Did the Decline of Sampling Cause the Decline of Political Hip Hop?

Legal and financial limitations have put a damper on a musical tool that once served as an important way for rappers to connect with musical and social history.
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From left to right: Public Enemy's Chuck D, Nicki Minaj, and Kanye West. (AP)

Last week, the electronic artist Clive Tanaka filed a suit against Nicki Minaj, claiming that she and her production team cribbed significant portions of his 2011 track “Neu Chicago” to create her 2012 super-hit, “Starships.” In doing so, he added the superstar rapper to the growing list of hip-hop and R&B musicians to make recent headlines for copyright disputes.  There’s been well-publicized legal drama, for example, involving Robin Thicke, Pharrell, and T.I. over their use of Marvin Gaye and Funkadelic tracks in their chart-topping song “Blurred Lines.” Last month New Orleans musician Paul Batiste accused a number of artists—T-Pain, Rick Ross, and DJ Khaled among them—of illegally sampling his music.  And just a few weeks ago, Young Jeezy found himself facing a lawsuit from Leroy Hutson for the unauthorized use of Hutson’s song “Gettin’ It On” on his 2010 mixtape, Trap or Die2.

These kinds of lawsuits have become commonplace since the early 1990s, thanks in large part to the 1991 U.S. District Court case Grand Upright Music, Ltd. v. Warner Bros. Records, Inc., which ended the days of free-for-all sampling by requiring artists to clear all samples in advance to avoid getting sued.  The judge in the case opened his ruling with “Thou shalt not steal” and went so far as to suggest that rapper Biz Markie and his label should face criminal charges for their unauthorized use of a Gilbert O’Sullivan sample.  (They didn’t.)  Similar cases followed, upholding the need to clear even the smallest of samples. 

As a result, landmark albums such as De La Soul’s Three Feet High and Rising and Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, built upon a dizzying array of samples, soon became all but impossible to produce because of the costs involved (according to Spin the average base price to clear a single sample is $10,000). To this day, sample-based rap remains a shadow of its former self, practiced only by hip hop’s elite—those with the budgets to clear increasingly expensive samples or defend lawsuits when they don’t. 

Some of the consequences for rap music as a genre are clear, the most obvious being that the sound of the music has changed. The relatively sample-free soundscapes of producers like Timbaland or the Neptunes are a testament to that fact, as are the songs that rely on just one or two samples rather than 20 or 30. 

But might there be subtler, thematic implications of the decline in sampling? 

It’s notable, for instance, that at the same time sampling was curbed by new copyright enforcement, we also witnessed the sunset of rap’s “golden age,” a time when dropping socially or politically engaged lyrics didn’t automatically relegate artists to “the underground.”  As someone who studies and teaches about hip hop (and who’s been listening to the music for 25 years), I'm not sure that’s a coincidence.  After all, sampling provided an important engagement with musical and political history, a connection that was interrupted by Grand Upright and the cases after it, coinciding with a growing disconnect between rap music and a sense of social responsibility.

That’s not to say sampling always resulted in the lyrics that educated, even during the “golden age.”  The Beastie Boys’ 1989 album Paul’s Boutique, a sampling classic, wasn’t exactly concerned with social edification.  But as Hank Shocklee, pioneering member of Public Enemy’s production team The Bomb Squad, told me, having open access to samples often did significantly impact artists’ lyrical content:  “A lot of the records that were being sampled were socially conscious, socially relevant records, and that has a way of shaping the lyrics that you’re going to write in conjunction with them.”  When you take sampling out of the equation, Shocklee said, much of the social consciousness disappears because, as he put it, “artists’ lyrical reference point only lies within themselves.” 

When that lyrical reference point can be rooted in previous compositions, the creative possibilities become astonishing.  Take the first 30 seconds of Public Enemy’s song “Can’t Truss It,” off their 1991 album Apocalypse 91: The Enemy Strikes Black.   Lyrically, the song argues that in order to understand the present, African Americans have to understand the past—they’ve got to “get to the roots” and grapple with the historical legacy of slavery.  To reinforce the song’s message, there’s an entire storyline of samples underpinning the lyrics, beginning with Richard Pryor’s voice saying, “It started in slave ships.” Then, immediately following, is a distorted sample of Alex Haley, author of Roots (hence the connection to the song’s focus on “roots”), describing the horrors of the Middle Passage.  That clip then cuts to a sample of Malcolm X’s voice, arguing for violent resistance, which ultimately foreshadows Chuck D’s vengeance later in the song when he raps, “Still I plan to get my hands around the neck of the man with the whip.”  All throughout these opening moments, we hear churning helicopter blades, providing a sonic connection to the present and a reminder of the ways in which police and military power are still used to maintain the hierarchies that trace back to slavery.

The complex use of samples to comment on and reinforce the song’s message continues throughout; at one point, there’s a sampled bass line from the group Slave, an obvious connection to the lyrical content, and a subtle call to collective action with a recurring but not immediately identifiable sample of James Brown’s “Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved.”  Calling and responding to one another, the samples and the lyrics create complementary, interconnected narratives that take listeners on a historical tour through music and politics, in the process offering a reminder that rap music resides within creative, intellectual, and communal traditions that are, in the words of Dead Prez, “bigger than hip hop.” 

In today’s hip-hop climate, dominated by the likes of Drake, Nicki Minaj, Rick Ross, and 2 Chainz, it has become difficult to find evidence that these traditions are informing mainstream rap.  Earlier this year when Young Money boss Lil Wayne was skewered for his offensive reference to Emmett Till on “Karate Chop,” people weren’t just responding to his callous indifference to the lynching of a young boy; they were responding to his utter disregard for, and mockery of, the historical struggles that made his career possible. 

With some exceptions, there’s little indication that top-selling rappers like Lil Wayne are aware of their relatively small place in the social and creative history that made their careers possible.  And without a sense that they are part of something bigger, something collective, I think it becomes all too easy for them to forego socially conscious messages in favor of the tired, narcissistic lyrics that dominate radio rotations and Billboard charts. 

"These new artists, you cannot learn anything from them," says legendary hip hop producer Pete Rock, speaking to the frustration that I and many others have with today’s rap music. “Not one thing. Nothing…It’s just whack how the game changed into ignorance.”  For him, this ignorance has become pervasive in large part due to a lost connection with the past, one that sampling provided:  “Subtract sampling and you get ignorance…Cats are not open to learning about what was before them.”

Of course, there are a number of other reasons for what USC Professor Todd Boyd once declared “The Death of Politics in Rap Music and Popular Culture,” not the least of which was white America’s growing taste for gangsta-style narratives featuring larger-than-life outlaws and graphic depictions of sex and violence.   And there are obviously still artists who engage political themes, some of them without sampling at all.  Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s mega-hit, The Heist, doesn’t contain a single sample, and the album has a number of tracks that offer social and political commentary. 

Conversely, there are a few contemporary rappers who do use samples extensively but who are far from emulating the politics of Public Enemy or KRS ONE.  Kanye West is an obvious example—he samples liberally and is just as likely to revel in material excess and misogyny (as with the Ray Charles clip ported in for "Gold Digger") as he is to deliver a pointed social message (as with the Gil Scott-Heron performance that closes out My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy).  That oscillation may stem from the fact that, nowadays, samples often speak less to hip-hop history than they do to present-day earnings—they have become so expensive to clear that for someone like Kanye West, they become markers of wealth to flaunt alongside his diamonds and Maybachs.  So, for instance, when Kanye sampled Otis Redding on Watch the Throne, music critic Chris Richards probably got it right when he said, “although West’s creation sounded cool, the overriding message was, ‘This cost me a lot of money.’” 

Thanks to a corporate and legal system that rappers don’t control, that’s one of the underlying messages of just about any sample today. This is a significant break from the early days of hip hop.  As Shocklee explains it, “The reason why we sampled in the beginning was that we couldn’t afford to have a guitar player come in and play on our record.  We couldn’t afford to have that horn section…or the string sections.  We were like scavengers, going through the garbage bin and finding whatever we could from our old dusty records.”  In a complete paradigm shift, today it’s probably less expensive to hire those string sections than to sample them.

With all the money now involved in sampling, though, there’s still one egalitarian space that has remained: the circulation of free mixtapes, which well-known and obscure artists alike use to generate publicity or showcase their talents.  These mixes, often based on uncleared samples, have generally avoided copyright lawsuits because they don’t generate revenue (not directly, anyway), and they have served as an important entrée into the industry for a number of well-known acts over the years.  They have also provided a space for artistic experimentation as well as, for some, a way to explore oppositional politics.  But recently even mixtapes have begun attracting lawsuits; along with Young Jeezy, big-name rappers like 50 Cent, Kanye West, Lil Wayne, and Mac Miller have been sued for illegal sampling on their free mixes. 

And so, with this important avenue of expression closing off for hip hop performers, what will the future of the music look like?  As Pete Rock took me through the previous generation of musicians that inspired and changed him, he finished by saying, “Music can really, really raise you.”  While he was talking about music’s capacity to elevate and transform, a new generation of kids is being raised on a brand of rap music that has fewer recognizable links to its artistic antecedents.  Perhaps, with so many new, Internet-based ways to access old music, my own children won’t need samples to “get to the roots” of rap music and will find them on their own.

I hope so. But just in case, I’m feeding them a steady diet of Public Enemy.

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Erik Nielson is assistant professor of liberal arts at the University of Richmond, where his research focuses on African American literature and hip-hop culture. He has written for The GuardianThe Huffington Post, The New Republic, and a number of academic journals.

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