Photos by Ben Franzen; Illustrations by Matt Steele
Kembrew McLeod: What are the origins of sampling in hip hop?
Chuck D: Sampling basically comes from the fact that rap music is not music. It’s rap over music. So vocals were used over records in the very beginning stages of hip hop in the ’70s to the early ’80s. In the late 1980s, rappers were recording over live bands who were basically emulating the sounds off of the records. Eventually, you had synthesizers and samplers, which would take sounds that would then get arranged or looped, so rappers can still do their thing over it.
Those synthesizers and samplers were expensive back then, especially in 1984. How did hip-hop artists get them if they didn’t have a lot of money?
CD: Not only were they expensive, but they were limited in what they could do–they could only sample two seconds at a time. But people were able to get a hold of equipment by renting time out in studios.
KM: How did the Bomb Squad [Public Enemy’s production team, led by Shocklee] use samplers and other recording technologies to put together the tracks on It Takes a Nation of Millions?
Hank Shocklee: The first thing we would do is the beat, the skeleton of the track. The beat would actually have bits and pieces of samples already in it, but it would only be rhythm sections. … I kind of architected the whole idea. The sound has a look to me, and Public Enemy was all about having a sound that had its own distinct vision. We didn’t want to use anything we considered traditional R&B stuff–bass lines and melodies and chord structures and things of that nature.
How did you use samplers as instruments?
CD: We thought sampling was just another way of arranging sounds. Just like a musician would take the sounds off of an instrument and arrange them their own particular way. So we thought we was quite crafty with it.
HS: “Don’t Believe the Hype,” for example–that was basically played with the turntable and transformed and then sampled. Some of the manipulation we was doing was more on the turntable, live end of it.
Did you have to license the samples in It Takes a Nation of Millions before it was released?
HS: No, it was cleared afterward. A lot of stuff was cleared afterward. Back in the day, things was different. The copyright laws didn’t really extend into sampling until the hip-hop artists started getting sued. As a matter of fact, copyright didn’t start catching up with us until Fear of a Black Planet . That’s when the copyrights and everything started becoming stricter because you had a lot of groups doing it and people were taking whole songs. It got so widespread that the record companies started policing the releases before they got out.
CD: Corporations found that hip-hop music was viable. It sold albums, which was the bread and butter of corporations. Since the corporations owned all the sounds, their lawyers began to search out people who illegally infringed upon their records. All the rap artists were on the big six record companies, so you might have some lawyers from Sony looking at some lawyers from BMG and some lawyers from BMG saying, “Your artist is doing this,” so it was a tit for tat that usually made money for the lawyers, garnering money for the company. Very little went to the original artist or the publishing company.
There’s a noticeable difference in Public Enemy’s sound between 1988 and 1991. Did this have to do with the lawsuits and enforcement of copyright laws at the turn of the decade?
CD: Public Enemy’s music was affected more than anybody’s because we were taking thousands of sounds. If you separated the sounds, they wouldn’t have been anything–they were unrecognizable. The sounds were all collaged together to make a sonic wall. Public Enemy was affected because it is too expensive to defend against a claim. So we had to change our whole style, the style of It Takes a Nation and Fear of a Black Planet, by 1991.
HS: We were forced to start using different organic instruments, but you can’t really get the right kind of compression that way. … Something that’s organic is almost going to have a powder effect. It hits more like a pillow than a piece of wood. So those things change your mood, the feeling you can get off of a record. If you notice that by the early 1990s, the sound has gotten a lot softer.
CD: Copyright laws pretty much led people like Dr. Dre to replay the sounds that were on records, then sample musicians imitating those records. That way you could get by the master clearance, but you still had to pay a publishing note.
HS: See, there’s two different copyrights: publishing and master recording. The publishing copyright is of the written music, the song structure. And the master recording is the song as it is played on a particular recording. Sampling violates both of these copyrights. Whereas if I record my own version of someone else’s song, I only have to pay the publishing copyright. When you violate the master recording, the money just goes to the record company.
CD: Putting a hundred small fragments into a song meant that you had a hundred different people to answer to. Whereas someone like EPMD might have taken an entire loop and stuck with it, which meant that they only had to pay one artist.
So is that one reason why a lot of popular hip-hop songs today just use one hook, one primary sample, instead of a collage of different sounds?
CD: Exactly. There’s only one person to answer to. Dr. Dre changed things when he did The Chronic and took something like Leon Haywood’s “I Want a Do Something Freaky to You” and revamped it in his own way but basically kept the rhythm and instrumental hook intact. It’s easier to sample a groove than it is to create a whole new collage. That entire collage element is out the window.
HS: We’re not really privy to all the laws and everything that the record company creates within the company. From our standpoint, it was looking like the record company was spying on us, so to speak.
CD: The lawyers didn’t seem to differentiate between the craftiness of it and what was blatantly taken.
As you probably know, some music fans are now sampling and mashing together two or more songs and trading the results online. There’s one track by Evolution Control Committee that uses a Herb Alpert instrumental as the backing track for your “By the Time I Get to Arizona.” It sounds like you’re rapping over a Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass song. How do you feel about other people remixing your tracks without permission?
CD: I think my feelings are obvious. I think it’s great.
Excerpted from Kembrew McLeod’s co-edited book, Cutting Across Media: Appropriation Art, Interventionist Collage and Intellectual Property Law (Duke University Press, 2011). Four mixtapes were commissioned as companions to this book, including a free career-spanning compilations by Negativland and the Tape-beatles, a rockin’ audio bibliography by Steinski, and an epic six-hour history of sound collage pieced together by People Like Us. They are available at creativelicense.info/mixtape.