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.