What wasn’t clear then – which partly accounts for the slapdash legal work – was how influential or important hip-hop would become. What started at a single party in a rented rec room of an apartment building at 1520 Sedgewick Avenue in the Bronx would become a global phenomenon. Its biggest stars inspired imitators and innovators on every continent. But in 1991, when Markie and De La Soul settled, only one hip-hop single, Vanilla Ice’s ‘Ice Ice Baby’, had climbed to the top of the US Billboard charts; that record had more than a hint of novelty about it, not least because of Robert Van Winkle’s whiteness. (It is a testament to Ice’s bit part status in hip-hop’s history that his own out-of-court settlement – made a year before Markie or De La Soul, with Queen and David Bowie for stealing his bassline from ‘Under Pressure’ – barely rates a mention when the end of sampling’s Wild West is discussed.) Fast forward three decades and Jay-Z has had more number one albums in the US (14), than anyone except for The Beatles. Eminem is in equal fifth (10) alongside Elvis Presley. Barbara Streisand and Bruce Springsteen are equal third. Off the charts few artists generate as much critical and commercial interest as Kendrick Lamar or Kanye West. On these shores Australian rappers – once considered (arguably with good reason) sub-par local oddities – have been Triple J playlist mainstays for twenty years. Lin Manuel Miranda’s love letter to 90s hip-hop, Hamilton, has obliterated box office records. But hip-hop’s impact isn’t just musical. It has jumped out of the groove, leaving music altogether to shape new ways to think about the creation of art more broadly, including in visual art, film and even literature.
Sampling has been part of hip-hop since its dawn. To give partygoers at that first Bronx party something to dance to, DJ Kool Herc used two turntables to create breakbeats. He would isolate a particularly danceable part of a record, usually a drum solo, and let it play through on one turntable, before switching to a second turntable with a copy of the same record queued up to the spot where he’d started the first record playing. When those bars were played through on the second turntable, he’d switch to the first. Doing this over and over could extend the breakbeat to the break of dawn. Soon other DJs copied Herc and it wasn’t long before emerging virtuosos started experimenting by lifting hooks and melodies to add colour to the drums. Other experimenters, without access to costly turntables or massive record collections, invented pause-taping: a patience-testing, labour intensive process involving dual cassette decks. Find the break or hook, play it on one tape deck, press record on the other. At the end of the beat, hit pause, rewind the first tape and repeat. This was how songs were stitched together. According to the Beastie Boys’ Ad Rock: ‘it was some caveman shit … Banging stones together to make a fire.’ Thankfully, producers didn’t have to wait too long for technology to catch up with their ambitions. A range of commercial electronic samplers, like E-mu’s SP-1200, came onto the market in the late 80s. These enabled samples to be saved, adjusted and combined, often with a drum machine beat, to make a track. Enterprising producers were only constrained by the limits of their record collections. As A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip, one of the era’s leading producers, said in Netflix’s recent documentary series Hip-Hop Evolution: ‘When we came up we didn’t really have the curriculum that allowed us to play instruments so the records would become our session players if you would.’ With the number of session players no longer dictated by budget, producers could run wild. And they did. The Beastie Boys’ ‘Hey Ladies’ features no less than 15 samples.
The Duffy verdict didn’t kill sampling, but it changed it. While the wild collages of It Takes a Nation of Millions and Paul’s Boutique mostly disappeared, producers and DJs continued to find new ways to sample. It had its most fecund impact in New York. Necessity, the proverb says, is the mother of invention and the crackdown drove some of the practice’s most virtuosic exponents to scour record stores in search of obscure samples beyond the watchful eyes of greedy bean counters. They called this search ‘digging in the crates’ and its most proficient exponents included Q-Tip, Pete Rock, Diamond D, Prince Be and The Large Professor – legends all. The group, and other members of New York’s hip-hop cognoscenti, descended annually on the Roosevelt Hotel Record Convention in Manhattan in an effort to find the weirdest records with the unlikeliest samples. It was, in the words of Busta Rhymes, like ‘The X-Men and The Avengers all together.’ Classics like Nas’s Illmatic, A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory, Gang Starr’s Daily Operation and Pete Rock and CL Smooth’s Mecca and the Soul Brother were born in this milieu. The lead single on the latter is a powerful example of the transformative power of sampling. ‘They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)’ took a tiny snippet of Tom Scott and the California Dreamers’ cover of Jefferson Airplane’s ‘Today’ and turned it into one of hip-hop’s most revered hooks. The original song has aged terribly, but Rock managed to identify a striking saxophone call and response about halfway through it that he looped and echoed to conjure a musical magical hour, golden and ambrosial, a kind of nostalgia filter for the song’s autobiographical lyrics. It is this, and other astute choices, upon which Rock’s reputation rests.
Judge Duffy began his opinion in the Markie case by citing Exodus 20:15: ‘Thou shalt not steal’ (lucky for Duffy this text is in the public domain, an irony Christagau didn’t miss). This, he wrote, is ‘an admonition followed since the dawn of civilization’, but ‘In the modern world of business this admonition is not always followed.’ But there’s the rub: one can argue that Markie’s theft didn’t happen ‘in the modern world of business’. We’re not talking lines of code, designs of microchips or whatever it is IP lawyers usually battle over. We’re talking art and the junkyard impulse of many artists to strip older works for parts. ‘Their only aim,’ Duffy’s judgment complained ‘was to sell thousands upon thousands of records.’ Really? Track 12 was the difference between a Gold record and a flop? I’m not buying it. O’Sullivan was a rent seeking opportunist and Duffy was confusing commerce with aesthetics. Collage – which I’m comfortable using interchangeably with sampling, because in my practice they are fundamentally the same thing – has been, in the words of Toby Fitch, one of Australia’s foremost exponents of it, ‘the foundational experimental practice of the 20th century’ (Fitch was writing in The Guardian in response to The Great Plagiarism Fiasco of 2013, where the accused had attempted to use hip-hop sampling as a shield). From the collaborations of Pablo Picasso and George Braque to the films of Quentin Tarantino, it has seeped into our bedrock.