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Sampling: A Creative Tool or License to Steal? : The Controversy

August 06, 1989|DON SNOWDEN

G uitarist Leo Nocentelli, pictured above, vividly remembers his first exposure to sampling in 1982.

"I was on a session and the guy pressed one note on the keyboard and it made 'Whooaahh! Good God!' like James Brown," recalled Nocentelli, who made his mark with the New Orleans funk group the Meters in the early '70s.

"It blew me away. It was James Brown's voice by the press of a finger and I saw the trouble in that."


Seven years later, the music industry is all too aware of what Nocentelli was concerned about. The use of "sampling," a relatively new studio technique involving the digital recording of short snatches of sound,has mushroomed dramatically in pop music, particularly in the rap and hip-hop genres.

Rob Base and D.J. E-Z Rock used a James Brown whoop and two lines from singer Lyn Collins' 1972 soul hit "Think About It" as the central chorus of last year's "It Takes Two." Tone Loc took a few bars from a Van Halen song, "Jamie's Crying," as the musical track for "Wild Thing."

This increased use of sampling--and the growing popularity of rap--has generated a heated debate, over both the artistic value and the ethics of the technique.

The hit rap act De La Soul's critically claimed gold album, "Three Feet and High Rising" has been hailed as a watershed in the creative use of sampling. The first side alone contained pieces of TV game show themes and the Steely Dan song "Peg," James Brown rhythm tracks and hard rock guitar licks, the "Chopsticks" theme and what could be the bass line to "Stand by Me"--along with literally dozens of other sonic snippets that are maddeningly familiar but difficult to identify.

But should recording artists use pieces of another song in their own work, and if so, should they pay royalties for the rights? One outgrowth of that controversy is a flurry of lawsuits charging copyright infringement through the use of samples . . . and De La Soul hasn't been immune.

Last month, members of the Turtles filed suit claiming the hit rap act sampled a riff of the '60s pop group's song, "You Showed Me" without permission or compensation. Their lawsuit charges that De La Soul used a four-bar section of the Turtles song (lasting 12 seconds) and "looped" it so that the riff served as the music for the entire 66 seconds of the De La Soul piece "Transmitting Live From Mars." (In a recent article in The Times, Ken Anderson, the attorney representing De La Soul in the case, said, "I'm not saying there's no sample of the Turtles but other things are involved that are not the Turtles.")

The longest running suit in the court system was originally filed in 1987, when Jimmy Castor sued the Beastie Boys over the use of the phrase "Yo, Leroy" from Castor's 1977 record "The Return of Leroy (Part I)" in the Beastie Boys' song "Hold It Now, Hit It." The suit, filed in New York City, is expected to be the first one involving sampling to come to trial, and the decision, music industry attorneys say, will set some legal precedents for future uses of the technique.

Advocates argue that using samples creatively can give a new dimension to the original song fragment by placing it in a different context. The effect is akin to an audio collage.

"Sampling gets a knee-jerk reaction because of the way it's done," charged Anderson, who also represents the Beastie Boys in the Castor suit. "(People think that) there's something that smacks of thievery in pushing a button rather than moving your fingers on an instrument." But, he added, "I think that's simply culture shock."

Sampling's critics acknowledge the technique's creative potential, but they draw the line at the practice of taking an entire phrase directly from an old record and using it as the foundation of a new song.

"I don't deny the creativity of the people putting it together any more than I deny the creativity of the collage artist," said Bruce Gold, Castor's attorney. "That doesn't change the question of whether these people have an ownership interest in the underlying works they've used.

"They may have an ownership interest in the total collage they've created but it doesn't give them any ownership of the works that make up the collage. They don't have the right to take the underlying works and use them for free."

The lawsuits involving sampling may capture the headlines, but industry experts say it is not uncommon for the necessary clearances from publishers and record labels to be quietly obtained in advance.

The New York-based rap group Stetsasonic constructed "Talking All That Jazz," a spirited defense of rap music and sampling, around music taken from Lonnie Liston Smith's 1975 piece "Expansions." Before recording their song, Stetsasonic contacted Smith and struck an agreement to pay the jazz keyboard player $3,000 for the use of his music in exchange for full ownership of the copyright to "Talking All That Jazz."

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