Maybe, like me, you’re a fan of “Super Rich Kids” by Frank Ocean featuring Earl Sweatshirt.
Maybe, like me, you were especially delighted by the part at 1:59, when Frank unexpectedly quotes “Real Love” by Mary J. Blige.
A “record label” (really a group of lawyers) called TufAmerica heard that quote too, and now they’re suing Frank Ocean for sampling their property without permission. TufAmerica owns 3.15% of “Real Love.” They acquired this stake by suing Mary J. Blige, whose song samples “Top Billin'” by Audio Two.
Wait, except TufAmerica doesn’t own “Top Billin'” either. They own “Impeach the President” by the Honey Drippers, the opening bars of which have been sampled in thousands of songs, “Top Billin'” among them.
At this point, you may be getting confused. Isn’t that a rather long and convoluted chain of musical borrowings to be suing over? Audio Two didn’t do a straight sample of “Impeach the President,” they flipped it — they sliced the sample into individual drum hits and reshuffled them into a very different rhythm. Still, they made use of someone else’s recording, so, fine. But what does that have to do with Mary J. Blige? It’s distinctly possible that neither she nor her produces had never even heard of the Honey Drippers when they sampled Audio Two.
But that isn’t the dumbest part of TufAmerica’s case. The dumbest part is that Frank Ocean’s quote (not sample) of Mary J. Blige makes no reference to the beat at all. He quotes the lyrics and the rhythmic contour of her melody, with different pitches and underlying harmony. Really, if anybody deserves to be making copyright claims over a groove here, it’s Elton John. The first time I heard “Super Rich Kids,” I thought, oh cool, Frank sampled the beat from “Benny and the Jets.”
A quick Google search reveals dozens of lawsuits that TufAmerica is involved in. The company is a notorious “sample troll,” like the equally odious Bridgeport Music. Their sole purpose as corporate entities is to buy up copyrights of old songs and then sue people who have sampled them. Sometimes they do this against the wishes of the original creators — George Clinton is delighted that the rappers have embraced P-Funk, but Bridgeport Music owns his copyrights.
Even if you don’t care about hip-hop, or sample-based music in general, the practice of sample trolling should concern you. According to the US Constitution, the point of copyright law is “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.” TufAmerica is not promoting the Progress of anything. If anything, they’re creating pressures that stifle the useful Arts. I’m hardly a wild-eyed radical for believing this — here are some think pieces on the harmful effects of sample trolling by the New York Times, Slate, and The Atlantic.
There is so much wrong with this lawsuit. Why should TufAmerica go after Frank Ocean in particular? According to WhoSampled.com, the opening of “Impeach the President” is the most-sampled breakbeat in history. Pieces of it appear in at least one commercial recording every year since 1987. Is it because Frank Ocean happens to be really popular right now, rather than his being the most egregious transgression against TufAmerica’s rights?
It gets worse. TufAmerica has a music imprint, Tuff City, which sells vinyl copies of “Impeach the President” on their online store. The page copy touts the track’s significance in hip-hop history:
Roy C and the Honeydrippers’ “Impeach The President” is widely considered to be the most sampled track in the history of hip hop. Artists such as 2Pac, Slick Rick, Nas, N.W.A, Ice Cube, Eric B & Rakim, Audio Two, Common and, many, many more.
The break at “Impeach the President” is virtually a blueprint for hip hop… the kind of track that broke big in the old school scene of the late 70s, and which is still bumping speakers today!
I guess no one in their marketing department has heard of irony.
CMU points out a further irony: “Real Love” was originally released on Uptown Records, which was later absorbed by Frank Ocean’s label, Universal, in the late 1990s. This means that Universal probably owns the majority rights of the track it’s currently accused of illegally sampling.
I know that we need to have rules about intellectual property. But shouldn’t those rules make sense? Unless the drummers who played the classic breakbeats happen to be listed as songwriters, they don’t get any money when people license samples of them. Clyde Stubblefield isn’t entitled to a dime when people license the Funky Drummer break. Why should a bunch of lawyers who have never played or recorded a note in their lives be able to extract money in situations like this? Why do we tolerate this kind of parasitism in our creative economy? Sample trolls are destroying America.