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Mar 9, 2009 | Comments

FYI: MIA’s Paper Planes samples a song from the Clash.

At this realization, I was taken aback. In my eyes, unknowingly learning of MIA’s re-use undermined their credibility and originality. It’s as if I discovered Shakespeare sampled his ideas from a unknown playwright.

I embarked on a discovery of sampled music, finding quite a few mind-blowing gems:

The enlightening journey revealed sampled music’s vibrant history and conflicting legality, reaching into the depths of copyright law and the birth of hip-hop. But the most interesting phenomenon is the emergence of “sampling” throughout the Internet, via remixing, mashing,  APIs, open source, machinama, etc. This trend, appropriately labeled Recombinant Culture by Faris Yakob, deserves a post in itself.

My initial research was out of curiosity, but I soon realized that the implications for brands and marketing are clear: the Internet supports “sampling” like no other medium, and it’s only a matter of time before sampling has its own Harvard Business School case study. Let’s start it off by reviewing the technicals: history and legality.

The History of Sampling: two ubiquitous breaks

In 1973, DJ Kool Herc worked dance parties in the Bronx. The dancers loved one specific “break,” or beat. Herc found two copies of the record, interchanging them to indefinitely extend the break into a “five-minute loop of fury.”

One of the breaks was from an album called “Bongo Rock” of the “The Incredible Bongo Band.” Herc looped an unknown song from Bongo Rock called a Apache (listen), which covered the original 1960s version of Apache from Jordan Landan.

Via the NY Times, “‘Bongo Rock is significant for being one of the musical cornerstones of rap. While it’s hard to measure these things accurately, it is certainly one of the most sampled LP’s in history, if not the most sampled.” Apache would soon be sampled by plenty of artists, such as Sugarhill Gang, LL Cool J, Nas, Moby, Fatboy Slim, The Roots, and Missy Elliot.

Five years earlier in 1969, The Winstons, a funk and soul group, recorded Amen, Brother (listen) on a B-side of one of their singles. In 1988, DJs isolated the drum solo (listen, click play button) and placed it on a breaks record called Ultimate Breaks and Beats in 1986. It became popular, and with Apache, it is also considered one of the most sampled beats of all-time. Check out a 20-minute documentary on the Amen Break’s influence. And here are some remixed versions of the break here, here, here, and here.

The Lawyers

As hip-hop evolved, sampling grew, with songs often leveraging multiple samples without obtaining legal permission. The lawyers appeared, however, once the music was lucrative to support legal action.

In 1991, The first court ruling against sampled music came. Alone Again by Biz Markie sampled Alone Again by Gilbert O’Sullivan, and there was no ambiguity about it (e.g., refer to Ice, Ice, Baby vs. Under Pressure). The judge declared that the sample was not fair use (the strongest defense for sampling) and infringed on copyright.

In aggregate, fees can now amount to over 50% of song revenue. Licensing fees have become so prevalent that the system supports “sample trolls.” These are companies that own commonly sampled beats, suing artists for royalty fees after the song is published without their permission. Due to lawsuit threats, most artists are forced to pay for permission.

Many artists claim that the fees royalties undermine their creativity. Via the artist Beck, “Now it’s prohibitively difficult and expensive to justify your one weird little horn blare that happens for half of a second one time in a song and makes you give away 70 percent of the song and $50,000. That’s where sampling has gone, and that’s why hip-hop sounds the way it does now.”

But with these legal set-backs, sampling, and its evolution, mash-ups and remixes, have never been more popular. Every form of remixing, mashing, and sampling has proliferated and found a home on the Internet.  In the next post, I’ll discuss the popularity of mashups like the Gray Album and Girl Talk, as well as the Creative Commons. And I promise it will end on a positive note.

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  • Yes, I have now been called out multiple times that Shakespeare in fact sampled his works. There is a big difference, however, in the way Shakespeare sampled Marlowe's lines. Mainly, veneration. I'm not so sure this is the case with MIA.

  • Nancy

    you're being sarcastic about Shakespeare right? he didn't sample his ideas from unknown playwrights; supposedly he sampled from known ones like Christopher Marlowe

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