Maryland Rapper Logic caused a stir when he sent an impassioned tweet berating rights holders for taking more than their fair share of sample publishing. His tweet went instantly viral, propelled by both his eager fans agreeing with his sentiment and skeptics who felt his tone and messaging were a little harsh. The sentiments he expressed — that the “mixtape era” of hip-hop was freer and musically superior as a result, that rights holders shouldn’t have such complete ability to block a sample — have been stated before by other artists and producers, but rarely has anyone used such a public platform as Twitter to do so.
“Just want to take a moment and say, ‘F*ck sample clearance,’” he wrote. “F*ck clearing samples. F*ck people taking all a producer’s money for not doing shi*t and f*ck the companies that say no just cuz. This is hip-hop. I’m tired of replaying sh*t. F*ck the money. This why mixtapes was so good.” Logic is clearly fed up with the process, which can seem impenetrable and frustrating to even seasoned industry veterans. Although his tone and language left a lot of room for interpretation, it’s relatively easy to see that an effort to clear a sample was either stymied by a rights holder or that he feels he would have to give up an unreasonable portion of his own song’s royalties to clear the previous sample.
Logic later cleared the air, writing a lengthier explanation in a separate tweet that broke down his reasoning more rationally. In the second tweet, he wrote:
I think it’s insane that an artist can do everything they can to track down, clear, and pay for a sample and give publishing to the original creator. And if they can’t be found by the best sample people there is… that a producer shouldn’t suffer or lose a placement. And that the money and publishing should be set aside for them if they or anyone in their estate comes forward…
It’s just hard to see young producers who could have life-changing placements torn from them because an artist has been unreachable for 20 years. I just think it would be dope to add stipulations for such situations. I mean, sampling “Can I Kick It?” [By A Tribe Called Quest] and finding out Tribe owns zero publishing and I have to give up 100 percent of my publishing to Lou Reed and not Quest is insanity.
He has a point, but it’s incomplete and apparently a little misinformed. While I don’t know the exact terms of A Tribe Called Quest’s original agreement to use Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side” (among a half dozen other samples), I do know that sampling can be a tricky business, but not just because of older artists’ capricious whims. Often times, the writers and composers of songs from the annals of soul and funk classics don’t even own their own rights, which are instead held by publishing companies and labels that wrote shady contracts for the purpose of withholding royalties from those artists. For example, Sam Cooke started SAR Records for the purpose of owning his own music, but after renegotiating his arrangement with business partner and manager Allen Klein, Sam lost control over the company and his records shortly before his death in 1964, according to interviews in the film ReMastered: The Two Killings Of Sam Cooke.
In those cases where artists do control the rights to their music, they do often have stipulations about how and when it can be used. Coolio changed the lyrics of his 1995 hit “Gangsta’s Paradise,” which made a surprising return to prominence recently, at the behest of Stevie Wonder, whose song “Pastime Paradise” he sampled, because Wonder didn’t want him to curse on the song. Likewise, Kanye West censored language on his own breakthrough hit, “Through The Wire,” because Chaka Khan wouldn’t tolerate any swearing either. “Through The Wire” is built atop a sample of her hit “Through The Fire.”
In A Tribe Called Quest’s case, their song “Can I Kick It?” along with many other hits from hip-hop’s so-called Golden Era, was built from multiple samples at a time when the craft was still new. Because there weren’t necessarily rules in place to govern the use of samples, many hip-hop classics are constructed from bits and pieces of past hits from those artists’ parents’ record collections, and many of the rules about sample clearances had to be instituted on the fly. That’s why De La Soul still can’t release their back catalog to streaming — there was no such thing as streaming back then, so the language in the contracts doesn’t mention it. This could leave De La — and their label, Tommy Boy, vulnerable to lawsuits.
When Logic’s young producer friend wants to sample a “hip-hop classic,” he and Logic have to understand that they are not sampling just one song. They are sampling all of the samples that make up that song as well, and if that is the case, all the hands that did the work deserve a fair share of the royalties. Where Logic is correct is that the rules must be adjusted to reflect cosmetic changes to the original works — chopping up a bassline, speeding up a chorus, adding reverb or effects — that transform that work into a new one. Yes, Lou Reed (and the five other artists sampled on “Can I Kick It?”) deserves a chunk of “Kick It,” and any song that uses it, but 100 percent of the publishing is pretty egregious when you consider that so many other songs were used in its creation (and that those artists’ estates may not have had the negotiation muscle Reed had, meaning they might not receive any royalties at all).
Tribe would have known that the deal they were making meant they wouldn’t get paid from royalties on “Can I Kick It?” but it may have been worth it for them as a “loss leader,” introducing them to the world and popularizing their music enough that other songs would make up the deficit. That’s the — ahem — logic behind mixtapes, which existed in a hazy, legal gray area for years during their heyday in the early 2010s. Unfortunately, recent events have transpired that make it impossible to simply say “mixtapes were so good, we should go back to that.”
The late Mac Miller was sued in 2013 by Lord Finesse after he rapped over the 1995 single “Hip 2 Da Game” on his breakthrough mixtape K.I.D.S. While Mac’s label Rostrum Records argued that K.I.D.S. was a free mixtape and therefore didn’t technically make him any money, Finesse argued that Mac’s fortune and success was largely based on the popularity of the mixtape, which means he did make money from it — and Finesse deserved a cut. Ironically, “Hip 2 Da Game” contained samples of four older compositions, including songs from Oscar Peterson, Otis Redding, and James Brown. Because Mac sampled Finesse’s song specifically though, the argument is that Finesse deserves credit and payment for his work in putting together and manipulating the samples.
It’s a complex and often confusing tangle of credit, decades-old rights agreements (sometimes, unfairly negotiated), and arguments about just what constitutes creativity, but there is an encouraging aspect as well. Hip-hop has been around long enough to have its own classics for young producers to sample — even if those young producers aren’t quite aware that those songs are their own jumble of older songs mixed together. That suggests that not only is hip-hop alive and well, but that its newer generations are still looking to its roots for inspiration. It means that hip-hop hasn’t completely forgotten where it’s come from, even if its modern generation has lost sight of some of its murkier past. And it means that the newest creators, despite relying on its old techniques, will have to broaden their search for inspiration, becoming more creative and expanding hip-hop’s musical palette in the process. It means that the future is as wide-open as the past seems dense and convoluted — whatever comes next is going to be truly fresh, original, and different.