As long as humans have been creating, people have been inspired by others’ ideas.
Since the birth of hip-hop, sampling has been a common practice. Essentially, artists will take a sound bite or part of another song, movie or other audio clip and use it in their own song, often distorting or looping the bite. This practice has been used as a creative tool to add original flares to other works. But sampling comes with controversies.
When using another person’s work — whether it’s a song, movie, or anything else — the artist needs to clear the rights to it. There is a common misconception that you can use up to 15 seconds of any song in a work without permission. But the law is that even if it’s just half of a second, the rights still need to be cleared, unless the work is supported under fair use.
“Fair use” means any use of copyrighted material which transforms the original work, and includes educational use, commentary on the original work, criticizing the work, or parodying the copyrighted work. It’s fair because it doesn’t cause significant harm to the copyright owner, but even then the rules can get tricky.
In fact, according to CD Baby, in order to get the track legally, two separate permissions are needed: one license for the usage of the master recording, and one for the underlying composition.
The laws have tightened over the years. During hip-hop’s inception, artists were sampling a lot because they didn’t have access to much of the equipment and instruments necessary to make a track the exact way they wanted to. Prime examples of this came from groups like De La Soul, Public Enemy and Beastie Boys. By taking guitar loops, drum beats and vocal samples and distorting them, artists found a way to repurpose and recycle these works.
Certain lawsuits started to affect hip-hop artists on a greater scale. In 1993, Biz Markie was sued for sampling “Alone Again (Naturally)” by Gilbert O’Sullivan in a song. As a joking nod to this, he named one of his next albums, “All Samples Cleared!”
One defining event was Bridgeport Music, Inc. v. Dimension Films (2005), a court case that examined a sample by ‘80s group N.W.A. After taking a short guitar lick from Funkadelic, the group got sued and that made artists realize the severity of uncleared samples. More recent examples include Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse,” Childish Gambino’s “This is America” and, of course, Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road.”
Andre Sirois, a professor at the University of Oregon — also a DJ, event producer and father — teaches classes on the subject of sampling and copyright. One of his classes, “Remix Cultures,” delves into the world of copyright law. Students look at originality through a philosophical and practical lens. What does it mean to be original in 2019 now that it feels like every idea has already been taken? How does one use a song in a self-produced short film?
Sirois makes it a point to have everything students make in his classes to be content-legal. “If it’s not something they made, it’s something that they’re using because it’s creative commons or fair use,” he said.
Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization which creates free copyright licenses for artists so they can quickly and freely distribute their work without giving up all their rights to that work.
Sirois, also known as DJ Foodstamp, has been DJing since 1998 when he got started in college radio at Central Connecticut State. Since then, he’s earned bachelors and masters degrees in communication law. In his studies, he’s found a never-ending cycle in which “people react to the law, the law reacts to what the people do, and the culture reacts to the law.”
Another college DJ and staple of the Eugene/Portland music scene, Spencer Smyth, was inspired by Sirois after taking his class. The two were both DJs at KWVA, the University of Oregon campus radio station. Smyth graduated in 2018 and has continued to collaborate with Sirois since then.
Smyth’s new album, “Spore Attic,” is stacked with features from Eugene and Portland artists (like Este, Ian Michael Lindsay, Wynne, the Breakfast Boys Leisure League), including cuts from DJ Foodstamp. The album is riddled with old school funk, soul and of course, hip-hop samples from Smyth’s extensive rolodex of music. In the video for “Shrink Rap,” the single from Smyth is shown weaving dozens of album titles into a narrative as he holds up the vinyl for each one.
Sampling is a way to show appreciation towards an artist’s predecessors. If done right, it can pay homage to the original work and remix it in a way that brings a new form of creativity to it.
When done wrong, however, people can misuse the sample and disrespect the source of the sample. It’s important for artists to show that they’ve done their research in their tracks.
“The flip has to be creative,” Sirois said. “There’s a difference between someone who samples something and they destroy it and you have no idea where the original came from, versus taking a super popular song and looping it.”