from the sampling-is-how-hip-hop-works dept
Okay, this one is just crazy. You hopefully already know about Mac Miller. We wrote about him last year, as he was the first truly independent artist to release an album that topped the charts in over a decade. Historically, the charts are absolutely dominated by major label acts, because the major labels pay millions of dollars to “break” a record. Of course, part of how Miller became so famous is the same way tons of new hip-hop stars are rising up: by releasing free mixtapes. Even as some folks insist that giving away music means no new rap stars, you can make a pretty big list of new rap stars who came on the scene by releasing music for free — and Mac Miller did it better than just about anyone. In fact, a few months ago, I was talking to a big time record label guy (very closely associated with the RIAA), who told me that Mac Miller debuting at number one was one of the three biggest stories of 2011, and showed that the industry was really about to embrace new models.
And, of course, it’s quite common for those mixtapes to involve some sort of infringement, but generally no one has a problem with this (unless you’re clueless legacy entertainment industry players), especially since these mixtapes are all given away for free, and generally do help promote those other works. It’s really become the “new radio” in hip hop.
But there’s always someone who lets jealousy get in the way. That appears to be the case with Robert Hall, better known as the rapper Loud Finesse, who had a hit in 1995 called “Hip 2 Da Game.” You may remember it:
It turns out that one of the songs Mac Miller released for his mixtape was called Kool Aid & Frozen Pizza, which has him rapping over the same music track:
The lyrics are entirely different, but the music is obviously the same.
Note, again, that this song was given away for free in a YouTube video and mixtape. It was never sold. It’s not on Miller’s album. But, jealousy rears its ugly head and Lord Finesse has now sued Miller and his label, Rostrum, and the popular mixtape site DatPiff.com for $10 million — and the fact that this is all about jealousy is pretty clear from the details of the lawsuit. It points out that Miller got famous, in part, because of his mixtape and thus Finesse seems to think that Miller needs to pay him for getting famous. Once again, he’s being sued for $10 million, because of a song which he never sold.
Of course, if you know anything at all about hip hop, you know that its roots came from rappers building on the works of others, taking rhythms and beats and putting new lyrics over them. What many consider to be the very first popular hip hop song, “Rapper’s Delight,” by the Sugarhill Gang, came about when they rapped over “Good Times” by Chic.
So, you might wonder, does Lord Finesse have a history of building on the works of others? Glad you asked. Why yes, he does. He’s widely sampled other artists. Oh, and the music in Hip 2 Da Game? You guessed it. Sampled. It’s from Oscar Peterson’s excellent jazz song, “Dream of You.” Tragically, there doesn’t seem to be a YouTube version of that up, but if you have Spotify, you can listen to it here:
Hip hop artist/commentator on culture and copyright, Dan Bull, found this whole situation pretty ridiculous and decided to do what he does best: write and perform a song about it. And, better yet, he did so using the same musical backing track from Finesse… er… Peterson.
This is actually interesting at a variety of levels (and equally unfortunate at a number of levels). The mixtape culture and building on the works of others is really pretty core to the hip hop world. There’s a mostly unspoken agreement just within the culture that as long as you’re not selling the tracks, it’s encouraged to take the rhythms from another and build on it. Going against those social norms which have been pretty strongly developed over the past decade plus, is really hitting back against the basic rules that the community has established for itself, outside of what copyright allows.
In fact, the hip hop mixtape/blog world has been fascinating to watch over the past few years, in part because it actually shows how cultural norms can often set the rules for how these things work, without having to fall back on copyright laws at all. Basic social pressure can often keep most people in line. But when one breaks those social norms — whether because of jealousy, or because they think there’s a quick profit to be earned — it can come back to haunt them.
That said, there’s actually an interesting tie-in to another story we wrote about recently, discussing innovation vs. permission as frameworks for how progress should occur. While we were mostly talking about technology/entrepreneurial innovation, it clearly applies to creativity as well. All sorts of music creations came about because of innovation without permission. Soul music, jazz music, hip-hop and rock-and-roll all exist basically because of people deciding to innovate by building on the works of someone else without permission. Trying to shove a permission based system into that creates massive chilling effects and limits the kind of great music that can be created. Copyright is supposed to be about promoting progress, and yet, once again, it’s used to hold it back.