Op-Ed by Erin Barra: Sample This Blog! Why It’s Time for a Sampling Revolution

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Absorb another fierce op-ed from Erin Barra, and don’t miss her contest with Ableton and ProAudioStar at the end of the article.

Since the dawn of humanity, we have been creating art and innovating ideas inspired by what surrounds us.

Erin Barra sees many sides of sampling.

It is THE VERY BASIS of who we are as human beings to build upon our collective past: The Beatles credit The Isley Brothers as a vocal harmony sound they were literally trying to imitate at the beginning of their career; Shakespeare borrowed plot lines down to the finest of details from authors such as Chaucer and Plutarch; Walt Disney’s Steamboat Willie, debatably one of the most innovative moments in moving pictures, was a direct parody of a Vaudeville act entitled “Steamboat Bill, Jr.”

All three of these creative forces have two things in common. First, these artists are some of the most influential and pioneering creators in history. Secondly, they all borrowed heavily from something they didn’t create… and so continues the cyclic tradition of how culture is divined.

You could firmly declare that nothing is original, and it’s reasonably likely that few people would disagree with you.  Painting with the color blue isn’t a new concept, nor is singing about love. Still the originality lies is in the interpretation and expression of such redundancies. No one can claim ownership over the color blue, love songs or gravity. But the works that were created based upon them, now that’s a different story… or is it?

Technology is developing at such a rapid clip that it’s completely altering the way we create, distribute and access art and information. This lightening-fast evolution (i.e. the Internet – thanks Al Gore!!) is simultaneously creating a pulsating and bloodthirsty arena for creators/innovators to play in.

But it is also threatening their very existence.

After having researched and articulated these concepts myself, I am not only fascinated, but scared out of my mind about the potential consequences of what actions we as a civilization choose to take in response to such massive change.

I think it is important to keep in mind that this technological advancement in and of itself isn’t really new either. Anyone remember the Industrial Revolution or the Radio? Even evolution can’t come up with something original!!

I should also note that this piece of writing isn’t “new” either. It’s an interpolation of two brilliant pieces of writing (Creative License, by Kembrew McLeod and Peter DiCola, and Free Culture by Lawrence Lessig), an in-depth interview with Keith Shocklee, (see video blog below) and countless conversations with my friends, family and peers.

Based upon these, I argue neither side of the issue, but rather surrender to how evolution chooses to unfold…however beautiful or bittersweet.

I Put My Thing Down, Flip It and Reverse It

Sampling and effecting audio as an art form had it’s conception in the 1920’s (think phonograph manipulation), but uttered its first newborn screams of life in the late 1970’s early 1980’s with Hip Hop.

Mainstream America thought Hip Hop was a passing fad and the industry largely ignored it.  In many ways I think this blatant disregard was one of the most important factors in Hip Hop artists, producers and DJ’s being able to freely sample and for all intents and  purposes, copyright infringe.

Pioneers of the movement, such as Public Enemy and The Beastie Boys, used multiple samples in a single song, creating layers of sonic material over which they did something highly original for the time… rap.

These Hip Hop producers were stretching the limits of the technology and creating a new genre that not only completely changed the music industry, but whose impact was hugely socio-economic and political. If you want to talk about being innovative and impactful, Hip Hop is arguably the most influential thing to happen to the music industry in the past century.

And yet, it’s very heartbeat (pun intended) is based upon appropriated audio. Juxtapose that with the idea Shakespeare hardly ever came up with an original plot line in his entire career and then ask yourself if you think this type of creation is truly new at all, or even infringement at a certain point.

The idea that Hip Hop is built upon the music that came before it (albeit in a severely literal way) again demonstrates the cyclic, overlapping nature or how we as a culture and civilization continually develop. To me, the notion of truncating that process seems utterly ridiculous and in a perfect world that wouldn’t be the case.

One massive example of the power of sampling: 1989’s “Paul’s Boutique”.

Sadly, the dawn of sampling and the technologies that gave birth to it have thrown the entire copyright protection system for such a loop that it’s almost completely failed to serve it’s purpose.

Sample Me This

Let’s not forget that there are two sides to every story. At a certain juncture you have to ask yourself; is it right for producers, Hip Hop or otherwise, to use other people’s master recordings, without their permission, and do whatever they want to them? I mean, intellectual property is property nonetheless, right? And just because it’s intangible, does that make it okay to steal it? ‘Cause that’s basically what’s going on here.

This particular dilemma wears several disguises, so as an exercise in gaining perspective, riddle me this… If producer X impermissibly takes and uses a sample in a song which makes up the entire hook, and then becomes a big deal because of the success of that song, does the original author/artist of the sample deserves some sort of compensation or other credit? Does this potential compensation only become applicable if/when there is commercial success involved? What if said song is released gratis, does that make it less like stealing?

If the sampled artist is lost to obscurity and somehow the producer managed to resuscitate that artists career, resulting in sales of the original recording, does that make it okay? If you only use two seconds of a highly recognizable recording, should you have to clear that sample? I could go on and on and on.

The answer to all of these questions is… maybe.

The moral dilemma surrounding the concept of sampling is so multi-faceted and subjective that it’s nearly impossible to take a side or stance. One of my favorite finds while researching this piece was a quote from Creative License given by Hip Hop producer Mr. Dibbs.

“Most people that sample take a loop, and they loop it, and they put some drums and a bass line… that shit’s stealing.  I don’t really care that it’s wrong. At all. It’s stealing. I don’t care. That’s the nature of hip hop…. I ain’t paying nobody. I ain’t paying shit. I’m not paying you nothing. Like, you could call me on the phone personally, and I’m not giving you shit because I’m not making enough money to pay eight grand for an ‘uh’ from James Brown. But, If I – no, fuck it. I’m not paying. Ever…. It doesn’t mean it’s not wrong. It means I don’t give a fuck.”

Mr. Dibbs: NOT prepared to shell out.

In a sick and twisted way I think this sums up the problem, and hints at the solution. (to be speculated on at the end of the piece)

The Law

The copyright clause of the American Constitution says that “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”

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