Sampling and semiotic democracy

Thomas Wuil Joo. A Contrarian View of Copyright: Hip-Hop, Sampling, and Semiotic Democracy. 44 CONN. L. REV. — (2012)

As both a fan and a producer of sample-based music, I’m naturally sympathetic to Lawrence Lessig and the free-culture movement, a group of legal scholars advocating reforms to copyright law that would make it easier to sample, remix and mash up the works of others. The free-culture adherents believe that copyright law exceeded its original purpose to “foster the Useful Arts and Sciences,” and that now it mostly stifles less-powerful creators while benefiting more-powerful entities. A narrative has emerged in this movement implicating the high-profile sampling lawsuits of the 1990s like Grand Upright Music v. Warner Bros. Records and Bridgeport Music Inc. v. Dimension Films in suppressing sample-based hip-hop and related collage-like popular music.

Lessig and company think that sampling and remixing of popular culture can empower us, enabling us to take ownership over the products of the dominant culture industry and enhancing “semiotic democracy.” Copyright law inhibits recoding and is grossly overbalanced in favor of large corporate entities and other powerful actors. In particular, so the narrative goes, marginalized hip-hop artists have suffered under the heavy hand of lawsuits and exorbitant licensing fees.

Is the free-culture movement right?

Thomas Joo challenges the free-culture movement’s assertions both theoretically and empirically. He analyzes the infamous lawsuits and finds only reinforcement of a longstanding status quo. He provides extensive evidence that commercial hip-hop artists of the “golden age” (the 1980s and early 1990s) were perfectly aware of the requirement that they license their samples, and that they were able to produce and profit from their music nonetheless.

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The Champ

Music blogs, magazines and cable channels like to run lists of the best albums of all time. Certain albums get listed again and again: Sgt Pepper, Pet Sounds, Highway 61 Revisited.

If you were to compile the best albums as measured by how often they get sampled by hip-hop producers, the list would look very different. There would be some famous names on it — James Brown, Led Zeppelin, P-Funk — but it wouldn’t necessarily include their best-known songs. And you’d see a lot of names that would be totally unfamiliar, unless you were a really devoted crate-digger. In the top ten, alongside tunes by The Honey Drippers, The Soul Searchers and The Incredible Bongo Band, you’d  find “The Champ” by The Mohawks.

Hip-hop fans will instantly recognize the organ riff that kicks off this song. It’s everywhere. Yet I had never heard of the Mohawks before looking into the source of the riff. They were an ad-hoc band of session musicians led by a British organist named Alan Hawkshaw, best known for his commercial jingles, library music and TV theme songs. He also played on records by Barbra Streisand and Olivia Newton John. Not the likeliest source of inspiration for Big Daddy Kane and Ol’ Dirty Bastard, is he? But the album grooves hard.

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