Aram Sinnreich on Hip-Hop and Sample Laws

Aram Sinnreich on Hip-Hop and Sample Laws
Aram Sinnreich is a musician and author of the books “The Piracy Crusade” and “Mashed Up: Music, Technology, and the Rise of Configurable Culture.” He is often cited by major outfits like NPR, The Wallstreet Journal, and The New York Times, and is also an assistant professor at Rutgers University School of Communications. His expertise has been consulted on the stand in trails pertaining to media and issues of copyrights such as the Supreme Court case MGM v. Grokster. I sat down with Aram Sinnreich after watching his presentation on the history of copyright cases in hip-hop. His lecture covered the history of music censorship dating back to when the Catholic church controlled what kind of music was considered moral and what was a danger to society, to court cases such as De La Soul VS The Turtles (1991), to more recent cases like Jay Z’s battle against TufAmerica Records, which was in regards to a sample less than 1 second long used in the beat to the 2009 single, “Run This Town.”

D: You’re a bass player right? How has hip-hop influenced your music personally?

A: I Was a teenager in the 80’s. There was this moment in time when pop culture started to get back into dance music like r&b, soul and funk, and James Brown licks and Parliament licks started to get sampled in hip-hop. My parents had stopped listening to African-American popular music around 1972, so for me hip-hop was my first introduction to a lot of that bass-centric music. So bass players like Bootsy Collins were kind of a new discovery for me as a teenager just at the moment when I started to play bass. Hip-hop was really central for me in teaching me what part the bass plays in an ensemble, and what kind of rhythmical relationship the bass should have to the other instruments, especially the drums. Hip-hop between ’89-’94 was really, really nuanced in its exploration of the dynamics of the rhythm section and to this day 25 years later, I’d say the way I relate to a drummer is really shaped and influenced by those hip-hop tracks by A Tribe Called Quest, Eric B. & Rakim, Pete Rock & CL Smooth and other artists of that time.

D: So hip hop was sort of a cultural ambassador of other forms of black music?

A: Yeah, this was music that when it was made, was considered to be transient, valueless; only good for a week as a dance number and then consigned to fade into the ruins of history. And there were all these kind of cheesy companies that would release these sort of compilations like Golden Hits from the 70’s from K-Tel Records. But those kinds of albums weren’t sold at the places I used to go and they weren’t played on the radio. So if music wasn’t from your parents’ record collection, there was no way to know it, no way to have a relationship to it. So part of what hip-hop DJs were doing at that time, was reclaiming that lost music that shouldn’t be forgotten, shouldn’t be ephemeral – it’s not valueless. It shouldn’t be in the bargain basement bins. This should be celebrated, this is our heritage, this is part of what makes us beautiful as a culture and as a country. People my age, especially people who were teenagers in the late 80’s, were really the first generation to sort of experience classic r&b, soul and funk through the lens of the DJ.

D: What do you think, culturally and artistically, a shift away from sampling in hip-hop music does to the music itself?

A: Well, it becomes much less oriented towards heritage, and much less self referential, and becomes much more kind of post-modern, and by post-modern I mean de-historicized, cut off from itself. So if the beats in a hip-hop tune are generated on a laptop, or if a single very popular song is the only song in the hook, it becomes music that becomes about the moment, and not about the lineage and the heritage, and not about contributing to this larger movement. Look at someone like Q-Tip, who would take forgotten soul and jazz sides from 1968 and drop a heavy beat underneath them and hire a bass player to play live upright bass. You had someone who very consciously made a statement about the interrelationship between generations, and he makes that clear in his lyrics, too, you know. The first lyrics on the first Tribe Called Quest album are, “Back in the days when I was a teenager, before I had status before I had a pager, you could find The Abstract listening to hip-hop, pops used to say it reminded him of bebop. I said Daddy don’t you know that things move in cycles.” So right out of the gate, the ethic of this era, not just Tribe, but these sorts of groups were very dedicated to a kind of reconnecting to being more Afrocentric. And even early Public Enemy, NWA, Wu-Tang Clan and Dre, were very dedicated to re-investigating the music of their parents’ generation; not only for the musical attributes, but also the kind of cultural heritage that came along with it. The Black Power movement was a very Afrocentric approach to celebrating black culture as something valuable and permanent, as something that goes back before slavery.

D: What are some landmark cases that you think mark a shift away from that to what we have currently?

A: The case against NWA where they sampled a 2 second riff of a Funkadelic song and got smacked down by the judge – although they had taken this tiny piece of an improvisation, and put it through effects and a hundred other things that they were still stealing, and basically punished them for acknowledging their roots. And that happened in 2004, I think that was the most damaging case in the history of hip-hop. The Biz Markie case, where he took Gilbert O’Sullivan – which was less about black culture commenting on itself, and more about pop culture commenting on itself – but in that case the judge said, “Thou Shalt Not Steal,” and actually referred to the the Bible as justification for his argument, that sampling was just a form of theft. You can’t understand the cultural context of these court rulings, without remembering that black people have been accused of stealing by the white power structure since the first slave was brought across the Atlantic. This characterizing black people as thieves and black culture as being derivative and secondary to “mainstream culture”, is a type of psychic damage that hurts millions of people in their very souls, makes them feel like like second class citizens, people who don’t deserve a say or an ownership statement. It’s very dismaying how these court cases sort of reinforced these modes of thought without critically thinking about how these decisions affect the millions of people who feel themselves to be a part of hip-hop culture.

D: Are there contemporary artists whom you do feel carry on those traditions and priorities?

A: I think the new Kendrick Lamar record is incredible. There’s a lot of hype around it, but I think it’s really well deserved. And there are DJs out there, like Amerigo Gazaway, who was half of Gummy Soul, who are re-investigating and are doing things like creating mashups of Marvin Gaye and Yasiin Bey, or De La and Fela Kuti – so by mashing those things together you’re making an argument that there’s a continuum, that there’s a history. By showing commonalities in the music, you’re making an argument that these are not temporary pieces of fluff, that these are statements of an ongoing ethic and are part of a kind of oral history enacted through recording techniques and sampling techniques, and I think that’s powerful. It’s also just great to listen to. Mixtape culture is much more vibrant than mainstream hip-hop, because it’s not commercial and doesn’t always play within the bounds of copyright.

D: Are there people who are making money, say via YouTube partners, from posting music and getting sued?

A: Not very much, because YouTube has this content ID system. So if you’re a rights holder, like a label, or publisher, writer, or artist, you can tell YouTube, anytime your algorithm recognizes this recording, I want you to do the following, and so you can tell them in advance just to take it down. But this is a problem because it overreaches, as a lot of legal scholars have established. There are so called fair uses, where people have the right to use copyrighted content without permission of the content owner and not facing the threat of censorship, but YouTube doesn’t accommodate fair use that way. But basically anytime you hear music on YouTube, whether it’s a straight song or a sample of a song, you know for a fact that the artist has already given YouTube permission for that song to be on their service and that they’re being compensated with a percentage of their advertising revenues.

D: Do you think there’s an explicit agenda when creating copyright laws to have the cultural affects that they do?

A: Yes, I do. I think that one of the main functions of copyright and commercial media system is to structurally exclude certain parties and communities as evenly as even stakeholders. That property law is always biased in favor towards whoever controls the legislature. In America that’s, for the most part, wealthy white people and corporations that they have created for themselves. From the very beginning, American property law existed in part to structurally exclude people of color from owning their fair share of the society and the culture, and I don’t see these dynamics nearly enough despite 150 years of abolition of slavery and 50 years of civil rights.

While it seems that Aram Sinnreich may not fully appreciate more contemporary examples of hip-hop music, created post year 2000, he does make very compelling arguments in regards to court rulings and their de-incentivizing effect on the creation of music using samples. Producers have good reason to be overly cautious when considering whether or not to incorporate samples into their workflow, if the rules that determine fair use don’t seem to protect sampling artists.

An example of this is the rule that a sample must be transformative, not just a derivative, meaning the sampled work should be transformed into something original, not resembling the original source of the sample. Yet, rules like this do not often protect the uses of samples by hip-hop artists such as De La Soul’s flip of The Turtles sample below.

Listen to the De La Soul song from 3 Feet High and Rising, and then listen to The Turtles’ version. De La Soul ended up settling out of court to the tune of $1.7 mil.

Devon "ironchef" Ward-Lee

Devon is a Staff Writer at The 5th, Contributor for, documentarian, veteran bedroom emcee, and aspiring professor at Woodbury University. Peep his Black Mirror spoof web series streaming via iBrainchip.

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