The 25 Most Notorious Uncleared Samples In Rap History

Get money.

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Complex Original

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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

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25. The whole entire rap game (except Too $hort) sampling James Brown

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24. Ghostface Killah and The RZA sampling Jack Urbont's "Iron Man Theme" on "Supreme Clientele"

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Album: Supreme Clientele
Producer: The RZA
Label: Epic
Though Ghostface Killah's Supreme Clientele came out in 2000, it wasn't until 2011 that composer Jack Urbont filed a complaint over that album's repeated use of the "Iron Man Theme" he'd penned for 1960s TV show Marvel Super Heroes. In the claim, Urbont alleged that the Wu MC gained "substantial commercial advantage by linking Ghostface to Iron Man without paying for it." A sensible rebuttal would be that rap's Tony Starks helped keep Iron Man's public profile high, considering that his albums Ironman and Supreme Clientele came out before the hit Robert Downey, Jr. Iron Man flicks. Then again, Supremer Clientele opens with the 23-second long theme song, and uses it, uncleared, in its entirety. A disgruntled Ghost called the lawsuit "super wack" for "tryna come at the kid, asking for twenty million."

23. Jake One sampling Crowns of Glory's "I'm So Grateful (Keep In Touch)" on Rick Ross, Jay-Z, and Dr. Dre's "Three Kings"

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Album: God Forgives, I Don't
Producer: Jake One
Label: Mercury/Island/Def Jam

It was "3 Kings" in hot water when a suit was filed this February over the Ross/Jigga/Dre track's unlicensed use of the Crowns of Glory's 1976 song "I'm Grateful (Keep In Touch)." The gospel piano melody is unmistakable in the Ross song; the more damaging allegation is that the commercial prominence of the rappers in question inhibits Crowns Of Glory to promote their own work. That settlement is still pending.

22. Jake One sampling M.O.P.'s "Ante Up" on John Cena's "Time Is Now"

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Album: You Can't See Me
Producer: Jake One
Label: WWE Records

We love it when rappers and wrestlers have beef. In this bout, M.O.P fumed over their signature anthem "Ante Up" being bitten by John Cena for the wrestla-turnt-rappa's "Time Is Now." Cena's joint appeared on both WWE: Raw's Greatest Hits – The Music and the beefcake pin-up's solo album You Can't See Me - the latter strangely better than anything M.O.P has done since. M.O.P.'s suit sought damages of over $150,000 for copyright infringement, and also a piece of the digital and ringtone royalties.

21. KNS sampling Steely Dan's "Black Cow" on Lord Tariq & Peter Gunz's "Deja Vu (Uptown Baby)"

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Album: Make It Reign
Producer: KNS
Label: Columbia

Hoary fusion smoothies Steely Dan soaked De La Soul big time for an uncleared bit of "Peg" sampled on the single "Eye Know" back in 1990. But Steely Dan's bigger claim came over Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz' million-selling top ten hit "Déjà Vu (Uptown Baby)" which made indelible use of "Black Cow" (from the same Aja album.) LT&PG reportedly had to fork over a six-figure sum. Like déjà vu all over again.

20. The Trackmasters sampling The Beatnuts' "Watch Out Now" on Jennifer Lopez's "Jenny From The Block"

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Album: This is Me... Then
Producer: The Trackmasters, Troy Oliver and Cory Rooney
Label: Epic

The Beatnuts were, understandably, totally incensed when Trackmasters straight jacked their classic "Watch Out Now" for J-Lo's falsely modest (yet fabulous!) "Jenny From The Block." So the 'Nuts (whose beat was itself a flip of Enoch Light's "Hi-Jack") released the dis track "Confused Rappers," claiming that "sweet cheeks" was "no Salma Hayek." A settlement was eventually reached before the suit went to court. Cough it up!

19. DJ Quik sampling Bappi Lahiri's "Thoda Resham Lagta Hai" on Truth Hurts' "So Addictive"

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Album: Truthfully Speaking
Producer: DJ Quik
Label: Aftermath Entertainment, Interscope Records

The slinky and seductive "So Addictive" was a debut single smash for Dre's female protégé and a powerful comeback for Rakim. But even exotic samples need to be cleared. This one wasn't. In 2002, the Indian recording company Saregama filed a $500 million lawsuit against UMG, Interscope and Aftermath Entertainment accusing DJ Quik of illegally sampling "Thoda Resham Lagta Hai," by Lata Mangeshkar (composed by Bappin Lahrin). Lahiri won an injunction mandating that the Truth Hurts album had to be pulled from stores because his name was not credited on the CD. The suit was settled for an unknown sum.

18. Afrika Bambaataa sampling Kraftwerk's "Trans-Europe Express" and "Numbers" on "Planet Rock"

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Album: Planet Rock: The Album
Producer: Afrika Bambaataa
Label: Tommy Boy

"Planet Rock" by Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force is a record whose influence is impossible to overstate. And it wouldn't exist if not for its key samples of two tracks by German electronic pioneers Kraftwerk. Afrika Bambaataa grabbed 1977's "Trans Europe Express" for the simple, swelling melody, and added the metallic rhythms of their 1981 single "Numbers." When Tommy Boy Records released "Planet Rock" in in 1982, Kraftwerk's contributions were uncredited. The German group brought suit, and settled out of court with Tommy Boy.

17. Matt Dike and Michael Ross sampling Lee Micheals' "Who Could Want More" on Young MC's "Principal's Office"

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Album: Stone Cold Rhymin'
Producer: Matt Dike and Michael Ross
Label: Delicious Vinyl

In 1989, Young MC followed up his smash hit "Bust A Move" with the jaunty "Principal's Office." Piano man Lee Micheals was hopping mad that Young had liberally exploited his tune "Who Could Want More" and sued for over a million dollars. Spicy seafood fans delighted when Michaels received enough of a settlement to open his Killer Shrimp restaurants in Los Angeles.

16. A-Plus sampling Bob James' "Angela (Theme From Taxi)" on Souls Of Mischief's "Cab Fare"

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Album: N/A
Producer: A-Plus
Label: N/A

Bob James' "Nautilus" is a perennial hip-hop sample, used in songs by Run-DMC, Ice-T, Slick Rick, Eric B. & Rakim, Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, A Tribe Called Quest, Ghostface Killah, Lupe Fiasco, Jeru The Damaja, and Wu-Tang Clan, to name a few. But it was Bob's sweet-ass Taxi theme that SF quartet Souls of Mischief couldn't clear for their shoulda-been hit "Cab Fare" that led to legal action. "They sent me a copy of it and they'd speeded it up so much that it sounded like Mickey Mouse," James told Noah Callahan-Bever. "It made my tune sound silly. So, without even knowing anything about Souls Of Mischief and what they were doing, or what they were about, I said 'No, I'm sorry, I don't want my piece heard that way.'" The oft-bootlegged "Fare" wasn't properly released until decades later on a Hiero comp.

15. Dr. Dre sampling Lucasfilm's THX deep note on "Lolo (Intro)"

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Album: 2001
Producer: Dr. Dre
Label: Aftermath, Interscope

Dr. Dre's 2001 album begins with the unmistakable whooshing "THX deep note" often heard at the local multiplex movie theater right as the lights go down. George Lucas' Lucasfilm had trademarked the sound—according to Lucasfilm, it was the first sound ever to be trademarked—and sued Dre for $1.5 million. Dre later replied "I tried to clear it and they said they wouldn't clear it, so I went back to the studio and created my own sound. They're saying it sounded similar, which it does. It sounds similar. But it is my sound. I created it in the studio. So that's what the lawsuit is about. I believe we're gonna end up settling and they're gonna get what I was offering in the first place."

14. Baauer sampling Plastic Little's "Miller Time" on "Harlem Shake"

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Album: N/A
Producer: Baauer
Label: Jeffree's, Mad Decent

You might not have heard of Philly rap group Plastic Little. But you've heard 'em. The inducement to "do the Harlem Shake" (from Plastic Little 2001 song "Miller Time") is key to Baauer's No. 1 viral dance bomb. Also uncleared in "Harlem Shake" is Hector "El Father" Delgado inciting "¡Con los terroristas!" from a 2006 remix of his "Maladades". Sick. The case is ongoing.

13. Pharoahe Monch sampling Akira Ifukube's "Gojira Tai Mosura" on "Simon Says"

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Album: Internal Affairs
Producer: Pharaoh Monch
Label: Rawkus/Priority/EMI

"I lost tons!" said Pharaohe Monch when asked about the uncleared sample of Godzilla film composer Akira Ifukube's "Gojira Tai Mosura" from Monch's Godzilla-sized 1999 hit "Simon Says." Leave it to the philosophical Monch to look at the bright side of not getting rich: "I might've bought a boat and crashed that shit."

12. Vanilla Ice sampling David Bowie and Queen's "Under Pressure" on "Ice Ice Baby"

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Album: Hooked
Producer: Vanilla Ice
Label: SBK Records

Queen and David Bowie's "Under Pressure" provided the infectious bass-line for Vanilla's breakthrough hit. Ice denied it, and the album's songwriting credits were hastily revised after Queen and Bowie brought suit. A undisclosed settlement was reach out of court, but the payout on fifteen million singles sold must've been hefty.

11. Teddy Riley sampling Lyn Collins' "Think (About It)" on Rob Base & DJ EZ Rock's "It Takes Two"

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Album: It Takes Two
Producer: Teddy Riley
Label: Profile Records

A direct hit of adrenalin drawn from a James Brown jam, Rob Base & DJ EZ Rock's "It Takes Two" (produced by Teddy Riley) was the high-energy crossover hip-hop hit of 1988. This one was settled before the suit was decided in court, but James Brown singer Lyn Collins complained that she was hearing her voice all over the radio and wasn't seeing a penny. Had this song come out a few years later, some legal precedent over sampling would've been established and Collins likely would've received a tidy check.

10. Timbaland sampling Rajesh Khanna and Farida Jalal's "Baghon Mein Bahar Hai" on The Game's "Put You on the Game"

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Album: The Documentary
Producer: Timbaland
Label: Aftermath/G-Unit/Interscope

Timbaland's taste in exotic samples got called out when Saregama India filed suit over an uncleared sample from a 1967 Bollywood movie. One of India's oldest recording companies, Saregama owns almost half of all the music ever recorded in the country. They were the same firm that successfully sued Dr. Dre over the Truth Hurts record "Addictive" featuring Rakim. But in this case, Tim and Game won the suit.

9. Easy Mo Bee sampling Ohio Players' "Singing In The Morning" on The Notorious B.I.G.'s "Ready to Die"

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Album: Ready to Die
Producer: Easy Mo Bee
Label: Bad Boy

In 1977, Westbound Records put out the Ohio Players compilation album The Best Of The Early Years Volume One, including the song "Singing In The Morning" (which had originally appeared on the Players' album Pain). The cover of The Early Years is a photograph of a baby with a blow-out afro. Ready To Die's album cover is very similar. Whether it was samples and cover art inspiration: Biggie and Bad Boy were repurposing the good stuff. But where the photo similarity could be written of as an homage, Easy Mo Bee's six-second sample of the Ohio Players song used on the song "Ready To Die" led to huge legal nightmare. Bad Boy Entertainment, Bad Boy LLC, Justin Combs Publishing and Universal Records were ordered to pay a total of $4.2 million in damages to Bridgeport Music and Westbound Records. A judge even barred sales of the Notorious B.I.G.'s debut album until the case was resolved.

Apparently "Thou shalt not sample without proper clearance" is not a commandment-not a crack commandment anyway. So when the unmistakable sampled voice of Public Enemy's Chuck D barked the digits on Biggie's how-to of rock-slangin', the context of the song repelled the anti-drugs Chuck. The fact of the sampling itself was not the problem (Public Enemy being one of the most sample-saturated groups ever), but Chuck couldn't stand being associated with a song about dealing drugs, so he filed suit in 1998, a year after the release of Biggie's Life After Death. An undisclosed settlement was reached out of court.

8. Mac Miller sampling Lord Finesse's "Hip 2 Da Game" on Mac Miller's "Kool Aid and Frozen Pizza"

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Album: K.I.D.S.
Producer: Lord Finesse
Label: Rostrum Records

In July 2012, undisputed legend Lord Finesse whomped new jack Mac Miller with a $10 million lawsuit alleging Mac's "Kool Aid and Frozen Pizza" had borrowed Finesse's 1996 joint "Hip 2 Da Game" wholesale without permission. The two MCs wound up settling out of court while cooing about how they shared nothing but respect and hoped to work together in the future. Lost amidst the hubbub was a much-deserved shout-out/paycheck to Oscar Peterson, the jazz piano genius whose song "Dream Of You" formed the melodic basis of the Finesse track in the first place.

7. Prince Paul sampling The Turtles f/ Flo & Eddie's "You Showed Me" on De La Soul's "Transmitting Live From Mars"

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Album: 3 Feet High and Rising
Producer: Prince Paul
Label: Tommy Boy/Warner Bros.
Twenty years before Flo & Eddie announced their delight at Gucci Mane's "Lemonade" being based on "Keep it Warm," the Turtles twosome slapped Prince Paul and co. with a $1.7 million lawsuit for not clearing the chirpy organ and swingin' strings from "You Showed Me" for De La's "Transmitting Live From Mars." How much is that in Mars money? A four-bar chunk of the Turtles song was looped to run throughout the 66-second bug-out track from the classic album Three Feet High And Rising. De La's lawyer was quoted as saying "I'm not saying there's no sample of the Turtles but other things are involved that are not the Turtles." But such reasoning did not stand the test of time. Sadly, albums like De La's debut would be impossible today due to sample clearance costs.

6. Beastie Boys and Mario Caldato sampling James Newton's "Choir" on Beastie Boys' "Pass The Mic"

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Album: Check Your Head
Producer: Beastie Boys, Mario Caldato
Label: Capitol

No stranger to litigation, The Beastie Boys' most discomfiting case centered around the a three-note quote of flautist James Newton's jazz composition "Choir," which appeared forty-some times in their comeback hit, "Pass The Mic." After Newton apparently "refused generous settlement offers," the Beasties won the suit. A panel of three judges found that "three notes, C-D flat-C, sung over a background C note played on the flute... when played on the sound recording licensed by Beastie Boys...for approximately six seconds" did not constitute infringement, because it was not "substantially similar" and would not be recognized by an average listener. The Beasties then reportedly tried to recoup the nearly half-million dollars they spent in the fight from Newton himself, which left the composer complaining that he'd be left bankrupt. Ouch.

5. 2 Live Crew and Luther Campbell sampling Roy Orbison's "Oh, Pretty Woman" on 2 Live Crew's "Pretty Woman"

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Album: As Clean As They Wanna Be
Producer: Luther Campbell
Label: Atlantic Records

After 2 Live Crew delivered their typically lascivious parody of Roy Orbison's 1964 smash "Oh, Pretty Woman," Acuff-Rose Music, who administered Orbison's catalog, brought suit. The case of Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc went all the way to the United States Supreme Court, which determined in 1994 that the new song was parody, and within legal bounds. This set a precedent that making money from a parody did not compromise its fair use status, an important legal victory. Justice Souter attached the lyrics of both songs to his majority opinion, so 2 Live Crew lyrics like "Big hairy woman, you need to shave that stuff...because you look like Cousin It" are now in every law library in America.

4. The RZA allegedly sampling Meiko Kaji on Kanye West's "Dark Fantasy"

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Album: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Producer: The RZA, Kanye West, No I.D., Jeff Bhasker, Mike Dean
Label: Roc-A-Fell/Def Jam

Whose dark fantasy is this exactly? RZA claimed he didn't steal from the Japanese pianist, but style and sequence of notes sounds mad similar. Def Jam reportedly withheld $50,000 in royalties from The RZA as indemnification from the claim made by Meiko Kaji, and RZA in turn sued Kaji for making the claim in the first place. Just last month RZA's legal representative stated that "it would have been technologically impossible to sample the piano run without the rest of the music in 'Gincyo Watadori,' and the piano run in 'Gincyo' is so simple that the least talented person in the studio could have replayed it had anyone wished to do so." And the legal wheel goes round.

3. Grandmaster Flash and Joey Robinson, Jr. sampling Liquid Liquid's "Cavern" on Grandmaster Flash & The Furious FIve's "White Lines"

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Album: Grandmaster Melle Mel
Producer: Joey Robinson, Jr., Melle Mel, Sylvia Robinson
Label: Sugarhill Records

Few megaliths are as dance floor-ready as "White Lines." The same is true of "Cavern" by downtown NYC dudes Liquid Liquid - the basis for Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five's immortal slab. Rather than sample, Sugarhill's house band replayed the theme as Flash and co. adapted "Cavern"'s chanted hook. (Contrary to popular belief, replaying a sample does not absolve the producer from liability for clearance, although it does remove the mechanical rights, you're still on the hook for publishing.) By the time Liquid Liquid tried to recoup due ducats, Sugarhill Records was in receivership.

2. The RZA sampling Syl Johnson's "Different Strokes" on Wu-Tang Clan's "Shame on a N***a"

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Album: Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
Producer: The RZA
Label: Loud

Funk father Syl Johnson has had his music sampled by Cypress Hill, Geto Boys, and Kid Rock-and he ain't no stranger to servin' rappers with writs. After Johnson's "Different Strokes" was repurposed by The RZA for Wu-Tang's "Shame On A Nigga," any shame was assuaged by a pay-out to Syl that left him living in a house "built with the Wu-Tang money." (Johnson also later sued Jay-Z and Kanye over an unlicensed sample of the grunt from "Different Strokes" used on the Watch the Throne track "The Joy.")

1. Biz Markie and Cool V sampling Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Alone Again (Naturally)" on Biz Markie's "Alone Again"

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Album: I Need a Haircut
Producer: Cool V and Biz Markie
Label: Cold Chillin

The uncleared sample that ended the golden era of sampling. After Biz crooned his special version of '70s Irish pop star Gilbert O'Sullivan's 1972 smash "Alone Again (Naturally)," the sample cops cracked down. The judge's opinion opened with the Biblical phrase "Thou shall not steal", and even suggested that criminal charges should be filed. Biz's album I Need A Haircut had to be recalled but was later re-released without "Alone Again." A chastened Biz wound up calling his next album All Samples Cleared, but after Grand Upright Music, Ltd. v. Warner Bros. Records Inc. the heyday for sampling smorgasbords like Paul's Boutique and 3 Feet High And Rising was over.

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