Samples are an embedded part of hip-hop culture. Appropriation is part of the production process. A producer selects a sample, then flips it. Sometimes what they do with the sample is artistically mind-boggling, sometimes it's a straight jack move. But regardless of the arguable artistry of the sample, it's legal matter baby. There's always somebody who owns the rights to the original composition and/or recording, and those somebodies will be looking to get paid. So, why not clear a sample? An artist might think the sampled artist would never notice (jazz composer James Newton had no idea he was sampled by Beastie Boys until one of his music students brought it to his attention). Or that if the song doesn’t become a hit, there’s no money there and thus nothing for a copyright holder to come after. Or perhaps, if the song becomes a hit, there’ll be plenty of money to pay off the sampled party then. But then again, waiting till a song blows up can make the negotiation extra sticky.
Lately, it’s become a part of mixtape culture for singers and rappers to go over other folks’ beats wholesale. Since mixtapes are free, and the samples aren't being commercially exploited, some would argue that they don’t need to be cleared. But what sort of get outta jail free card is that? Don’t mixtapes help build the brand and benefit the mixtape artist? That’s what happened where Mac Miller’s reputation was secured to the tune of 25 million YouTube views by flowing over an old Lord Finesse instrumental. Of course Finesse sampled an old Oscar Peterson record in the first place, but like a prospector who’s discovered gold, Finesse felt he had digger’s rights by refining the nugget adding some drum-pad boom-bap to the loop.
Lord Finesse would not be the first to file suit in an attempt to get a piece of that filthy lucre. Some of these lawsuits were successful. Many of them never went to trial, but were resolved in out-of-court settlements. Each has its own unique twists and turns, just like an irresistibly tasty breakbeat. And every last one of them has either set a legal precedent or at least become the stuff of hip-hop legend. So let's take a look back now, because as George Santayana once said, those who do not read history are doomed to repeat it.
Written by Peter Relic