZA, Q-Tip, DJ Premier and Kanye West are among the many names recognised today that honed and refined their production skills alongside the use of these machines, fusing together different beats and sounds to rhymes.
In 1988, Public Enemy’s single ‘Bring The Noise’ sampled Malcolm X’s “Fire & Fury Grass Roots Speech” demonstrating that the use of sampling wasn’t restricted to just music and could have more of a profound impact on the musical landscape as the culture continued to grow. The following year De La Soul’s debut album, 3 Feet High and Rising was released under Tommy Boy records and would later set precedent as to the dangers of not seeking out clearance for samples used. The album featured over 60 samples and whilst clearance was sought for many of the samples featured, the Hip Hop trio were faced with a lawsuit from rock band, The Turtles for the sampled use of ‘You Showed Me’ as part of the skit ‘Transmitting Live.’ Although it was only a short excerpt (12 seconds) of the song which was used, failure to clear the sample meant that this was a breach of copyright(s). Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman of The Turtles sued De La Soul and Prince Paul for 2.5 million dollars however the case was eventually settled out of court with reports claiming that damages were reduced to under 2 million dollars.
Fun Fact: In 2020, 3 Feet High & Rising was ranked as one of the greatest albums of all time and as of this year (2023), the critically acclaimed album alongside other classic albums by the group including ‘Stakes Is High’ and ‘De La Soul is Dead’ has been made available on all streaming services.
Biz Markie experienced similar fate when his single “Alone Again” sampled Gilbert O’Sullivan’s 1972 hit, “Alone Again (Naturally)” without clearance leading to a payment of $250,00 in damages to O’Sullivan and an injunction to prevent all further sales of Biz Markie’s single and the album upon which it featured. Known for his comedic persona as a rapper, Markie would go on to name his follow up album in 1993 “All Samples Cleared” as a humorous reference to the copyright infringement lawsuit that he was involved in with O’ Sullivan.
Obtaining clearance is essential when incorporating samples from another person’s music as it is the process of obtaining legal rights to use intellectual property in another person’s work. With technology moving at an even faster rate than before in music creation, discovering music and platform distribution, the industry must look at ways in which artistic integrity is maintained whilst facilitating the ongoing evolution of the art of sound in time.
Today Hip Hop stands as an unstoppable force – it is more than just music; it is a lifestyle, a feeling, an emotion. It influences everything from runway fashion choices to the colloquialism that we use. Hip Hop serves as a storytelling narrative depicting the realities faced along the way and also showcasing the ground-breaking achievements it has amassed over the years. From presidential campaigns to art gallery discussions, Hip hop permeates every aspect of society and is embraced by individuals of all genders and ages. When you see it, you know it and as we celebrate Hip Hop’s 50th year, the phenomenon of what it is will continue to evolve and shift culture. The sense of culture, community and legacy is ever present and continues to give rise to a new generation of artists that are adapting it to express their own voices. So, the next time you hear a Nile Rodgers riff or a drum pattern from the Funky Drummer, laced with a hard hitting beat and a drill music bass, you might just find yourself in the groove of a Hip Hop beat (and hopefully a cleared sample).