in an ownership society, sample with attitude
the recent ruling on sampling in the sixth district court demonstrates the tenacity of outmoded ideas about music, art, technology, and intellectual property.
the ruling refuses to acknowledge and adapt to common cultural practice--the way that DJs play, producers sample, and listeners select and juxtapose from the materials around them. it's absurd to me that artists doing-what-they-do should have to worry about paying exorbitant fees or getting sued for not "clearing" their samples. of course, it's absurd to me that someone would try to sample and loop four-bars of a former hit song to make a current hit song and think they don't have to share the wealth--once they choose to participate in, and reap the occasional benefits of, the system.
but that's not even what NWA did. in public-enemy-bomb-squad fashion, NWA took a short sample of a funkadelic distorted guitar riff, slowed and pitched it down, and buried it in a dense sonic collage, where it adds rather subtly to the track's overall texture. but the sample-sniffers turned it up, and there are some rich men who stand to become much richer if they can sue for copyright infringement of the back catalogue that they've been investing in ever since de la had to pay off the turtles. (interestingly, many sources cite the de la case as having established the very thing this latest ruling purports to establish: that all samples must be cleared.)
unfortunately, this appeal overturns a previous ruling which was much more sensible and in-tune with an understanding of how sampling works, how music works, and how technology works.
allow me to quote from the people over at downhillbattle.org, who are laboring valiantly and creatively to make the music industry a "fairer" place. they do a fine job of summarizing the appeal court's findings and the implications thereof:
In the case, the court found that NWA violated copyright law when they sampled 3 notes of a guitar riff from Funkadelic's "Get off Your Ass and Jam" for their song "100 Miles and Runnin'". The ruling reversed a district court finding that because "no reasonable juror, even one familiar with the works of George Clinton, would recognize the source of the sample without having been told of its source," sampling clearance should not be required.
In doing so, the court broke from decades of established sample practice by ruling that all samples, regardless of how heavily manipulated or unrecognizable they may be, are subject either to "clearance" (obtaining permission for use of the sample, usually in exchange for money), or litigation. In an instant, this act made the majority of sample based music illegal.
(you can read further about why sample rights matter here. you might check out illegal-art.org while you're at it.)
the people at downhillbattle, who also were responsible for the grey tuesday protest of the right for danger mouse's grey album to exist--and more importantly, for people to be able to share it with each other as well as implicitly endorse its sample-based approach--have organized yet another protest. (<--check it out.) this time the show of solidarity has a creative bent.
they've put up a soundfile of the sample in question and are telling participants to, without bringing any other sounds into the mix, "slice it, layer it, loop it, stretch it, filter it, smack it up, flip it, and rub it down." in order to better demonstrate the range of sample-based techniques and the degree to which a sampled source can become completely unrecognizable (and thus somewhat incidental--or at least ambiguous in its ability to be "owned"), they also encourage people to "process the sound in creative, unconventional and excessive manners, stretching the relationship between the finished result and the source material." finally, they ask that people keep the tracks down to 30 seconds.
i joined in the fray, contributing a lil' ditty i'm calling sample with attitude. after cutting the original sample into 7 pieces, all shorter than one second, i processed the samples in various ways, and arranged them into a little caribbean click-hop. it's amazing what one can do even with such a seemingly "determined"/limited sound as that three-note electric guitar riff. in some cases, i cut samples so short--a mere blip of a sound--that they became, in essence, short sine waves, or basic sonic building blocks. (ultimately, any piece of music can be reduced this way.) i pitched some bits down to create a kick drum, pitched some up for clicky percussion, and arranged other fragments into chords and melodic fragments, adding echo, reverb, flangers, and other effects. i ended up with a very different kind of thing than, say, my man DJ C, who contributed this number.
apparently over forty people submitted tracks in the first three days, and they're still coming in steadily. perhaps responding to the call for pushing the bounds of the sounds, many of the submissions have fallen on the abstract side of the sample-based/electronic music fence. personally, i tend to like the pieces that are more beat-based, more recognizably related to popular genres, but also less recognizable as originating in the funkadelic sample. of the current pool, i recommend the cool runnings of joseph scott's 100 miles, the 80s-ish romp by random spurting, and the twisted national anthem contributed by victor stone.
when listened to as a group of several dozen different tracks, the pieces illustrate quite powerfully the range of sample-based techniques and the distance between final products and original source(s). this kind of illustration--raising attention to the immense creativity demonstrated by sample-based artists as well as the often unfair strictures of copyright law--motivated me several years ago when i was writing my master's thesis on the relationship between copyright litigation and sample-based hip-hop production. in one chapter, which charts the evolution of dj premier's style over the course of the 1990s, i sought to demonstrate the way that lawsuits such as this one forced certain sample-based producers, such as premo, pete rock, and jay dee, to remain more-or-less underground--and, moreover, to become even more entrenched in their position and approach, to the point where sample-based beats (and in particular those sample-based beats which, either via vinyl pops-and-clicks or other tell-tale signs, sound sampled) became, in the minds of many, a powerful signifier of "real" hip-hop. for producers who have major label money to spend--e.g., puffy or kanye--sampling remains a crucial, if costly, approach as well, especially since their underground peers have established the street-cred of jacking-for-beats.
yet another way to respond to this recent ruling--or, for those who have been on the side of the samplers for a minute, to continue the fight--is to teach the opposite lesson of the court: that sampling is good, clean fun. when i teach young people how to make music, i teach them to sample. i show them how to use .wav editors that enable one to extract tracks from any CD, or to convert any audio files one can find, and then to cut, chop, slice, dice, loop, flip, dip, trip, trick, tweak, and freak the sounds however one wants to. i demonstrate the simple beauty of a one-bar loop and the boundless possibilities of arranging new melodies and rhythmic figures from tiny sonic fragments. far as i'm concerned (though i don't want to imply that hip-hop and jazz play by the same rules), the joys of dropping a classic break over a nostalgic riff are no different than the pleasures of, say, a trumpeter finally copping a favorite lick from louis armstrong (or, better, doing so in the style of miles davis), composing a new melody over the rhythm changes, or "quoting" from an old folk song or pop tune in the middle of a solo.
in an age where digital technologies give ordinary people the tools to become creators, encouraging self-development and democratizing the ability to produce and project new representations of self and community, this ruling suggests that our society is rather slow to seize on this potential and, accordingly, to change our ideas about how things are done. it's alarming, and it's sad. it's prohibitive and chilling. clearly, some people are not ready to relinquish ownership of things that they don't really deserve to own.
so it's not surprising that the verdict comes from nashville, tennessee, one of the music industry's traditional and established centers. an outpost of the ownership society if there ever was one. significantly, as is the case in many of these cases, george clinton and funkadelic don't benefit at all from this ruling. they don't own the rights to their own music, you see--well, at least to the music in question. clinton has released his own reasonably-priced and specially-prepared CDs full of samples in order to make some money himself in this trade as well as to aid struggling, sample-based artists. (reggae drummer sly dunbar has done the same thing, though on a grander scale. a couple months ago he told me that he was tickled when he saw that an english group had credited him with playing the drums on a track where they employed one of his loops.) the absurd logic that tells the musicians who created the sounds that they can't own them, but that someone else can, inspired me long before danger mouse treaded sacred ground to make a song based entirely on beatles samples. i planned to call it: if michael jackson can own the beatles' music, then goddammit so can i. (still haven't got around to that one, though.)
judges and lawyers need to become more reasonable in their rulings and more sophisticated in their understandings of the way people make music today. otherwise it becomes a matter simply of who can pay. and, besides being unjust in a society where wealth is distributed with terrible inequity, that simply leads to a lot of commercial crap. at any rate, it's kind of a moot point. a downhill battle, so to speak. people sample. all the time. and it's only getting easier and more acceptable, more commonsensical, and more natural as a cultural practice, as a part of the way people think about music and the way they interact with it.
all the same, an illustration such as the one being staged at downhillbattle.org may yet sway those who don't yet get it.
all us hip-hop folk been down.
(while i'm reminded of it, john perry barlow's declaration of the independence of cyberspace remains a resonant text for any contemporary--i.e., digital age--discussion of intellectual property. check it out if you haven't read it yet.)