Beastie Boys Lawsuit Re-Opens Debate About Samples In Hip Hop

OPINION

on May 10 2012 10:07 AM
Beastie Boys Lawsuit
The Beastie Boys lawsuit over samples on two classic albums has re-opened an old debate about hip hop's re-purposing of snippets of music to make beats. Reuters

The new Beastie Boys lawsuit over samples on two classic albums has re-opened the tired debate over hip hop artist's practice of re-purposing of snippets of music to make beats.

The Beastie Boys were slapped with a lawsuit last week of the eve of the death of band member Adam Yauch, a.k.a. MCA, adding insult to the devastating injury of losing the musician at the age of 47.

As news of the Beastie Boys lawsuit spread throughout music circles on Wednesday, it reignited a seemingly endless debate between musical artists, fans and record companies over the use of samples in music, especially hip hop.

The lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in New York, alleges that several of the Beasties' songs illegally sample the songs Say What and Drop the Bomb by the band Trouble Funkaccording to Reuters.

Filed on behalf of TufAmerica Music Label Records, the lawsuit claims that the Beastie Boys and Universal Records allegedly broke the law by using bits of the songs on their seminal hip hop albums Licensed to Ill and Paul's Boutique.

The complaint alleges that TufAmerica never received royalties or other payments for the alleged ripping off of their songs for the Beastie Boys tracks Shadrach, Car Thief, The New Style and Hold It Now Hit It.

The Beastie Boys were innovators in the field of piecing together rich musical tapestries from disparate sounds and sources, and Paul's Boutique in particular is known as a leading album in this regard, using so many samples from the Beatles to the Ramones that it created a ground-breaking sound of its own.

But the fallout of even the oldest sampling incidents continues to play out, and the new Beastie Boys lawsuit is just the latest in a long series of similar suits against groups from the Beasties to Biz Markie.

A sample is essentially a snippet of an existing song -- often a long-forgotten one found deep in the wire bins of a used record store, in a practice known as Digging in the Crates (props to Big L) -- that is sliced, diced, or otherwise re-purposed in order to be used in a new track.

For instance, on their song The Sounds of Science off their classic album Paul's Boutique, the Beastie Boys famously sampled a two-second bit of Pato Banton saying the words I do not sniff the coke I only smoke the sensimilla on his song I Don't Sniff Coke, and they use a keyboard sample from the Isley Brothers' Who's That Lady in the album's closing track, the inimitable B-Boy Bouillabaisse. 

Those are just a sampling of the myriad bits of music the Beasties drew upon to create the hip hop pastiche album back in 1989, and at the time no one -- especially not record producers -- was really paying enough attention to care much about the wholesale lifting of music that was taking place during the birth of rap.

But Paul's Boutique and other sample-heavy albums of the late eighties started a fight that has raged ever since between hip hop groups and artists (really their record labels, who see most of the profits in intellectual property suits like the one TufAmerica filed last week) they had sampled over the concept that the original artists should be compensated for being sampled.

The legal battles over this issue have reached a level of ridiculousness and greed that is hard to match even in this quick-to-litigate era, and the Beastie Boys lawsuit, which comes 22 years after the Beasties released Paul's Boutique, is just the latest in this money-grubbing scheme.

And it's not all nefarious, as newer artists who create mega-selling songs that heavily rely on sampled material, like Kanye West -- who has made a career on tracks like Gold Digger, which relied on the Ray Charles standard I Got A Woman, and Stronger, which was based off Daft Punk's Harder Better Faster Stronger, and -- and Puff Daddy have mostly stayed between the lines, compensating those whose songs they use to make their hits.

But the Beastie Boys lawsuit reminds us of the insanity of labels targeting hip hop pioneers who released some of the most genre-defining music decades ago, when these rules were less defined and hip hop was more care-free.

In memory of Adam Yauch, who died last Thursday at the age of 47 after a three-year struggle with cancer, let's make a call to end this practice of reverse digging in the crates, in which record companies are searching through the classic catalogues of music pioneers in search of a quick payday. The music deserves to rest in peace.

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