rza-02-mikaSampling music has become an integral part of music in the last 30 years. Mostly evident in hip-hop and rap music, but can also be found occasionally in rock and pop. Music producers use parts of existing songs as the basis to create new one’s. It is the act of taking a sample of a certain sound recording and then reusing it as an instrument in a separate music piece. Music producers might take a drum loop, guitar lick, string section, chords of a keyboard performance, or even certain vocal parts from songs. Some artist’s even use spoken words as samples or different cuts from movie dialogue inserted within their songs and albums. Sampling was first used within commercial recordings of experimental music in the 1960’s. Artists would physically manipulate loops of analog tape or vinyl records. During the late 60’s, sampling became a key component of psychedelic rock music or fusion jazz. Sampling existing music to form a part of new song could also be also performed as an “interpolation.” Music producers such as Dr. Dre chose to recreate parts of songs, or do an “interpolation” of it with live musicians instead of sampling parts of actual audio recordings for much of the production of his seminal 1992 album “The Chronic.” By the late 1980’s and 1990’s, rap music became a dominant force in the music industry, with many hit songs using samples. Various court cases arose, and till this day there is a constant battle over the rights and uses of sampling music. A very notable and recent case has received some headlines featuring the hip-hop producer from the ‘Wu-Tang Clan’, The RZA.


One of the first major court cases where the illicit use of sampling was presented is in Grand Upright Music, Ltd v. Warner Bros. Records Inc. It is a case from 1991 where rapper Biz Markie (then signed to Warner Bros. Records) sampled a song by Gilbert O’Sullivan without receiving consent from O’Sullivan. Markie sampled a portion of the music from the song “Alone Again (Naturally)” for use in his song “Alone Again” off of his third album “I Need A Haircut.”

Check out the Biz Markie song the lawsuit is based on…

Here is the Gilbert O’Sullivan Song that was sampled…

markie_biz02United States District Court granted an injunction against the defendant, Warner Bros. Records. Despite the fact Warner Bros. Records claimed that Grand Upright did not own a valid copyright of O’Sullivan’s song, the injunction was upheld and the song had to be removed from Biz Markie’s album. Grand Upright produced documentation that O’Sullivan had transferred the ownership of “Alone Again (Naturally)” to them. In an effort to win the case, Warner Bros Records also urged the court to take note of how common unapproved sampling was in the music industry, particularly in rap music, which was burgeoning at this time. The court stated “the defendants…would have this court believe that stealing is rampant in the music business and, for that reason, their conduct here should be excused.” The court also wrote that “it is clear that the defendants knew that they were violating the plaintiff’s rights as well as the rights of others. Their only aim was to sell thousands upon thousands of records. This callous disregard for the law and for the rights of others requires not only the preliminary injunction sought by the plaintiff but also sterner measures.”

Gilber OSullivan

As a result of this case, the sound of rap music, which until that point was heavily based upon combinations of various samples from various songs, had to completely change. Albums done by artists such as Beastie Boys (whose groundbreaking second album ‘Paul’s Boutique’ was completely based off of samples), NWA, Public Enemy, and many more had to alter their production techniques. Previously their albums were filled with numerous samples. From that point on, artist were no longer possible to create music that was heavily sample based. After the court case each and every sample had to be cleared to avoid a lawsuit. Sample clearance fees started to skyrocket. It essentially prohibited the use of more than one or two samples per song. Due to the fact that it became so expensive to obtain the license to use the sample, some copyright holders of the mechanical rights to certain recordings started to demand up to 100% of the royalties that were generated by the new song. Considering the fact that some of these rap songs become extremely successful, the royalty amount could end up being excessive. This made many rap producers start to “interpolate” portions of the songs, instead of using the outright sample.

Super producer the RZA, from groundbreaking rap group The Wu-Tang Clan, and also known for his scores for various films including ‘Kill Bill’, is attempting to fight back against those who are accusing him of stealing another artists music. This week he filed a lawsuit against JVC Kenwood Holdings (the owners of Teichiku Entertainment) who is currently in the process of acquiring the rights to various master recordings in the music industry. RZA has publicly voiced his opinion about Island Def Jam Records. They are reportedly withholding over $50,000 in royalties of The RZA’s. Island Def Jam is withholding these royalties due to the claims of RZA’s illicit use of one of Tecihiku’s songs, which he is accused of sampling for the production of ‘Dark Fantasy’, a song featured on Kanye West’s blockbuster 2010 album “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” RZA is taking his case to court, where he intends to prove that his use is not an “illicit use.”

island_def_jam_logoAccording to the reports on the lawsuit, Island Def Jam notified RZA that “Dark Fantasy” contained an unauthorized use of a sample from “Gincyo Watadori,” which is performed by Meiko Kaji. RZA’s intends to show the sampling allegation has no merit behind it. Meiko Kaji demanded he receive compensation for this use, which was a short piano run featured in ‘Dark Fantasy.’ Due to Kaji’s claims, Island Def Jam refused to pay RZA his royalties for production of the song because Island Def Jams says “that it is entitled to indemnification from plaintiff against defendant’s copyright infringement claim.”

Here is the Kanye west song Produced by The Rza…

Here is the Original song by Meiko Kaji…

In a recent article from The Hollywood reporter, one of RZA’s attorney’s Howard King, of King, Holmes, Paterno & Berliner, said “We see dozens of baseless copyright-infringement claims against our clients every year. Rather than engaging in costly and fruitless dialogue trying to convince claimants and their contingency lawyers that our clients do not succumb to extortion and settle ridiculous claims, we have decided to commence declaratory relief actions to squash some of these claims and, perhaps, recover our costs of defending same. The RZA complaint is the second one of these we have filed this month, with more to come.”

Some of the most groundbreaking albums in hip-hop had a tremendous amount of sampling in it. Nas’s ‘Illmatic.’ Notorious BIG’s ‘Ready to Die.’ 2Pac’s ‘All Eyez on Me.’ Jay-Z’s ‘The Blueprint.’ Snoop Dogg’s ‘Doggystyle.’ Even rap songs that crossed over into the pop market – MC Hammer’s ‘Can’t Touch This’, sampled Rick James’s ‘Super Freak’ (check out Hammer’s version vs. the Rick James song he sampled), and Vanilla Ice’s ‘Ice Ice Baby’, sampled Queen and David Bowie’s ‘Under Pressure’ (check out the Vanilla Ice version vs. the original Queen and David Bowie song). Music purists and some traditional musicians can be very critical of all the sampling uses in hit rap songs. But rappers are influenced by other artists, the same way traditional musicians like guitarists, singers, and pianists are influenced by artists like the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, etc. Just rappers use their influences in a different way. The nature of someone who makes music is to be inherently creative and inspired by the music that came before them. It is unfair to be critical of another artist’s use of their inspiration. Some people are proud of sounding like John Lennon or Jimmy Page. They wear those comparisons on their sleeve with pride. So why can’t urban artists? At least they are rather straight forward with it, and actually give credit as well as revenue to their inspirations. If you are an aspiring music producer, particularly hip-hop, sampling is still part of the process in making music. Make sure to learn how to obtain the rights to sample particular songs. Imagine creating the next hit, with samples embedded in it. But, you did not do your diligence and get your samples cleared. How much would it sting to have that song come out and be a smash, then have to either pay a fat chunk of the revenue your make from it, or have an injunction filed against you where you would have to take it off the market. Just be sure to not skip over the necessary steps and learn all aspects of the music business. Your success today depends solely on you, and your willingness to learn how the business works.

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