The burden and blessing of sampling in hip-hop.
Image taken by Flickr user Anton Mak
I was steaming milk for two lattes in Brooklyn when I spread the gospel of Luther Vandross, unintentionally, to a couple of strangers.
It was late-morning at the coffee shop I work in. Luther Vandross’s 1981 rendition of “A House is Not a Home” oozed like honey from the overhead speakers, unnoticed by the few customers typing away at computers.
Well, almost unnoticed. “This was in that old Kanye song!” one of the customers waiting on her latte said to her companion, her voice barely audible above the whooshing of the steaming milk. “I don’t know who this is, though.” Her companion shook his head, too. Both of them looked to be a few years older than me—late-twenties, at most.
I knew exactly what Kanye song she was referencing: “Slow Jamz,” a collaborative single with Twista and Jamie Foxx from Kanye’s first album, College Dropout.
I’d loved that song when it came out in 2003, much more than an eleven year-old should have. I can still remember my cousin and I shrieking the hook from the backseat of my mom’s car.
“Are you gonna be, say you’re gonna be? Well-well,” we sang, unaware this line had been taken from somewhere else.
Mom craned her neck to look at us in her backseat. “What are you two listening to?” she’d asked.
I wanted to tell them about the legacy of R&B singer Luther Vandross, who could have brought the most unfeeling of humans to tears by singing an IKEA instruction manual.
“Some guy named Kanye West!” we replied.
“Oh. Well, that’s from a Luther song,” she said, looking back at the road.
Now, in Brooklyn, it was my turn to crane my neck. “This is Luther Vandross,” I said to the customers. “‘A House is Not a Home.’”
Very rarely do I insert myself into other people’s conversations. I don’t want them to think I’m intruding. But I also couldn’t resist. Call it a civil obligation, if you will, not unlike the thing that compels me to gently interrupt tourists who think they are going north on the subway when they are really going south. Opening my mouth might be temporarily awkward, but not doing so might preclude later inconvenience on their part.
Or—perhaps even more importantly—it might prevent embarrassment at trivia night. Which would have inevitably come for the male customer, because he said, of the song playing, “Oh. I thought this was Seal.”
I wanted to come out from behind the counter and tell them about the legacy of R&B singer Luther Vandross—Luther, whose voice had been smoother than velvet; Luther, who could have brought the most unfeeling of humans to tears by singing an IKEA instruction manual.
Instead, the male customer admitted that he hadn’t been raised on R&B, but rather sixties rock ‘n’ roll. I apologized for my incredulity at his terrible guess, and we discussed how much our parents’ music tastes had affected our own, even after we’d grown up and developed our own unique interests.
This is what I have always seen as the reason for sampling in music: exposing thirteen and thirty year-olds alike to music that might have otherwise gone un-listened to for generational, genre-related, or other reasons. Sampling is both reminding and remembering; it is the taking hold of an older, lesser-known artist’s arm, and yanking said artist into the present—if only for a little while.
But as I wiped the counter, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d been right in being the sample police. And I wondered: If a song is sampled in another song, and no one is around to acknowledge that it has been sampled, does it make an impact?
Sample policing existed long before I was born, by much more powerful people than I. On December 17, 1991, shielded by the reverence of the phrase, “Thou shalt not steal,” Judge Kevin Thomas Duffy and the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled in favor of Grand Upright Music Ltd.’s claim that Biz Markie had been wrong for sampling and selling music without getting permission first. The ruling stated that all future musicians needed to clear their samples with their original artists beforehand.
Sampling allowed artists to speak a hybrid-language that fused the immediate issues of the present with the still-relevant issues of the past.
It’s hard for me to believe it took so long for someone to cry “plagiarism” so loudly. New hip-hop acts popped up everyday, with artists like DJ Rob Base & EZ Rock and MC Hammer reaching number one spots by sampling artists like Lyn Collins and Rick James. Even the 1979 hit “Rapper’s Delight,” known as the first commercialized rap song, sampled Chic’s “Good Times,” which had been a disco hit four months earlier.
Nevertheless, it was “The Clown Prince of Hip-Hop” Biz Markie who took the fall. The rapper had made a name for himself with his playful hit, “Just A Friend” two years earlier—a song that also contains a sample—but it was “Alone Again” that got him in legal hot water with singer Gilbert O’Sullivan in 1991.
O’Sullivan wasn’t too happy when he learned Biz had sampled his 1972 hit, “Alone Again (Naturally).” For one, O’Sullivan preferred that the content be taken seriously, and in its entirety, rather than be reinterpreted. While his own first verse proposes suicide, the hip-hop version raps comically about his Benz-driving friend leaving him high and dry on a snowy day in Harlem.
Yet, despite their differences in overall message, their similarities are stark when listening to one after the other. Biz didn’t just loop eight bars of the melody of “Alone Again”—he used its hook verbatim. They’re more or less identical, one being a version by a white British artist; the other, an interpretation by a black hip-hop beat-boxing artist from Long Island.
O’Sullivan’s success in the case of Grand Upright Music, Ltd. v. Warner Bros. Records Inc. obligated Biz to remove “Alone Again” before re-releasing his album. He did, and even went so far as to poke fun at the ordeal by titling his next album, All Samples Cleared!
Nevertheless, no one found it funny—not O’Sullivan, whose name would be forever linked with Biz Markie’s, and certainly not the hip-hop industry, who would now have to provide expensive and extensive bibliographies for what had been understood for years to be a “collaborative effort.” Biz’s loss signaled the end, and the beginning, of an era.
I’m inclined to imagine the hip-hop world in its infantry, post-“Rapper’s Delight” and pre-“Alone Again,” as a time that resembles this country’s westward expansion during the 19th century: a mad dash to seize the most malleable and the most favorable materials without giving much regard to who was there first. “You mean, I can use this hook from this James Brown song for my own jam?” I imagine rap artists must have thought. “This is great!”
Lawsuit and pushback aside, I loved “Blurred Lines” because it sounded like Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up.”
Heck, if I were a rapper then, I would have probably made an entire album set to Curtis Mayfield and Joni Mitchell tracks. Why not? After all, sampling was what fostered hip-hop’s growth in its early stages. It was necessary to the process, since the act of sampling artists who had already gone through the trouble of hiring musicians was more cost-effective than hiring an entirely new band.
Most of all, though, sampling allowed artists to speak a hybrid-language that fused the immediate issues of the present with the still-relevant issues of the past. This language could speak to multiple generations across various backgrounds.
This is somewhat true today. But hip-hop has changed. Musical legends are passing away, and more and more songs that sample classics are making me shake my head in disdain. I’m an oldies purist. If I could have it my way, every single artist who sampled another artist would go through great lengths to acknowledge the song’s originator, musically and/or lyrically. This, I feel, would be “responsible sampling.”
By my logic, “Slow Jamz,” in all of its name-dropping glory, is the perfect example of a song that is responsible in its sampling. It references mainstream artists like Michael Jackson and Marvin Gaye, but it also champions lesser-known artists like Anita Baker and Minnie Riperton—artists whose music was initially and still is consumed by a particular generation (baby-boomers) of a very particular race (usually, African-American). “Slow Jamz” sings about “setting the mood off right” while actually evoking the sounds, and the artists, of old songs who…well, set the mood off right.”
But I cannot have my way—not all the time, at least. Nor should I. My own reasons for hating some songs that use samples and loving others are warped. They make sense to me and only me. Lawsuit and pushback aside, I loved “Blurred Lines” because it sounded like Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up.” I liked that Thicke, as he said when Gaye’s family sued him for sampling without permission, sought to evoke a particular era that is now long-gone.
Other songs, like “The Fix” by Nelly and Jeremih, and “Back to Sleep” by Chris Brown, bother me—possibly because both songs seem unnecessarily vulgar. Although “The Fix” maintains much of Gaye’s original sound, and overall message (that an intimate encounter is exactly what will “ease one’s mind”), I can’t see Gaye singing the line, “come and get this d***.” In contrast, Brown’s “Back to Sleep” doesn’t musically or lyrically sample as much from “Sexual Healing” as does “The Fix.” But its message isn’t much better: Brown sings about being back in town, hoping to wake up his lady-friend so that he can get in a quickie…even though she has work early.
Out of sampling can come the chance discovery of a great song that hit number one by way of a mediocre song that hit number one last year.
But the biggest faux pas, to me, was committed by one of the people I think does music sampling the best: Kanye, for his song “Otis” with Jay-Z from their 2011 album Watch the Throne. The beginning 30 seconds of a distorted verse of Otis Redding’s classic soulful rendition of “Try a Little Tenderness,” had intrigued me. “Sounds so soulful, don’t you agree?” Jay-Z asks.
Why, yes, Jay-Z, I’d thought. And then?
“I invented swag. Poppin’ bottles, puttin’ supermodels in the cab.” More lines about the life of luxury. Just like that, the soul was gone.
Sampling is more pervasive than it was when Judge Duffy told Biz to scrap “Alone Again.” We create and listen to music differently. I cannot try to be, nor do I want to be, the “sample police.” I can’t expect everyone to be as meticulous as I am about who has sampled what and why and how. It would be like staring at my bookcase and trying to remember where I got every single book.
Following our heart-to-heart about Luther Vandross and music we had and hadn’t grown up with, the couple sat down at a table to chat and drink their coffee. I glanced over at them a few times as I tidied the coffee station, particularly curious when I caught them both looking down at a cell phone. More likely than not they were probably mapping their next destination or indulging in a Snapchat selfie. But a small part of me hoped they had whipped it out for the purpose of Googling Luther Vandross songs. I hoped, in my own way, I had impacted their future music-listening endeavors.
After all, I didn’t realize Drake’s “Hotline Bling” samples Timmy Thomas’s organ-driven tune, “Why Can’t We Live Together,” until I started researching music for this piece. “Everybody wants to live together,” Thomas croons in his 1972 song. “Why can’t we be together? / No more war, no more war, no more war…Just a little peace.”
Timmy Thomas’s 'Why Can’t We Live Together,' 1972
Drake’s 'Hotline Bling,' 2015
The song was a pretty big hit—number three on the Billboard Pop Singles charts. My parents probably remember it, but of the many artists they passed down to me, Timmy Thomas wasn’t one of them. And because I heard Drake’s version first, I will always imagine him dancing, hilariously, when I hear the opening bars of Thomas’s melody.
If this is the good that can come out of sampling—the chance discovery of a great song that hit number one by way of a mediocre song that hit number one last year, or a conversation with strangers about life and music—I’m fine with that. Drake, or his friend, or an intern on his creative team, saw fit to unearth Thomas from whatever basement in which he was hiding and plop him into the mainstream spotlight. So what if my comment on Thomas’s YouTube video says, “Drake brought me here”? What matters is, I’m here. For a little while, at least.
Zakiya Harris is a recent MFA graduate of The New School’s creative nonfiction writing program. Born in Connecticut but Tar Heel-bred at the University of North Carolina, she currently lives in Brooklyn where she works at a pie shop, ingests an unhealthy amount of coffee, reviews books, and blogs about pretty much everything at catchsomezee.wordpress.com.