Sunday, January 17, 2010

Love and Theft: Copyright Criminals

Ever since rock n’ roll started "safely" repackaging R&B for white teenagers, it has been dogged by issues of musical appropriation. With the advent of sampling, differentiating between love and theft would have legal implications. The music and intellectual property litigation produced by the hip hop revolution are examined in Benjamin Franzen’s Copyright Criminals (trailer here), which airs this coming Tuesday as part of the current season of PBS’s Independent Lens.

It was the time when crate-diggers came into their own. Finding fat beats and killer drum breaks had long been a source of competitive pride among DJs. As technology advanced, it became much easier to edit, distort, layer, remix, and otherwise adulterate samples from existing records in new audio collages. When the formerly underground movement suddenly became the dominant force on the record charts, artists and labels began to take note when their music was sampled. Serious compensation would eventually be demanded to legally clear samples, or risk a costly trip to court.

If one hero emerges in Copyright, it is Clyde Stubblefield, considered the world’s most sampled drummer, as a result of his 1965-1970 tenure in James Brown’s classic band. It is his improvised drum line from “Funky Drummer” that powers some of hip hop’s biggest hits, including Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” and LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out,” which the film vividly illustrates with split screens of Stubblefield playing live compared to the videos of the songs sampling his work.

Stubblefield perfectly crystallizes the issues at stake. There is something infectious and soulful about Stubblefield’s drumming that could not be replicated by a drum machine or another artist. That is why DJs and re-mixers are so attracted to it. However, Brown retained compositional credit, only paying Stubblefield for his studio time. As a result, Stubblefield has not been compensated for any of the sampling of his performances. Yet, Stubblefield never sounds bitter, claiming he is not interested in the money, but would just like to be fairly credited. As the saying goes—give the drummer some.

Copyright definitely has a pro-hip hop, anti-lawyer bias. It does allow in a few dissenting voices though, like musician and recording engineer Steve Albini, who describes sampling as “cheap and easy” as opposed to the hard work of making your own music. We also hear from the lawyer who successfully sued Biz Markie for his “uncleared” use of Irish singer-songwriter Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again, Naturally,” who makes a cogent case for artist rights. Still, jazz fans familiar with flutist-composer James Newton’s unsuccessful case against the Beastie Boys will suspect the film somewhat overstates the extent to which the courts have sided against samplers.

While hip hop artists in general are notorious for their legal problems, Copyright wisely confines its inquiry to fair use and ownership issues surrounding sampling. Though it ultimately lines with the mixers and scratchers, it clearly explains the background and context of their legal controversies. Featuring revealing musical commentary from artists deeply immersed in the hip hop culture, including Miho Hatori, Public Enemy’s Chuck D, DJ Qbert, and El-P, the hour-long Copyright is a breezy and informative sampling 101 for the traditionally staid public broadcasting audience. It airs on most PBS outlets this Tuesday (1/19), including New York Thirteen (at 10:00 PM E.S.T).

(Photo: Benjamin Franzen)