Last week, the electronic artist Clive Tanaka filed a suit against Nicki Minaj, claiming that she and her production team cribbed significant portions of his 2011 track “Neu Chicago” to create her 2012 super-hit, “Starships.” In doing so, he added the superstar rapper to the growing list of hip-hop and R&B musicians to make recent headlines for copyright disputes. There’s been well-publicized legal drama, for example, involving Robin Thicke, Pharrell, and T.I. over their use of Marvin Gaye and Funkadelic tracks in their chart-topping song “Blurred Lines.” Last month New Orleans musician Paul Batiste accused a number of artists—T-Pain, Rick Ross, and DJ Khaled among them—of illegally sampling his music. And just a few weeks ago, Young Jeezy found himself facing a lawsuit from Leroy Hutson for the unauthorized use of Hutson’s song “Gettin’ It On” on his 2010 mixtape, Trap or Die2.
These kinds of lawsuits have become commonplace since the early 1990s, thanks in large part to the 1991 U.S. District Court case Grand Upright Music, Ltd. v. Warner Bros. Records, Inc., which ended the days of free-for-all sampling by requiring artists to clear all samples in advance to avoid getting sued. The judge in the case opened his ruling with “Thou shalt not steal” and went so far as to suggest that rapper Biz Markie and his label should face criminal charges for their unauthorized use of a Gilbert O’Sullivan sample. (They didn’t.) Similar cases followed, upholding the need to clear even the smallest of samples.
As a result, landmark albums such as De La Soul’s Three Feet High and Rising and Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, built upon a dizzying array of samples, soon became all but impossible to produce because of the costs involved (according to Spin the average base price to clear a single sample is $10,000). To this day, sample-based rap remains a shadow of its former self, practiced only by hip hop’s elite—those with the budgets to clear increasingly expensive samples or defend lawsuits when they don’t.
Some of the consequences for rap music as a genre are clear, the most obvious being that the sound of the music has changed. The relatively sample-free soundscapes of producers like Timbaland or the Neptunes are a testament to that fact, as are the songs that rely on just one or two samples rather than 20 or 30.
But might there be subtler, thematic implications of the decline in sampling?
Read more. [Image: AP]