A new book takes on the issue of sampling recorded music in the Digital Age

Book / I am listening to Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. You know the main theme: flutes, drums, chants and war cries, and then the mariachi-surf guitar comes in. For beat-makers and electronic musicians, this score is a goldmine of samples. The signature da-da-da-da-daaaa / wa-wa-waaaah fits any genre, but this is a deep record with parts that are as compelling as the yodel but not as recognizable.

Sampling artists search archives of recorded music to push the art into new territories and to pursue commercial success. Surrounded by aggressive legal entities that control those archives, many are elaborating on or making money from the efforts of previously-recorded musicians. This creates a complex legal and cultural situation that authors Kembrew McLeod and Peter DiCola explore in Creative License: The Law and Culture of Digital Sampling. Though built from the stories of famous artists like DJ Premier, Girl Talk, Negativland and Public Enemy, the book contextualizes the efforts of local artists. For whether they are hunting for snares, kicks and basslines; making sly or ironic references; or looking for new ways to stretch the experience of listening, Oahu is home to the full range of producing types: from the beat-making champion hip-hop producer TKO to the contemporary electronica of Lapwing and the noise/art of uvovu.

The interviews McLeod and DiCola conduct set the foundation for three assumptions: 1) sample-based music is legitimate, creative and culturally innovative; 2) sampled artists should be fairly compensated; and 3) inefficiencies of the current sample-licensing system may be stifling creativity. Lapwing summarizes their position, explaining how sampling allows him to “learn quite a bit…about the musician, about the music, about music theory itself and about my own taste and style,” and how using recognizable samples acts as a lubricant between his work and the listener. Exploring a system that mixes ethics, legal scholarship, art and profit, the authors present its challenges and complexities on neutral ground.

Readers whose experience started with “Can’t Touch This,” matured with The Gray Album and ended with All Day can expect to have their knowledge substantially broadened. Music junkies, intellectual property lawyers and cultural critics will journey into “enemy” territory. The authors give voices and personalities to sampling artists, holders of publishing and reproduction rights, and the sampled artists who have become a natural resource for the other two groups. Though McLeod and DiCola acknowledge that the recording industry–backed ultimately by congress itself–has the advantage, they subtly support a system that is structured to pay the artist last, exploits copyright laws and uses advanced signal processing software to catch unlicensed samples.

In an argument that’s reminiscent of SkyNet going back in time to kill John Connor, the authors demonstrate that classic multi-platinum albums like Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet and the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, if made today, would require those artists to pay more in licensing fees than they could possibly make in sales. Lapwing points out that only a Jay-Z/Kanye West budget can pay for an Otis Redding sample.

For producers like El-P and local musique conrète artist uvovu, the best option is camouflage. Uvovu heavily processes and transforms his samples, stating that “a commercial sample is much too recognizable for what I am looking to create. In general, I am not interested in making commentary about pop culture.” But, as the manager of a non-pop label, he has no qualms about his artists using samples in their music, and he celebrates their creativity.

McLeod and DiCola believe that people, not corporate entities define society and that even wonderfully radical art or technology is still beholden to that society. They supplement this sentiment with a proposal to reform sample clearance laws, under which artists are free to sample within reason, and rights holders can pay a fee to a third, possibly governmental, party to stop the sampling artist. It’s an interesting idea that requires all parties to create a shared perspective on the new digital reality. But given the political dimension of our society’s inability to be proactive about anything, their proposal is largely an academic exercise.

Luckily, the book uses supplementary A/V materials to rescue its issues from pure theory: a video documentary called Copyright Criminals, and a sonic bibliography by old school remixer Steinski. Viewed together, these resources form like Voltron to attack the robeast that is capitalism, and, ultimately, point at living culture as the point from which solutions will emerge.

Creative License: The Law and Culture of Digital Sampling Kembrew McLeod and Peter DiCola Duke University Press Books $23.95, 336 pp.
Check Honolulu Weekly online for our extended interview with Lapwing.
uvovu’s music can be found at []

Wing-ing It on Sampling

While preparing for this review, I interviewed Lapwing as a local electronic musician with connections to sampling as a practice. His EP is 100% original but makes use of a range of sonic fragments of varying levels of recognizability. Believing in full disclosure and ultimately defending the legality of his work under the Copyright Act’s Fair Use clause, Lapwing fully discloses all of his samples.

What is the value of sampling to you?

The value is at least twofold. For one, I can very easily take pieces of my favorite music or things that interest me and completely re-contextualize and explore them for fun and creativity. I come to learn quite a bit from sampling; about the musician, about the music, about music theory itself, and about my own taste and style. Secondly, the recognizable samples provide a lubricant between my work and the listener.

Does your willingness to sample have a direct relationship with the scale/scope of your career as a musician?

I think my sampling is a direct result of my varied taste in music and my desire to explore different genres and styles.

I think it has a lot to do with the fact that I begin DJing before I started making music, and altering the music that I was playing (beyond what a DJ typically does) was my desire from the very beginning.

If you’re asking if I’m sampling partly because I want to make beats for rappers, that is something I have absolutely considered and would love to do, but I don’t currently compose with that in mind.

If you’re asking if my use of samples is because I want to stay on the scary edge of copyright as a musician, I would have to say no. I feel strongly about those issues, but I care much more about making music for music’s sake, and right now I don’t think it is within me to do what Negativland or Greg Gillis have done in that arena or to step into the realm of focused activism or legislation.

I love the fact that you went out of your way to contact the local musician for permission to sample but give the symbolic finger to the “bigger fish.” in many ways this is the gift that all of the golden era sampling artists (PE, De La, Coldcut, Negativland, etc) have passed down–the political subtext of who get sampled, when and how.

Andy is my friend and I love his work, and I think it would be classless and lazy to not get his permission and acknowledge his contribution.

I firmly believe that any and all public art is subject to reinterpretation. When you creating something and make it public, you relinquish almost all control over that thing. That’s not my opinion, that’s reality. Andrew Bird and Andrew Iida are equals to me in terms of what meaning their work can have for me and what I can do to it to change or celebrate or destroy that meaning, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that that is happening and take responsibility for it.

So while I could have sampled Andy and the Beach Boys and that YouTube video of the Tinikling Singkil performance, which was only a second-long sample, by the way, and not given any of them credit, I think it’s important to do so. Everybody knows that’s the Beach Boys, but by writing it down I remind myself and everyone else that this is an important instrument in the song. I hope that the care with which I document the music reflects the care I have taken in making the music and the appreciation I have for the samples.

With the internationally popular artists, I really don’t have any choice. What can I do, email each of their managers and point to what I did and ask permission? I think it’s very unlikely they’d respond, and if they did it’s very unlikely they’d approve the sample. I want to say I would ask all of those big-name artists personally if I could, but what would I do if they said no? I know that I’d want to sample them anyway, and I suppose that’s where the middle finger would come in.

This is slippery, but, ultimately, it comes down to respect and what I think respect means. If I think I’m being respectful I’ll sample. If I’m not, I won’t. This is not to say that being disrespectful isn’t a valid artistic technique. It is. It’s just not mine.

Lapwing has released his first EP, downloadable here: []