Sampling might have become prevalent in almost every genre, but it’s a foundational cornerstone of hip-hop. Even beyond the music itself, rap is constantly remixing culture: giving new definitions to existing words, or mashing up fashion trends and putting them in a new context. At its roots, there’s an inherent spirit of rebellion to the practice of sampling, of taking someone else’s work and making it your own. Early hip-hop pioneers like De La Soul and Public Enemy so often seemed like defiant outlaws in how they boldly plundered the record crate of pop history without asking for permission first. But as hip-hop became a big business, absorbed by the mainstream music industry it once existed outside of, sampling became an industry all its own.
Once formerly skeptical executives realized how much money they could make from rap music, sampling presented a problem: there’s a pretty immediate limit on your ability to sell and market music that features existing copyrighted material, at least above the board. De La Soul’s 1989 debut 3 Feet High and Rising was long unavailable digitally because Tommy Boy Records didn’t bother to clear certain samples that they felt were small or insignificant. After bands like The Turtles began to hit De La Soul with litigation, everything changed: rappers now knew they were being watched. Before De La Soul’s catalog was added to streaming earlier this year, several samples from 3 Feet High and Rising had to be replaced, completely altering how future generations will experience the album.
What began as a pirate practice, a way of repurposing the music you had on hand or whatever was in your parent’s record collection into something new, increasingly became a sign of wealth — only a certain level of major-label artist is ever going to be able to afford to clear a flip of The Beatles or an interpolation of Nirvana. For a middle-tier of working rappers — successful but not a crossover star, acclaimed but not underground — sampling can often be more trouble than it’s worth. Earlier this year, Danny Brown shared that he was still in debt from 2016’s Atrocity Exhibition, because of how much money he spent procuring samples — around $70,000 of the initial $100,000 advance he was paid by Warp Records.
In a video for Mass Appeal’s “Rhythm Roulette” series, where a blind-folded beatmaker picks three records at random to sample, Pi’erre Bourne explains that he stopped relying on samples at an earlier point in his career because he didn’t have the means to clear them. When you’re first learning to make beats and no one is listening to your Soundcloud, it’s easier to sample without landing in hot water, but the moment you begin to actually monetize your work, it gets tricky. Even if you have seemingly unlimited resources at your disposal, the simplest of interpolations can still present endless legal dilemmas — within hours of the release of Drake’s latest album For All The Dogs, Pet Shop Boys voiced their surprise at hearing him singing the chorus of “West End Girls” on the outro to “All The Parties,” since it hadn’t been formally cleared.
Though music industry revenues are setting record highs, bringing in over 8 billion dollars in the first half of 2023, very little of that money is actually going to artists. A major factor in that income is the licensing and sync market — with the exponential growth of streaming platforms, there are considerably more films, TV shows, video games, and advertisements out there in need of needle drops and background noise. The licensing business encompasses sampling as well, which publishing companies have begun to view as a revenue stream to be further tapped. As investment firms look to song rights as a new form of commodity, it’s threatened to turn sampling at the major labels into more of a business transaction than a creative endeavor.
When a beat-maker chops up a sample they discovered on their own, it tends to feel more transformative and organic; when publishing companies are pitching samples to producers, in the hopes that they’ll engineer a pop hit that makes everyone credited lots of money, it can start to feel hollow.
Over the past several years, many of pop’s elite have parted ways with the rights to their music publishing, selling them to private companies like Primary Wave, which has acquired the catalogs of everyone from Prince to Bob Marley to Johnny Cash. Primary Wave has been around since 2006, but it started rapidly expanding into a publishing behemoth in 2016, after a $300 million investment from firms like BlackRock. This kind of financial injection from private investment firms and venture capitalists has essentially transformed music publishing into a speculative market, banking on the probability that old music can generate new income, whether that’s through licensing to film and television, sampling, or even a song’s resurgence on TikTok.
It’s not necessarily that more music uses samples now than ten years ago, but that the process of sampling has been incentivized and streamlined, and even encouraged by venture capital-backed firms like Primary Wave and Hipgnosis, that look to samples as a way to milk more money from work that already exists. In the past, if an artist used a sample, it was up to that artist’s team or label to reach out and negotiate the sample clearance. But now it sometimes goes in the other direction, and these companies will often pitch music from their catalog to producers for potential sampling. After Hipgnosis acquired the Rick James catalog, they started offering stems of his music to artists and producers, hoping that someone might sample it; the gambit paid off enormously, resulting in Nicki Minaj's Dr. Luke-assisted No. 1 “Super Freaky Girl.” Services like TrackLib have even emerged to serve as intermediaries between the sampler and the sampled — the Swedish start-up has helped facilitate samples used by rappers like J. Cole and Lil Wayne.
But these kinds of negotiations tend to benefit executives and middlemen more than the artists who actually created the sampled work. The obnoxious Minnesota frat-rapper Yung Gravy, whose entire career feels like a dark money project, scored a hit last year with “Betty (Get Money),” which is constructed around a sample of Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up.” Gravy’s song is essentially a Primary Wave production: the company presented Gravy’s team with the idea for the sample after they acquired a percentage of the publishing for Astley’s hit.
The result is a song that feels as clinical as any merger of two business interests: When a beat-maker chops up a sample they discovered on their own, it tends to feel more transformative and organic; when publishing companies are pitching samples to producers, in the hopes that they’ll engineer a pop hit that makes everyone credited lots of money, it can start to feel hollow. Gravy and Primary Wave did not even manage to avoid all the legal pitfalls, settling with Astley for an undisclosed sum after the singer sued Gravy for impersonating his voice. “A license to use the original underlying musical composition does not authorize the stealing of the artist’s voice in the original recording,” Astley’s suit read.
Though some white artists of an older generation might not want to be associated with rap music, it’s money that talks more than anything, and there are often clear benefits to letting your music be sampled, both in terms of financial gain and cultural clout. In many ways, Primary Wave’s approach to sampling treats music like “intellectual property,” as existing content to be endlessly re-monetized in much the same way that Hollywood constantly re-adapts material.
2008’s Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story still might have put it best, when the aging rockabilly pioneer played by John C. Reilly becomes relevant — and rich — again after his signature hit is sampled in a rap song about getting an erection. Former Doobie Brother Michael McDonald can deride hip-hop production as “cut and paste,” but I’m sure he’s not complaining about any royalties that pay out from “Regulate” — or how it introduced his voice to completely new audiences.
Despite the interpolation-industrial complex, artists are still finding new ways to sample. New York rapper Shawny Binladen has flipped almost every artist you can think of, without clearance or approval — as Nora Lee notes in an article for NPR Music about the “sample drill” movement, “Through trial and error, [Shawny has] found a careful equilibrium, relying on producers to obscure samples just enough to evade A.I. detection while still being identifiable to a careful listener.” Shawny Binladen’s most recent solo project, WiCKMAN STiCKMAN, stays away from the more recognizable flips and obvious samples of his earlier work — while he might have just wanted to switch his sound up, it’s hard not to feel like avoiding a potential copyright quagmire was a likely factor.
While producers in an earlier era might have been limited to the records they physically had on hand, digital music expanded the possibilities of sampling. But it also rapidly expanded the capabilities of sample detection. Thanks to watermarked files and waveforms that can be easily scanned whenever you upload a track to YouTube or SoundCloud, there are more hoops to jump through for adventurous samplers, and artificial intelligence is just making it harder. Google Assistant, the tech behemoth’s much-touted AI secretary, can allegedly detect samples less than one second long. Even in rap journalism, or as fans posting on sites like WhoSampled, we all too often run the risk of blowing up an artist’s spot, and inadvertently aiding in the search efforts of intellectual property police. As a rapper’s profile rises, the eyes on them inevitably increase, which illustrates the true double-edged sword of music’s digital existence: technology might give us more ways to break the rules, but it gives us new ways to be surveilled too.
Rap Column is a column about rap music by Vivian Medithi and Nadine Smith for The FADER.