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<nettime> How Copyright Law Changed Hip Hop
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<nettime> How Copyright Law Changed Hip Hop

     [via Felix Stalder <felix {AT} openflows.org>]

How Copyright Law Changed Hip Hop

By Kembrew McLeod, Stay Free! Magazine
June 1, 2004

First Published in fall 2002

When Public Enemy released It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back in 
1988, it was as if the album had landed from another planet. Nothing sounded 
like it at the time. It Takes a Nation came frontloaded with sirens, squeals, 
and squawks that augmented the chaotic, collaged backing tracks over which 
P.E. frontman Chuck D laid his politically and poetically radical rhymes. He 
rapped about white supremacy, capitalism, the music industry, black 
nationalism, and  in the case of "Caught, Can I Get a Witness?"  digital 

In the mid- to late 1980s, hip-hop artists had a very small window of 
opportunity to run wild with the newly emerging sampling technologies before 
the record labels and lawyers started paying attention. No one took advantage 
of these technologies more effectively than Public Enemy, who put hundreds of 
sampled aural fragments into It Takes a Nation and stirred them up to create 
a new, radical sound that changed the way we hear music. But by 1991, no one 
paid zero for the records they sampled without getting sued. They had to pay 
a lot. The following is a combination of two interviews conducted separately 
with Chuck D and Hank Shocklee.

Stay Free!: What are the origins of sampling in hip-hop?

Chuck D: Sampling basically comes from the fact that rap music is not music. 
It's rap over music. So vocals were used over records in the very beginning 
stages of hip-hop. In the late 1980s, rappers were recording over live bands 
who were basically emulating the sounds off of the records. Eventually, you 
had synthesizers and samplers, which would take sounds that would then get 
arranged or looped, so rappers can still do their thing over it. The 
arrangement of sounds taken from recordings came around 1984 to 1989.

Stay Free!: Those synthesizers and samplers were expensive back then, 
especially in 1984. How did hip-hop artists get them if they didn't have a 
lot of money?

Chuck D: Not only were they expensive, but they were limited in what they 
could do  they could only sample two seconds at a time. But people were able 
to get a hold of equipment by renting time out in studios.

Stay Free!: How did the Bomb Squad [Public Enemy's production team, led by 
Shocklee] use samplers and other recording technologies to put together the 
tracks on It Takes a Nation of Millions.

Hank Shocklee:The first thing we would do is the beat, the skeleton of the 
track. The beat would actually have bits and pieces of samples already in it, 
but it would only be rhythm sections. Chuck would start writing and trying 
different ideas to see what worked. Once he got an idea, we would look at it 
and see where the track was going. Then we would just start adding on 
whatever it needed, depending on the lyrics. I kind of architected the whole 
idea. The sound has a look to me, and Public Enemy was all about having a 
sound that had its own distinct vision. We didn't want to use anything we 
considered traditional R&B stuff  bass lines and melodies and chord 
structures and things of that nature.?

Stay Free!: How did you use samplers as instruments?

Chuck D: We thought sampling was just another way of arranging sounds. Just 
like a musician would take the sounds off of an instrument and arrange them 
their own particular way. So we thought we was quite crafty with it.

Shocklee: "Don't Believe the Hype," for example  that was basically played 
with the turntable and transformed and then sampled. Some of the manipulation 
we was doing was more on the turntable, live end of it.

Stay Free!: When you were sampling from many different sources during the 
making of It Takes a Nation, were you at all worried about copyright 

Shocklee: No. Nobody did. At the time, it wasn't even an issue. The only time 
copyright was an issue was if you actually took the entire rhythm of a song, 
as in looping, which a lot of people are doing today. You're going to take a 
track, loop the entire thing, and then that becomes the basic track for the 
song. They just paperclip a backbeat to it. But we were taking a horn hit 
here, a guitar riff there, we might take a little speech, a kicking snare 
from somewhere else. It was all bits and pieces.

Stay Free!: Did you have to license the samples in It Takes a Nation of 
Millions before it was released?

Shocklee: No, it was cleared afterwards. A lot of stuff was cleared 
afterwards. Back in the day, things was different. The copyright laws didn't 
really extend into sampling until the hip-hop artists started getting sued. 
As a matter of fact, copyright didn't start catching up with us until Fear of 
a Black Planet. That's when the copyrights and everything started becoming 
stricter because you had a lot of groups doing it and people were taking 
whole songs. It got so widespread that the record companies started policing 
the releases before they got out.

Stay Free!: With its hundreds of samples, is it possible to make a record like 
It Takes a Nation of Millions today? Would it be possible to clear every 

Shocklee: It wouldn't be impossible. It would just be very, very costly. The 
first thing that was starting to happen by the late 1980s was that the people 
were doing buyouts. You could have a buyout  meaning you could purchase the 
rights to sample a sound  for around $1,500. Then it started creeping up to 
$3,000, $3,500, $5,000, $7,500. Then they threw in this thing called rollover 
rates. If your rollover rate is every 100,000 units, then for every 100,000 
units you sell, you have to pay an additional $7,500. A record that sells two 
million copies would kick that cost up twenty times. Now you're looking at 
one song costing you more than half of what you would make on your album.

Chuck D: Corporations found that hip-hop music was viable. It sold albums, 
which was the bread and butter of corporations. Since the corporations owned 
all the sounds, their lawyers began to search out people who illegally 
infringed upon their records. All the rap artists were on the big six record 
companies, so you might have some lawyers from Sony looking at some lawyers 
from BMG and some lawyers from BMG saying, "Your artist is doing this," so it 
was a tit for tat that usually made money for the lawyers, garnering money 
for the company. Very little went to the original artist or the publishing 

Shocklee: By 1990, all the publishers and their lawyers started making moves. 
One big one was Bridgeport, the publishing house that owns all the George 
Clinton stuff. Once all the little guys started realizing you can get paid 
from rappers if they use your sample, it prompted the record companies to 
start investigating because now the people that they publish are getting 

Stay Free!: There's a noticeable difference in Public Enemy's sound between 
1988 and 1991. Did this have to do with the lawsuits and enforcement of 
copyright laws at the turn of the decade?

Chuck D: Public Enemy's music was affected more than anybody's because we were 
taking thousands of sounds. If you separated the sounds, they wouldn't have 
been anything  they were unrecognizable. The sounds were all collaged 
together to make a sonic wall. Public Enemy was affected because it is too 
expensive to defend against a claim. So we had to change our whole style, the 
style of It Takes a Nation and Fear of a Black Planet, by 1991.

Shocklee: We were forced to start using different organic instruments, but you 
can't really get the right kind of compression that way. A guitar sampled off 
a record is going to hit differently than a guitar sampled in the studio. The 
guitar that's sampled off a record is going to have all the compression that 
they put on the recording, the equalization. It's going to hit the tape 
harder. It's going to slap at you. Something that's organic is almost going 
to have a powder effect. It hits more like a pillow than a piece of wood. So 
those things change your mood, the feeling you can get off of a record. If 
you notice that by the early 1990s, the sound has gotten a lot softer.

Chuck D: Copyright laws pretty much led people like Dr. Dre to replay the 
sounds that were on records, then sample musicians imitating those records. 
That way you could get by the master clearance, but you still had to pay a 
publishing note.

Shocklee: See, there's two different copyrights: publishing and master 
recording. The publishing copyright is of the written music, the song 
structure. And the master recording is the song as it is played on a 
particular recording. Sampling violates both of these copyrights. Whereas if 
I record my own version of someone else's song, I only have to pay the 
publishing copyright. When you violate the master recording, the money just 
goes to the record company.

Chuck D: Putting a hundred small fragments into a song meant that you had a 
hundred different people to answer to. Whereas someone like EPMD might have 
taken an entire loop and stuck with it, which meant that they only had to pay 
one artist.

Stay Free!: So is that one reason why a lot of popular hip-hop songs today 
just use one hook, one primary sample, instead of a collage of different 

Chuck D: Exactly. There's only one person to answer to. Dr. Dre changed things 
when he did The Chronic and took something like Leon Haywood's "I Want'a Do 
Something Freaky to You" and revamped it in his own way but basically kept 
the rhythm and instrumental hook intact. It's easier to sample a groove than 
it is to create a whole new collage. That entire collage element is out the 

Shocklee: We're not really privy to all the laws and everything that the 
record company creates within the company. From our standpoint, it was 
looking like the record company was spying on us, so to speak.

Chuck D: The lawyers didn't seem to differentiate between the craftiness of it 
and what was blatantly taken.

Stay Free!: Switching from the past to the present, on the new Public Enemy 
album, Revolverlution, you had fans remix a few old Public Enemy tracks. How 
did you get this idea?

Chuck D: We have a powerful online community through Rapstation.com, 
PublicEnemy.com, Slamjams.com, and Bringthenoise.com. My thing was just 
looking at the community and being able to say, "Can we actually make them 
involved in the creative process?" Why not see if we can connect all these 
bedroom and basement studios, and the ocean of producers, and expand the Bomb 
Squad to a worldwide concept?

Stay Free!: As you probably know, some music fans are now sampling and mashing 
together two or more songs and trading the results online. There's one track 
by Evolution Control Committee that uses a Herb Alpert instrumental as the 
backing track for your "By the Time I Get to Arizona." It sounds like you're 
rapping over a Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass song. How do you feel about 
other people remixing your tracks without permission?

Chuck D: I think my feelings are obvious. I think it's great.

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