Just a sample…

The use of sampling has always been at the very core of Hip-hop. Its beginnings featured rapper’s vocals recording or playing over live bands eventually giving way to the use of synthesizers and samplers, that took sounds to be rearranged and looped for artists to rap over. These samplers were limited in what they could do and also expensive. Therefore rappers had to rent out time in a studio in order to make music and record.


This was an extremely experimental stage of hip-hop with artists and producers/DJs arranging samples in their own particular way to achieve a particular sound. The mid to late 80s gave rappers and producers a chance to compose and play around with sampling without any worry of copyright infringement.

Most of the licensing for hip-hop samples was given after the tracks were released. At the time, copyright laws didn’t extend to sampling until rap artists started to get sued. Some producers would take entire songs and sampling became more and more widespread, forcing record companies to start policing the releases before they went out. As soon as record companies realised that hip-hop music was viable and it actually made money, they started to go after those that used samples illegally.

The cost of ‘buying out’ these samples increasingly rose, as Chuck D from Public Enemy recalls “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.”

Once all the little guys started realizing you could 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 paid. Artists became forced to use different organic instruments which softened the impact of a lot of rap’s trademark early sound into the mid 90s.

There are two different copyrights: publishing and master recording. The publishing copyright is of the written music ie. 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 an artist was to record their own version of someone else’s song, they would only have to pay the publishing copyright. When you violate the master recording, the money just goes to the record company. Putting many small fragments into a song means you have many different people to answer to. If you stick with an entire loop from one song, you only pay one artist. This resulted in, as we see today, many rap artists using just one primary sample instead of a ‘collage’ of different sounds.

We can see that observing hip-hop’s reaction to copyright laws is fairly unique to all other genres of music because it was birthed out of the use of samples and backing tracks. It is in the culture, and modern companies and their lawyers didn’t know how to deal with this. Only when it could be seen that big money was being made, were corporations taking strict action to extract what they could, even when the sample was so minor and insignificant.


This has had a significant effect on hip-hop, particularly in regards to creativity. Large companies are not concerned with the wonders of recreating a new and exciting piece of music using various sounds, riffs and vocals from older songs but are with ensuring no money misses their pockets. Despite this, true t oits nature, hip-hop has shown its adaptability and has managed to find a way to succeed, for example Blue Chips from Action Bronson and Party Supplies, releasing the album for free online despite using countless old music and Youtube samples.

An optimistic view could envision an increasing amount of independent artists, not relying on large record companies, allowing for more free flow and sharing of material. Artists understand the creative process more than any record company or corporation would, and therefore would be more likely to lend their music rights for a smaller fee or none at all. Something to hope for anyway…


References: –

Evans, T. M 2010, Sampling, Looping and Mashing… Oh My! How Hip Hop Music is Scratching More than the Surface of Copyright Law, Social Science Research Network, blog post, 9th September, viewed 17th October 2013,



McLeod, K 2004, How Copyright Law Changed Hip Hop, Stay Free! Magazine, blog post, 31st May, viewed 17th October, 2013, http://www.alternet.org/story/18830/how_copyright_law_changed_hip_hop


Power to the People: Citizen Journalism


As an avid rap music listener, I have noticed a major shift in the way I view my music information. Obviously there is an abundance of music reviews, blogs and forums all containing everything you need to know and never knew you needed to know about every possible artist making music today.

Whereas once I would refer to (hip-hop media) The Source, XXL or HipHopDX for new album reviews, now I look to forums in Reddit, Noisey, Complex, even comment sections of Youtube. For me, there is an element of trust involved. I know that larger sites and companies are most likely connected to even larger record companies with vested interests in the commercial success and sales of that record. I know that the various opinions of the average user are valuable and sometimes more warranted than 5 mics in the Source.

This is where I see benefits of ‘citizen journalism’. Without profit driven incentive, more honesty is achieved and real opinions get heard. While one opinion doesn’t hold as much weight as a major magazine such as XXL, many of these views can stack up and rise against biased and dishonest music and concert reviews with ulterior motives.

Hip-hop in general has always thrived on being a citizen-driven genre. It formed as a reaction against the mainstream and therefore holds more value in maintaining this position. As soon as the control shifts away from the streets and to the corporations, the genre ventures away from its essence. (See – Hip-hop as a citizen media)


Citizen control of media with the aid of the internet has, and will continue to, empower those involved with hip-hop ensuring its legacy stays in the hands of the people and not those with economic self interests absent of culture or passion in the genre.

The Mutated Medium

Record_1205328703The inevitable result of rapidly advancing technology and digitalisation is a graveyard of old, worn out and unwanted devices that have been replaced by a much smaller, faster, cheaper and more efficient tool. How quickly we went from prancing around with headphones on listening to our Walkman or mini disc players to laughing at the poor guy who has the guts to actually be seen out in public rocking one, while we jog passed him with our ten thousand song capacity iPod the size of a matchbox strapped to our arm. Society is notorious for always wanting to improve and discarding old technology as soon as its use has expired.

As Mcluhan suggests, the medium frames how we view and use the message. Unless there is a use for a medium, it will unfortunately meet an untimely demise and cease to be of any benefit, unless for nostalgic purposes. We see this in the defunct floppy disc. I remember transferring no more than a megabyte and a half worth of word documents in high school onto one of those bad boys and writing my name on the sticker. The compact disc quickly made a joke out of the floppy disc the same way the USB stick has now done to the CD, in terms of storage space. It is a rarity, but occasionally an old medium, at risk of becoming completely outdated and useless, can be mutated and reemerge as a completely new form of medium altogether. We see this in what is recognised as the  instrument of Hip-Hop: The turntable.

A ‘turntablist’, as described by John Oswald, is “an artist who plays a record like an electronic washboard with a phonographic needle as a plectrum, producing sounds which are unique and not reproduced – the record becomes a musical instrument”.

The way in which the turntable was radically altered and turned into a musical instrument, giving birth to a revolutionary new genre of music, is astounding. Certainly Emile Berliner, the creator of the gramophone that eventually became the turntable/record player, never intended on anyone making music out scratching records and making strange sounds to a break beat.

So it is a user-generated mutation of an old medium that can give a new use to an old medium, completely changing the way the medium is viewed and framed. While scratching vinyl is a method perhaps used much less today than it was in the late 80s-early 90s, it is forever cemented in hip-hop history as a foundation of the genres creation.


One of the revolutionaries: DJ Kool Herc

Ultimately, the way hip-hop culture mutated the already-established medium of the turntable represents the culture itself. Hip-hop is based on altering and individualising something that exists, making it almost unrecognisable and giving birth to something fresh and innovative.

[Joke time…..They’re making a new website for DJs and scratchers that has information on turntablism. It’s called wiki.wiki.wikiwikipedia ]


Also, recently there has been a DJ version of the extremely popular ‘Guitar Hero’, called ‘Scratch: The Ultimate DJ’.