(C) is for Criminal

Copyright Criminals
Directed by Benjamin Franzen

Benjamin Franzen and Kembrew McLeod have put together a quite entertaining documentary history of the sampling controversy in hip hop music. In this film, or at least in the rough cut of it, you will hear the following amazing things: Chuck D admits that you can in fact copyright a beat; Jeff Chang, self-proclaimed rap historian, at an actual loss for words in response to the question ‘why is sampling so controversial’ (must not have seen that one coming?); Clyde ‘the Funky Drummer’ Stubblefield maintaining that the only artist ever to thank him in any way for recording perhaps the most sampled drum line in all of hip hop was – that’s right – Melissa Etheridge.

Along the way, you will also get Hank Shocklee admitting that he tried to purposely hide his sources for the layered samples on those Public Enemy records — still held as the gold standard of hip hop production. You will also see some great footage of Grandmaster Flash working a turntable (behind his back) in somebody’s kitchen. Most of all, you will hear a well-organized discussion of how the sampling controversy has developed and changed musical output in recent years.

DJ QbertIn approaching the subject of sampling in hip hop, many of the same questions tend to arise: What should be more important? The impetus toward protecting creative output with copyright law or the desire to foster new forms of creativity? If we recognize sampling as necessary to the historic development of hip hop, then should it now no longer be tolerated since the musical form is so well established? And finally, what about the race issue? Isn’t it really just that a white-dominated record industry and copyright law do not adequately foresee and adapt to a new musical form originally developed by non-whites? To their credit, Franzen and McLeod tackle these questions only indirectly and with no definitive answers to any of them. They instead focus on two forces that inscribe all these issues: history and economics.

These points of focus are certainly one of the documentary’s great strengths, both in terms of its describing the artistic development of the form and also in outlining the economic contingencies that shaped its development. The filmmakers essentially argue that sampling is inevitable in the creation of most art, that sampling was necessary given the economic conditions in which hip hop developed as a musical form, and that the economics of sampling and copyright protection has had an immense impact on the shape that sampled music of all forms has taken since at least the early 1990s.

There is some credit paid to the problematic argument that a culture of poverty, especially in New York City’s outer boroughs, was the indispensable bedrock for the development of hip hop during the 1970s – and somehow in the absence of the extreme poverty, social alienation, and governmental irresponsibility of the era, Grandmaster Flash could not possibly have existed (No jobs? Oh well, at least we still have breakdancing). This is mostly context for the more interesting questions that the film wants to ask. The film itself is framed around extended interviews with Chang, Siva Vaidhyanathan, a music historian from NYU, as well as commentary from current and past musical artists and producers, many of them amongst the giants in the field of sampling and hip hop performance. These testimonials are used to support the contention that by largely ignoring the rules, hip hop artists came up with a whole new way of thinking about music.

We learn in some depth of the influential controversies in sampling: the newly available cheap technology that made possible the ‘golden age’ of unmitigated borrowing responsible for such masterpieces as Public Enemy‘s ‘It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back’ and De La Soul‘s ‘Three Feet High and Rising.’ And also the subsequent backlash reflected in the labels’ reactions to Biz Markie, De La Soul’s all but direct theft of the Turtles’ ‘You Showed Me’ , and perhaps most hilariously, Negativland’s remix of a Casey Kasem outtake of commentary on a U2 track. (Negativland goes on to describe themselves in the film as ‘this band with no hit singles, but we have a hit lawsuit’). We also get an admirably well-balanced view of the controversy surrounding sampling. After all, is it really preferable that James Brown gets the royalties for Clyde Stubblefield’s famous ‘Funky Drummer’ beat than any of the various hip hop artists that have used it? Is it fair that Rick James’ best selling track is by MC Hammer? If the argument about how sampling has forced modern day listeners to rediscover past music from these samples is true, aren’t lawsuits a reasonable and effective tool for these past artists to access both recognition and money?

Copyright Criminals does a good job presenting this side of the argument, perhaps nowhere more persuasively than the scene in which Clyde Stubblefield is shown driving around with his drum compositions playing in the background — and a list of the hip hop artists who have allegedly sampled the ‘Funky Drummer’ track being superimposed on screen. It’s a long list for a guy so seemingly under-recognized for his contributions to modern hip hop. The film concludes with observations about how contemporary bands are getting around copyright restrictions on sampling, with a reiteration of the profound effect that both economics and technology have had on this musical form. If all art involves borrowing, Franzen and McLeod do a good job of articulating how that process has been both artistically different and economically more decisive in sampled music between the 1970s and today.

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