Ever heard of Clive Stubblefield? Most people haven’t. And it’s a shame, considering the amount of work he has done for music today. The main drummer in James Brown’s band from 1965 to 1970, the reason why I mention him is because he is also the most sampled drummer in history. His work, including his now famous drum beats of “Cold Sweat” and “Funky Drummer” (you might not recognise the names, but if you heard them you’d know them) have been sampled, used and performed in hundreds of songs by many artists, including Public Enemy and NWA.
Sampling and borrowing in music today is seen with mixed feelings. Many traditional songwriters view it as lazy, infringing on copyright laws, and not ‘real’ music. An alternative, more colourful view is that while good composers borrow, great composers steal, and build on original works to create something new. From Radiohead to Led Zeppelin to The Beatles to Marvin Gaye, every really successful artist has at some point been involved with borrowing other people’s music. So is borrowing really that damaging? Or is it a new form of cultural expression?
Copyright laws are in place for a reason. Preventing plagiarism is vital, and if someone knowingly steals and simply reuse someone else’s work, it is very damaging to the original work. An example of this was The Beach Boys, who openly used the music to Chuck Berry’s hit “Sweet Little Sixteen” for their smash hit “Surfin’ USA” and didn’t acknowledge Berry. As a result, they lost the rights to their biggest hit. Taking someone’s music and putting it into your own is a dangerous game to play as a musician. So why do so many musicians do it? Because it is a building block in the creative process, and in my personal view always has been.
Building on ideas that have come previously has always been a part of the creative process. How else can we as human beings build in terms of culture, technology and other factors? Walt Disney would never have been able to make many of the fantastic animated films of the Disney Renaissance if he hadn’t borrow (quite legally) the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. It may seem ludicrous to believe, but everything around us in our world has come from an idea that has been, in one way or another, refined and adapted. Within music itself, borrowing someone else’s idea has always been there.
A fantastic example of how far back it goes is 20th century American Jazz. From the 1930s-70s, American Jazz was pioneering for its music style, use of the improvised music genre through artists like Louis Armstrong. But to say American Jazz was ‘new’ at the time is incorrect. The improvised music genre (i.e. making the music up as you go along) was pivotal to 18th century composers like Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. Pioneering Jazz artists took this and adapted it, and it became the essential element of American Jazz, and has been for over 70 years. And think of how many genres were influenced by American Jazz? Think Rock, Hip-Hop, Rap, Reggae? If you go to a show today, how often do the performers improvise a guitar riff, lyrics, or even make up a whole song on the spot? That all started back in the 18th century.
Many samplers borrowed music from the American Jazz period (through remixing), and this remoulding of the Jazz period subsequently contributed to the creation of modern hip-hop, rap, and new audio art forms. During the 1980s sampling became a very lucrative and fresh way to look at music, and commercially became extremely popular. Examples of artists that benefitted from this was De La Soul (who are more known today for their collaborations with Gorillaz), Public Enemy, NWA and The Beastie Boys. This golden age of hip-hop came from sampling, and is now also regarded and is regarded as yielding some of the most creative works in the last 40 years. A notable example is Paul’s Boutique by the Beastie Boys (which was made almost entirely of samples). When it was realised it received much critical acclaim initially and retrospectively, and has since been recognised as a landmark album in hip-hop, with NME, Mojo and Rolling Stone describing it as "shredding the rulebook" on music and calling it "one of the most inventive rap albums ever made". However, with changes to copyright law in the late 80s and 90s, it would be nearly impossible to realise an album like Paul’s Boutique today.
Why? Once sampling became profitable, questions of ‘who-owns-what’ became a major hurdle in the development of rap, as many artists who had been sampled now saw a chance to make a lot of money from samplers using their music. The samplers themselves had no idea of the ramifications of what they were doing, which meant once lawsuits started to occur, such as with Biz Markie, it made the sampling music business very risky. As a result, using a sample now comes with hefty lawyer fees, which is why sampling has now become an underground ‘people’ movement in music.
Many new pieces of music that have tried to follow this technique in a vein similar to Paul’s Boutique have been met with lawsuits from major labels. A recent example of this have been The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony”. The famous violin riff was actually an orchestral version of the Rolling Stones song “The Last Time” that The Verve obtained the rights to, and both bands originally agreed to share the song royalties equally. But with the songs huge success, the Stones management viewed that “Bittersweet Symphony” had used too much of the riff, and so sued for 100% of the royalties and the song-writing credits. And they won! Ironically, it was orchestral composer David Whittaker who created the violin riff that the Verve sampled as part of the writing “The Last Time” as an orchestral piece, but he received no credit.
Another example is Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album. Danger Mouse is now well known for his collaborations with The Black Keys, but in 2004 decided to do a remix album, combining Jay-Z’s The Black Album, and the Beatles’ White Album. He realised initially with no aim of making profit, however it became a viral hit, and EMI, who owned the rights to The Beatles music, sued Danger Mouse; even though Jay-Z and Paul McCartney gave their approval. EMI tried to stomp it out of existence, however with its viral success fans deliberately circulated it on the internet in protest against EMI for its actions. Danger Mouse won, and EMI lost. That said, the album was never sold commercially, but if it had, it would have been the biggest selling album of 2004. Danger Mouse didn’t make a cent from it, even though we still got to dance to it.
So what am I trying to say with these examples? Copyright aims to protect people’s intellectual property, but when it is too rigid, it stifles new creative ideas. With the rise of sampling, the music industry became a feeding frenzy of ‘who-sued-who’. And it shouldn’t be this way.
All great innovation comes from taking a great idea and building another idea on top of it. And it does a lot of good. It enables an expansions of ideas, and creations of new forms of music and thinking through building (e.g. hip-hop and rap). Is it stealing if you are inspired by previous works? The Beatles were inspired by all that came before them (Buddy Holly, Little Richard and Roy Orbison, to name some), and look at how innovative they were. Music is not a stationary entity, it always followed a change and progression over time. By ignoring current rules, you can create something new.
The great thing about The Grey Album example is the support it received from fans. With new forms of music comes ways to enjoy and breathe life back into music of the past that may have been forgotten. The remix culture has been responsible for resurrecting the careers of many artists, including Marvin Gaye and George Clinton. When people hear samples in works, they will often find their way back to artists of the past and their music (Clinton is now seen to be a founding father of funk). And how else would I know about Clyde Stubblefield?
But wait, what about plagiarism? Isn’t that the point of copyright laws? That is true, and it does do that job. But copyright laws walk a fine line between ensuring plagiarism doesn’t occur and almost stamping out any creativity. Overprotection of property can be as damaging as not protecting property at all. Should there be a relaxing of copyright laws? Yes, because creativity shouldn’t be stopped by expensive lawsuits, hefty payments to sample and accusations of plagiarism that may not be totally justified, as the case of ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ shows, which in my opinion genuinely builds on previous inspirations. Plagiarism is unacceptable, but that is why copyright laws should be more relaxed and flexible. I believe that a flexible system will be a better system.
This article has only really scratched the surface of the problem. So is borrowing music an improvisation on an existing theme, or an outright theft of artistry? Chris Martin from Coldplay once told Rolling Stone that “I don’t think you can say we’re that original. I regard us as being incredibly good plagiarists”. Yes, using other people’s music and passing it off is plagiarism, but it may also be a building block for innovative, creative music. If we overprotect our work, as an American Federal Court Judge, Alex Kozinski says in a 2003 copyright judgement, it can be just as harmful. “Culture is impossible without a rich cultural domain. Nothing today is genuinely new. Culture, like science, today grows by accretion, each new creator building on the works of those who came before. Overprotection staples the very creative force it is supposed to nurture”
So overall? Let people borrow ideas and create, pay for it where it is really needed, and, as Daft Punk says “give love back to the music”.