SONG SAMPLING: Plagiarism, or just the way rap/hip-hop has always been (unbeknownst to the newbie listener)?

You know how Kendrick Lamar received all that s*** for being “controversial” / provocative in The Blacker the Berry from his latest 2015 album, To Pimp a Butterfly?  No, you probably don’t. Here’s a quick re-cap

In The Blacker the Berry, Lamar directly confronts modern American racism on a level that mainstream television media doesn’t even go near. For example, one notable section reads:

My hair is nappy, my dick is big, my nose is round and wide
You hate me don’t you?
You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture
You’re fuckin’ evil I want you to recognize that I’m a proud monkey
You vandalize my perception but can’t take style from me
And this is more than confession
I mean I might press the button just so you know my discretion
I’m guardin’ my feelins, I know that you feel it
You sabotage my community, makin’ a killin’
You made me a killer, emancipation of a real nigga

The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice
The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice
The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice
The blacker the berry, the bigger I shoot

Woah. That’s right. He went there. You can find the full lyrics here. I rarely understand the lyrics to music I listen to, but I have always understood the line “the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice”. Skip ahead two months later, I’m listening to  Pete Rock & C. L. Smooth’s 1992 album and I hear, “…some say the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice. Make love everyday, ok produce” which occurs about two minutes into Lots of Lovin.* (Full lyrics to song here.) Hmm. Now all of a sudden I’m like, woah, is Kendrick Lamar making a deeper cultural reference here? Cuz his twist on Rock & Smooth’s line really gives it a different meaning. While an analysis of what said deeper meaning might be is likely an interesting topic, it is not where I went with my train of thought at the time. (Although I might go there another day) From there, I leapt to another observation I made just a month before.

I’ve had Avril 14th by Aphex Twin on my ipod since my roommate played it five years ago. (No, I have not listened to ANY other songs by Aphex twin. I probably should though) A couple of months ago, I’m listening to one of my favorite Kanye West songs, Blame Game, and I realize where that beautiful piano refrain is from. Avril 14th. OMG PLAGARISM did he even list them as an artist on his album NO HE DID NOT but he did list them as a source WHAT. (That was my train of thought at the time.) Dude, it’s not like he even played the piano song himself. He literally just copied the song and stuck it in the background of his own song. What the heck. Outrage. Confusion. The realization that tons of rappers/hip-hop artists do this ALL THE TIME. Semi-Acceptance. Apathy.

Am I okay with Kendrick Lamar inserting Avril 14th in Blame Game? Absolutely. It made that song awesome. Should he have listed Aphex Twin as a contributor, not just a source, and allowed them to have some proceeds from that song? Probably. That probably would have been the decent thing to do. Then again, they’re probably both really rich so why does it matter. Also, I download music on line all the time and don’t pay for it, so isn’t it hypocritical of me to take a stance on this issue? After all, these days, all the artists sample songs without properly crediting, and all the (young) consumers download songs without paying, so isn’t it rendered acceptable by the sheer fact of its normalcy?

Hmmm. Or is sampling a song like sampling a quote in an essay. So long as you list the source and have your own unique argument, you still get credit for authoring that essay. Similarly, if you sample a song, yes it’s integral to your composition, but still, the product is unique and clearly something entirely separate from the sample. Hmm. Based on that logic, I guess I’m ok with it.

But then again, not all artists sample songs in the same way. For example, West is badass and combines several different direct song samples with his own musical compositions and lyrics. From what I’ve gathered on wikipedia, before West became an artist, he spent years being a producer, someone who puts all the tracks together, layering them and tweaking them. So you know his stuff is legit, and he deserves credit for his work. On the other hand, I recently heard a demo EP song that I really enjoyed. However, after contacting the “artist”, I learned that the only contribution they made was to write the lyrics, while all of the musical content of the song was created by a sound engineer, who a) didn’t create any of the sounds himself, they were all samples from songs or various sound bits and b) was merely given a grateful, enthusiastic shout out from the “artist”, instead of being listed as a co-artist on the album. What the heck. Do sound engineers have no self-respect these days/is the economy so bad they just do all the major work on an album and expect no credit? Quick! Google “The Oatmeal you’re doing it for the exposure” to read a funny and relevant article.**

Okay. So now that I’ve finally made up my mind on that issue (….?), there’s one final question. What sort of intellectual or cultural argument (if any) is being made by a major artist when they sample another major artist’s lyrics or songs? Is it some kind of in-group tribute for other artists, random selection, or something else altogether? Also relevant is the question of how often major artists reference songs from lesser-known artists.

To bring this whole blurb full circle, even Lots of Lovin, the 1992 song that Kendrick Lamar referenced in 2015, samples another song. According to this amazing website (which also has a phone app you can purchase called “who sampled”), Lots of Lovin samples three other songs from the early 1970’s – songs written twenty years before Lots of Lovin was produced! Does the cycle ever end? I’m starting to think that not only is song and lyric sampling common in hip-hop & rap, it’s integral to those genres.

Oh, the epiphanies of a person who can name all the rap & hip-hop artists they know on two hands.


*I tried googling “Kendrick Lamar the blacker the berry Pete rock CL smooth”, but no relevant results came up. Is it possible my lyrical observation is unique? *gasp* I feel so special. (It probably isn’t but hey, it’s nice to revel in the feeling)

**I am not directly linking to the article because the author of that website wrote a whole long piece about why doing so costs him money instead of helping him.

– C (last updated Jan/16/2015)



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