Kanye on Sampling

In this video segment from 2005 Kanye West talks about his perspective on sampling. Kanye who is known for his extensive use of sampling in his production style notes that, “The sample speaks to people in a different kind of way that rap can’t even reach. That sample was so much bigger than me, and that’s saying a lot.” In this excerpt Kanye is referencing his use of “It’s the Hard Knock Life” from the 1977 Broadway musical Annie in Jay-Z 1998 hit “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)”.


Other parts of this video revolve around Kanye’s use of Shirley Bassey’s 1971 James Bond theme “Diamonds Are Forever”. While Kanye relies heavily on the sample, and it surely is not his most creative work, many listeners overlook the fact that “the diamond” was a longtime symbol of Jay-Z’s music label Roc-A-Fella Records, to which Kanye was signed.

A Tale of Two White Rappers and Racial Injustice in America

The story of cultural appropriation in the United States is a long one. The story of racial inequality and of white privilege in the United States is even longer. Many people have called for a “national discussion on race” but where is such a discussion supposed to start. Concepts like racism are difficult to talk about in the abstract, while specific events are always diluted by a confluence of facts that make up any particular case. But the conversation has to start somewhere.

I’m a white person and a huge fan of hip hop. Recently a discussion about white appropriation has been re-ignited within the hip hop community. While pieces of this discussion involve personal feuds (aka rap beef) the larger series of events serve as an interesting look into how race and white privilege play out in the real world.

XXL Freshman Class 2012

XXL-Freshmen-2012 In 2012 hip hop magazine XXL released their annual freshman class edition, an issue that showcases up and comping hip hop artists. Among the 10 artists featured that year were Macklemore and Iggy Azalea. Iggy Azalea, a then 21 year old Australian, wasn’t chosen to be on XXL‘s coveted cover by the staff outright, but instead won a people’s choice vote held on the magazine’s website. Iggy who had released her first mixtape/EP only six months earlier also happened to be the first female MC to be featured in an XXL freshman class.

Meanwhile another young hip hop artist, Azealia Banks, took to twitter to criticize Iggy Azelea for calling herself a “runaway slave master” in one of her lyrics. read more

A De Minimis Victory in Hip Hop

BridgeportWasDeminimisLong story short: unauthorized sampling in hip hop has been illegal since 1991 when a district court ruled that sampling constituted copyright infringement no matter how small the sample (Grand Upright Music, Ltd. v. Warner Bros. Records Inc.).  This ruling was reaffirmed in 2005 by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Bridgeport Music, Inc. v. Dimension Films. These two court cases, each of which ruled against the hip hop artist defendant dramatically changed the course of hip hop. The original way hip hop music was made was deemed illegal by the judicial system.

Generally in copyright cases there is something called a De Minimis defense, which allows the defendent to argue that that piece of the original work that they ‘borrowed’ is so small and insignificant that copyright law does not apply. However the rulings in the two cases mentioned above demonstrated that in practice there is no De Minis defense for hip hop music made via sampling.
read more

“Five Useful Articles” covers TufAmerica v. Jay-Z

The email newsletter Five Useful Articles, sent out by the amazing Sarah Jeong & Parker Higgins, has some pithy coverage of the TufAmerica v. WB Music Corp case.

The following is an excerpt from “The Grinch Who Stole ©hristmas: 5 Useful Articles — Vol. 2 Issue 10” December 11, 2014

Run This Takedown

Jay Z has managed to brush off a copyright suit concerning a “loudly shouted, buoyantly exuberant ‘Oh!'” that was sampled 42 times for the song “Run This Town.” (See our previous coverage here). The Oh! was originally from a funk record now owned by TufAmerica, which has made a nice little business out of buying up the rights to old sound recordings and then suing people.
read more

J. Cole Raps About Copyright Law

J. Cole is arguably one of the most important voices in hip hop today. He has a long history of speaking out about issues from poverty, to violence, to depression in his rap and has gained a cult following from fans interested in his authentic and positive message.

2014ForestHillsDriveOn December 9th 2014 J. Cole released his third studio album “2014 Forest Hills Drive”. In the song’s outro track “Note to Self” J. Cole voices his opposition to current copyright law. “Y’all be tryin’ to give a n*gga a hard time on the samples, man! I’ma go to the f*ckin’ Supreme Court and try to make this shit easier for n*ggas like me to clear these samples, man”. Not only is J. Cole cognizant of the fact that the legality of sampling is currently decided by the courts, and not the written law, but he goes on discuss compulsory licenses. “I’ma pay you, I’ma give you a percentage, but you shouldn’t be able to tell me I can’t use it …that’s f*cked up n*gga.” Here J. Cole is alluding to the fact that cover bands (and other artists) can pay a small set fee to receive a compulsory “mechanical license” that allows them to make cover songs, but there is no such protection to ensure hip hop artists have the right to sample.

J. Cole closes out by making the moral argument that “You was inspired by the world, allow the world to be inspired by you…”

It’s always great to hear commentary about the state of copyright law straight from hip hop artists themselves and it’s even more exiting that this commentary is now immortalized by being recorded into a hip hop record.

Snippet from J. Cole’s “Note to Self”
JColeCopyrightAudio Player

read more

Greg Tate Compares Sampling to Beboppers

Hip Hop Journalist Greg Tate draws parallels between the emergence of modern/bebop jazz in the 1940s and the the culture of sample based hip hop. In both cases black artists were performing live remix performances, putting their own takes popular songs of the time.

A lot of people look at hip-hop sampling as doing what be-boppers did— taking standards of the day and putting a new melody on top of it.

—Greg Tate


*McLeod, Kembrew; DiCola, Peter (2011-02-21). Creative License: The Law and Culture of Digital Sampling. Duke University Press. Kindle Edition.

Resources (Learn More)

Below is a list that I’ll be updating with relevant related resources for those people who would like to learn more



The Copyright and Hip Hop Project

Over the past year I’ve been collecting materials, reading, and thinking a lot about the intersection of copyright law and hip hop. Many of the seminal court cases that shape copyright law in music today centered around rap songs. On the flip side, the history of hip hop was forever changed when the art of sampling in music was ruled illegal. The dynamic of this two way exchange involves race, technology, and culture, and is something that is thoroughly under-researched. While some scholarship has been done around the interplay between violent rap lyrics and the law, an ancillary issue that also interests me, the intersection of copyright and hip hop has been largely unexplored, especially considering this area’s impact on the music and video industry as a whole.

With that in mind I am humbly embarking on a research project called The Copyright and Hip Hop Project. This project aims to bring materials from legal scholarship and hip hop history together to form a more comprehensive understanding of how these two areas interact. The initial focus will be on mapping a history of how we have arrived at our current situation, and then will expand to explore potential futures and develop conclusions.

Unlike past reporting on these issues I hope to bring the stories and traditions of hip hop to the forefront to provide better context for legal scholars. I also hope to investigate how other cultural issues surrounding hip hop may have influenced the way copyright cases were viewed and decided.

*I am by no means an expert (yet) on this topic and would love input and feedback from others. Please don’t hesitate to reach me on twitter @lwThinking to educate or correct me.