What's in a sample? Why do artists take from other songs?
One of pop music's hot button topics recently has been the subject of sampling songs. Some call it "stealing", but is it really? The answer is complicated, which is probably why artists keep landing in legal hot water.
Sampling is about using a part of another musician’s work, such as:
the recording itself
Sampling is only legal if you have been given permission to use the sampled material from:
the owner of the copyright in the music
the owner of the copyright in any lyrics
the owner of the copyright in the sound recording
You have sampled someone’s work if it is still noticeable as their work, even if you have changed it.
Robin Thicke's Blurred Lines has made all kinds of humiliating headlines since its 2013 release, but the nail in the coffin was undoubtedly his having to pay $7 million in copyright damages to the estate of legendary R&B singer Marvin Gaye, after a court decided the song had plagiarized Gaye's Got To Give It Up. Not only did Blurred Lines alienate Thicke from...well, everyone, but he ended up having to pay millions for his own creative downward spiral. Ouch.
Things are a little different in 2015, however, with one of radio's biggest hits (and rapper Nelly's comeback track), The Fix, reimagining Marvin Gaye's iconic signature song Sexual Healing. The rap track takes pieces of the instantly recognizable hooks and chorus, reworking them into a newer, much more explicit song.
So, what's the difference between Nelly's sample and Thicke's steal?
Well, permission, for one.
Nelly spoke on US radio in August about how the Thicke legal mess made him ensure he had 100% legal clearance from Marvin Gaye's estate before sampling the song:
"We got that cleared before the record came out. I made sure of that before I even did the record, I was like "Do I need to talk to someone, get some papers signed?"
Similarly, upon seeing the result of the Robin Thicke ordeal, Mark Ronson's lawyers raced to court to tack on 5 extra songwriters to his mega-hit Uptown Funk, specifically the band whose song Oops Upside Your Head sounds a heck of a lot like Funk.
With the concept of sampling being such a seemingly sensitive legal issue, why do artists keep taking the risk? Does it damage an artist's integrity when they sample another song? Is it a lazy form of creativity? Did every artist who got hauled to court for copyright actually intend to steal the track?
Some might argue this is simply how artists channel their influences. They grow up listening to certain songs more than others and end up working certain melodies or lyrics into their own tunes, sometimes without realizing how similar the new track really is.
In 2011, Lady GaGa appeared stunned when many people noted the similarities between her song Born This Way and Madonna's Express Yourself:
In an interview with NME, GaGa insisted the familiarity was purely technical:
Why would I try to put out a song and think I'm getting one over everybody? I will look in your eyes and tell you that I'm not dumb enough or moronic enough to think that you are dumb or moronic enough not to see that I would have stolen a melody. If you put the songs next to each other, side by side, the only similarities are the chord progression. It's the same one that has been in disco music for the last 50 years. Just because I'm the first f*cking artist in 25 years to think of putting it on Top 40 radio, it doesn't mean I'm a plagiarist, it means I'm f*cking smart. Sorry."
She also noted she had received support from Madonna's team, but Madge herself appeared slighted by the similarities, stating in 2012:
"When I heard Born This Way on the radio ... I said, 'that sounds very familiar' ... It felt reductive..."
Ultimately, no legal battles ensued. Madonna, in true Madonna style, sufficed with a tongue-in-cheek mash-up of the two songs on her MDNA world tour.
One aspect of this controversial issue appears to be the generation gap. When a song from yesteryear is reimagined into something new, younger audiences are hearing it for the first time and usually end up assigning "ownership" of the tune to the current artist. In my own research for this article, I discovered the 2003 hit Suga Suga by Baby Bash, recently reworked by Robin Schulz, actually sampled a piano hook from a classic Barry White song!
Former producer for legendary rap group Public Enemy, Hank Shocklee, says this kind of sampling is simply an artistic sign of the times:
"I think it's just an art form, and I think that - you know, you have to understand, to me, the original copyrights were there to protect the entire embodiment of the recording itself, you know, not necessarily the little pieces that was coming from it. So, thus, you know, as we start to move more towards into the future and technology starts to increase, well, you know, now these things have to now metamorphosize, have to change. And the copyright laws have to now become updated to deal with the new landscape that we have. You know, you have kids that are listening to YouTube and you have kids that's -that are watching DJs perform. And records are now more than - it's more of an instrument for us..."
When one looks into the astonishing history of someone like Kanye West's sampling over the years, it does become evident that a certain level of talent (not to mention a deep, deep understanding of popular music history) is needed to be able to draw from so many different artists and genres, in order to create something new.