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