Sampling in Music: Creative Interpretation or Copyright Infringement?

Sampling, the act of taking parts of one sound recording and using it in a new piece of music, has grown to be an extremely popular and recurring trend within the music industry. Although commonly associated with hip-hop and electronic music, musicians across all genres are known for incorporating various sampling strategies in their tracks as early as the 1960’s. Over the past few decades, sampling has proven to be a revolutionary strategy for musicians, with new technologies providing endless opportunities for creative expression. Using modern sampling tools, musicians are able to take and edit pieces from an endless reserve of preexisting material to create a new, complete piece. While many view sampling as an expression of creativity and originality, the debate over validity, artistic merit, and copyright continues to be disputed today. While early sampling artists in the 1960’s were able to sample other pieces without permission, the use of sampling by popular artists eventually resulted in legal backlash by artists, publishers and labels under the restrictiveness of US copyright laws. However, many sampling artists began to fight back and claim their samples under fair use. Fair use is a legal doctrine and limitation to copyright. Courts in the United States today continue to attempt to rule on its legality, despite its recognition as an essential production tool and within the music industry. Although there are some cases in which artists unoriginally imitate the existing works of others, effective and adequate sampling reflects creativity and originality. By better understanding the creative and technical process behind any single piece of music, sampling can be redefined as a form of creative appreciation rather than forged imitation.

First developed by experimental musicians in the 60’s, the concept of sampling influenced the development of various genres over the course of the decade, ranging from minimalistic to psychedelic rock to jazz. These experimental musicians developed a new form of musical production, in which they physically toyed with and manipulated existing vinyls and tape loops in an effort to create something new. A sample is technically any whole digital audio recording, but the term generally refers to shorter fragments such as percussive samples, drum and melody loops, noises from nature, effects such as synth sounds and manipulated tones, as well as instrument samples. The “Funky Drummer” break and the “Amen, Brother” break are two of the most common samples used in dance and hip hop music which continues to be used today. Not only is sampling limited to pre-existing recordings, but samples often times consist of spoken words and non-musical media like shows, movies, famous speeches, etc. A number of musicians are known for sampling their own previous recordings, a primary contender being Kanye West.

In the 1970’s hip-hop was born, in which DJs used turntables and a mixer to manipulate two separate vinyl records to play percussive breaks of popular songs. As the genre popularized, the vocal style of rapping was integrated while new sampling technologies continued to develop. Known as the “golden age of hip hop,” mid 1980’s to the early 1990’s hip hop was experimental, utilizing eclectic sampling. As 1970’s hip hop primarily sampled from funk and disco, 1980 and 1990’s hip hop began to integrate jazz, soul, and rock music samples. Lyn Collins’ “Think (About It)” is one of the most sampled songs in history, used over 1400 times by hip-hop artists in the early 90’s. Nonetheless, sampling was an essential element for the creation and development of the genre. By the 1990’s hip hop was the best selling pop music genre with nearly a third of the songs on the Billboard Hot 100. As the genre became more mainstream, it saw a rapid decrease in the use of sampling. However, innovative artists like Kanye West  began to take more creative and innovative risks, reverting back to sampling techniques of early hip hop. West, known for his classical soul and R&B influences, is thought by artists, producers, and critics alike to have revolutionized the genre of hip hop in the early 2000’s. Prior to the release of his debut album College Dropout in 2004, West was a primary producer of Jay Z’s landmark album The Blueprint in 2001, featuring soul-based sampling. Unlike other artists who sampled primarily to forge a track’s rhythm, West successfully incorporated the vocal elements and textures of soul. Although using soul music as a sample source declined by 50% from 1990 to 2000, there was a 5% increase between 2002 and 2003 as a result of the success of The Blueprint. From 2004 to 2006, half of West’s samples came from classical soul or funk with the remaining from rock, jazz, and contemporary hip-hop and R&B. West sampled icons ranging from Curtis Mayfield in “Jesus Walks,” James Brown in “Otis,” “No Church in the Wild,” and Ray Charles in “Gold Digger.” West’s album 808s and Heartbreaks released in 2009 had practically no samples besides a Nina Simone sample providing the drum-break for “Bad News”, resulting in the decline of soul music in hip hop yet again. However, his 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy marked West’s return back to sampling, but in a different way. While his early samples had nostalgic elements, these samples were much more obscure and harder to recognize. Yeezus, released in 2013, was even more obscure and idiosyncratic then MBDTF. The Life of Pablo released in 2016 contained 29 samples, the most samples of any single West album with 27% of them from electronic music. Although West’s more recent production lacks the nostalgia of his early albums, he will forever be known for revolutionizing the sound of hip hop music through his eclectic sampling.

As influenced by hip hop, the use of sampling spread with the rise of electronic dance music starting in the 1980’s. The broad umbrella term of electronic dance music encompasses a variety of subgenres with varying influences from other genres.The transgressive genre of industrial music, emerging in the mid-70’s, is known for its blend of both electronic and rap music. Originally created using electric machinery, the production became more advanced through the development of synthesizers and samplers. Disco, emerging in the late 1970’s, contained elements of funk, soul, pop, and salsa, with many songs using electronic synthesizers. Primarily influenced by elements of disco, house music, a genre of electronic music, emerged in the 80’s. House music is based on heavy basslines often produced by samples of disco or funk songs. In the early 90’s, ‘rave music,’ developed in Europe and spread to the US, utilized similar sampling techniques as early hip-hop such as sampling syncopated beats or break beats and even sampling dialogue from other forms of media. Electronic music producers today, with the advancements in digital production technology, continue to rely on sampling techniques and audio effects to edit and rearrange previously existing sounds to create new, idiosyncratic compositions.

UK native Jamie Smith, otherwise known as Jamie xx, is recognized for his cutting-edge electronic production that draws on the nostalgia of of his British roots. Prior to the release of In Colour, Smith released “All Under One Roof Raving,” reflecting the unfinished style and steel-drum melody of British rave culture. Smith also included vocal samples of individuals and documentaries describing the culture as a way to nostalgically connect to his roots. Smith was able to successfully pay homage to British 90’s club culture create a sense of community and in his music through sampling. His debut album In Colour, samples drum kicks and melodies of 90’s rave anthems, capturing the innocence of his past. For example, in “Gosh,” Smith features a drum kick of kids running, a melody of the 1991 rave anthem “Belfast” by Orbital, and lastly a voice saying “Oh my gosh” sampled from a 90’s BBC radio show. By employing modern sampling technologies, Jamie Smith was able to create a one-of-a-kind piece of art that encapsulates the emotions and  memories of his adolescence. It’s evident that sampling has become a way for musicians across various genres as a way to creatively play tribute to the music that once inspired them. It’s safe to say that sampling has become a driving force for creativity and innovation within the industry.

Although musicians across all genres use sampling technology as a way to travel back in time and creatively pay tribute to the music of their predecessors, the legal question regarding its validity and artistic merit continues to be debated. While early sampling artists were able to sample portions of other musicians without permission, sampled artists claimed copyright infringement once the money started coming in. Following these claims and threats, these disputes frequently resulted in the sampling artist paying a considerable cost to obtain a license in an attempt to appease the aggrieved party. Other times, the sampling artist would claim that copyright law didn’t cover their particular use of sampling. These cases came together to shape common law and define ways in which statutory law could be applied to these sampling disputes within the United States Court System. A few lawsuits, including Grand Upright Music Ltd vs. Warner Bros. Records Inc in 1991, established the legal limits of sampling under the approval of copyright owners. Even though the laws of copyright, under the US Constitution, permit rights to authors to “promote the progress of science and useful arts,” the current system for licensing samples continues to place unfair limitations on the artist’s creativity.

Creatively using the works of other artists in a new and appropriate way should be allowed and encouraged. A large majority of the general public is completely unaware of how fundamental sampling has been in music’s history, and still continues to be today. In order to eliminate these legal issues that place creative limitations on musicians, we need to increase knowledge and awareness of its importance. Over the past few decades, not only has sampling  become an essential tool for music producers, but it has proven to be a revolutionary cultural force, eliminating boundaries and fostering new opportunities. Modern sampling technologies allow musicians to pay homage to and reminisce on the music that inspired their musical ambitions. By successfully implementing ideas for legal reform, debate over sampling’s validity as a fundamental tool for music production and creative expression.


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