Sampling in Hip-Hop: Art or Theft?

Henry Campos 24 October 2020
Clyde Stubblefield (Image credits: Wikimedia Commons)

What do N.W.A’s “Fuck tha Police”, Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”, and the Power Puff Girls’ theme song all have in common? All three sample the ubiquitous “Funky Drummer” drum break improvised by Clyde Stubblefield on James Brown’s funk record of the same name. Yet, whilst Brown is revered as a funk legend, Stubblefield died of kidney failure in February 2017 with no health insurance – his treatment funded by the generosity of his fans. Uncredited as a songwriter on the track, Stubblefield wasn’t entitled to any royalties from producers like Dr Dre and The Bomb Squad who built careers off of Funky Drummer’s signature groove. Should we consider sampled artists like Stubblefield victims of theft or contributors to hip-hop’s artistic legacy?

To answer this question, we must explore sampling’s importance and history within the genre. The technique involves reusing or manipulating audio from one recording in another, ranging from entire bars of music to individual drum hits and melodies. At hip-hop’s inception in the 1980’s, sampling allowed young African Americans to create full compositions without live instrumentation, studio space or classical training. Characterised by David McNamee in The Guardian as the “working-class black answer to punk”, sampling spawned an underground sub-genre that democratised music as an art form. Armed with their parents’ funk and soul record collections and affordable Akai MPC samplers, producers reinvigorated gems like Stubblefield’s break to articulate the African American experience through rap.

At hip-hop’s inception in the 1980’s, sampling allowed young African Americans to create full compositions without live instrumentation, studio space or classical training.

Hank Shocklee of Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad was one such producer: “We were like scavengers, going through the garbage bin and finding whatever we could from our old dusty records”, he told The Atlantic. Shocklee’s group created dense soundscapes through dozens of eclectic samples. Public Enemy’s 1990 track “Welcome to the Terrordome” typifies this approach, employing 20 unique samples that include James Brown’s signature ‘uh’ ad lib and an excerpt from the 1983 mob classic Scarface. Stylistically, the Bomb Squad’s approach to sampling typified the swaggering and heavy sound of late 1980’s hip-hop, whilst simultaneously offering thematic references for keen listeners who could identify the samples.

However, this was all to change with the pivotal court decision Grand Upright Music, Ltd v. Warner Bros. Records Inc., 780 F. Supp. 182 (S.D.N.Y. 1991) which irreversibly transformed sampling culture. Citing the biblical commandment: “Thou shalt not steal”, the Court sided with Irish musician Gilbert O’Sullivan whose song “Alone Again (Naturally)” had been sampled by rapper Biz Markie without O’Sullivan’s consent. Overnight, hip-hop producers were forced into the lengthy and prohibitively expensive process of ‘clearing’ their samples with copyright holders. Others like Biz Markie had to surrender 100% of the royalties from their records. Whilst producers saw their content as transformative, broader American society viewed hip-hop as a subversive blot on the musical landscape which promoted a “callous disregard for the law”. Sampling was simply another degenerate act amongst drug-use, gang violence, and ‘black power’ activism.

Sampling was simply another degenerate act amongst drug-use, gang violence, and ‘black power’ activism.

Although sampling didn’t cease, its practitioners scrambled to evade the full force of the law. The mid-1990’s and 2000’s witnessed newcomers like J Dilla and Madlib become famous for ‘crate-digging’. Diggers sought obscure samples from indie artists or niche record stores abroad hoping that litigation could be avoided. Established producers like Dr Dre ‘interpolated’ samples by commissioning live instrumentalists to recreate material. For example, on The Firm’s 1997 track “Phone Tap”, Dre interpolated a guitar riff from Chris Barber’s Jazz Band’s song ‘Petite Fleur’ to create the track’s suave melody. Through this process, producers only required clearance from song-writers and not the original artist or record label.

Nonetheless, there remains an upper echelon of successful artists with the resources needed to clear sought-after samples. It is at this level of hip-hop where the creative potential of sampling is realised. One perfect example is Kendrick Lamar’s “Duckworth”, the introspective conclusion to his Pulitzer Prize-winning album ‘Damn’. The track’s producer 9th Wonder is truly a student of his predecessors, employing sampling as an art form to achieve thematic and stylistic goals. The beat samples three records: Ted Taylor’s soul track “Be ever wonderful” (1978), Yugoslavian jazz-rock band September’s song “Ostavi Trag” (1976), and “Atari” (2015) by Australian jazz-funk band Haitus Kaiyote. With each of the three songs coming from three different genres, generations and countries, the samples each correspond to the three characters Kendrick mentions in his lyrics. In Duckworth, producer and rapper work in harmony to explore common artistic themes. It is therefore both exciting and regrettable to think of how creatively sampling could be used if more producers had access to the same resources as the duo.


Kendrik Lamar (Image credit: flickr)

Contemporary Baltimore rapper-producer JPEGMAFIA is a notable critic of the music industry’s stifling impact on hip-hop artists’ creativity. “For me, sampling is a high art”, the artist said to Spin magazine, whilst soon after admitting that: “samples are annoying as shit”. JPEG’s music reflects the modern state of sampling, containing maybe one or two but regularly zero samples. According to whosampled.com, JPEG samples anything from WWE entry songs to video-game audio from Mortal Kombat and Ridge Racer. Such samples are brief, obscure and embedded enough within the beats to avoid protracted litigation that only the stars can afford. Describing himself as “fiercely independent”, JPEG is one of many modern hip-hop producers forced to create art within a restricted legal environment.

JPEG’s music reflects the modern state of sampling, containing maybe one or two but regularly zero samples.

Whilst sampling has arguably become ‘fairer’ for musicians like Gilbert O’Sullivan, it has clearly lost its original democratic essence. When we look back at hip-hop’s past, it is clear that the technique can be employed masterfully and in an artistic manner. It is also clear that modern hip-hop could never have existed without sampling. From its early beginnings with “Funky Drummer” to the poetic narratives of Kendrick Lamar, sampling empowered downtrodden African Americans with a means for their voices to be heard. After almost 40 years of hip-hop’s existence, it is time for sampling to make a return as a celebrated art form and whilst the original artists deserve recognition, that recognition should not be shown through boardroom meetings and bank transfers. Maybe we should listen to the wise words of Clyde Stubblefield: “A lot of people should have gotten a lot of credit”.