The Reel Story

The Positive Side of Hip Hop

Jan 4, 2006 at 2:06 pm
C. Matthew Hamby

"Tell the truth — James Brown was old/'Til Eric and Rakim came out with 'I Got Soul' ..."

— Stetsasonic, "Talkin' All That Jazz"

"Those rappers need to stop using other people's music" is usually the first talking point hurled my way when I engage people in a debate over the use of samples in Hip Hop music. I'll skim over the legalities later. To do more would risk sounding too much like an attorney-wannabe, and I want to keep my house.

Yet Hip Hop's origins are deeply rooted in the tradition of rapping over — or dancing to — other people's music. DJ Kool Herc mastered the art of taking two copies of the same record and extending the break until the break became the song. Members of his crew — the first true rappers, some might argue — began rhyming over the breaks in an effort to hype up the crowd. Their rhymes became entire verses and those verses became songs. The rest is ourstory.

In the early '80s, our story was made again when a Queens-based DJ/producer named Marley Marl stumbled across the digital recording capabilities of an EMU sampling machine and sampled a drum pattern that he later used in a remix.

Before long, early Hip Hop artists began lifting hooks from popular records and flipping them into hit singles.

But that was more than 20 years ago. The overused "something-from-nothing" argument doesn't bode well with the anti-sampling crowd when some of today's rap artists wear $100,000 worth of jewelry around their necks. And it's tough to ignore the fact that profiting from someone else's music smacks of creative laziness and copyright infringement.

Proponents of sampling technology in Hip Hop music see things differently. Many scholars and Hip Hop pundits have suggested that the use of sampling is a vehicle through which urban artists are able to appropriate mainstream music and apply their own cultural and political outlook. In other words, sampling technology allows Hip Hop artists to extend their voice to an audience that might not otherwise be exposed to their message. (Message to dead prez and Immortal Technique: If you want radio play, it's about time to sample that latest Kelly Clarkson joint.)

In many cases, the samples represent barely recognizable sound snippets that only rabid vinyl collectors might be able to identify. Unfortunately — as groups like Public Enemy now know — even these sounds are open to legal scrutiny. The group's historic sophomore album, It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, is well known for the use of a collage of samples resulting in the apocalyptic, chaotic mood that has withstood the test of time in Hip Hop's fickle memory.

Yet by 1991, a precedent was established when Brooklyn-bred rapper Biz Markie (and his label Warner Bros. Records) was successfully sued for using several words and notes from the Pop hit "Alone Again (Naturally)" on his popular single, "Alone Again." Many artists, including Public Enemy, scrambled to find workaround methods to layer their sounds, and Dr. Dre — known for his P-Funk influenced production style — began playing entire loops live instead of digitally sampling them so as to bypass sampling clearance laws. Over the course of the next 10 years, scores of other Rap artists, groups and producers would face sampling-related court battles.

While the legalities involving sampling are fairly black and white — at least for copyright attorneys — the issue of creativity continues to divide R&B and Hip Hop fans. In theory, most producers who use samples are merely doing electronically what Herc was doing with two turntables back in the '70s. With much of the emphasis placed on lyrical ability, the fact that early Hip Hop artists were using recycled loops and sampled beats went largely unchallenged.

And, as much as I hate to admit it, the formulaic nature of commercial radio (as well as the expense of hiring studio musicians) makes sampling a necessity in today's urban music landscape. A classic, danceable R&B hook nearly guarantees that people will respond positively when the finished track reminds them of an old, dusty favorite from back in the day. To illustrate the validity of this theory, consider whether Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" would have been so quickly embraced had the group not lifted Chic's already popular "Good Times" hook.

The recent accessibility of desktop studio equipment and MP3 technology continues to blur the lines between the legal and the creative. Now basement DJ/producers can sample, remix and mash-up songs at the click of a mouse. Existing recordings are being sampled, digitally remixed and blended with pre-recorded vocals and distributed over the Internet, often for free.

But be warned: The moment the track begins making noise is about the time the attorneys begin calling. That, unfortunately, is the business of Hip Hop.

5 on the ledge

· "Peter Piper" ­ Run D.M.C. (source: "Take Me to the Mardi Gras" by Bob James) Who knew that the infamous "bells" came from the same cat who wrote the theme to Taxi?

· "It Takes Two" ­ Rob Base and DJ EZ-Rock (source: "Think (About It)" by Lyn Collins) Even the "Whoo, yeah!" sounds exactly the same in this 1972 Funk classic.

· "You Gots to Chill" ­ EPMD (source: "More Bounce to the Ounce" by Zapp) This was one of about 100 or so Hip Hop songs that sampled Roger Troutman's 1980 skate/Funk anthem.

· "Eric B. Is President" ­ Eric B and Rakim (source: "Funky President" by James Brown) The Godfather of Soul's influence is felt throughout this mid-'80s must-have LP.

· "Jazzy Sensation" ­ Afrika Bambaataa and the Jazzy Five (source: "Funky Sensation" by Gwen McRae) A year before Bam jettisoned to space with "Planet Rock," this 1981 single borrowed heavily from McRae's popular club classic.