Sampling Documentary Too Limited in Scope; Does Not Succeed in Illuminating the Sampling/Copyright Issue, and Fails to Flush Out the Meaning and Cultural Value of the Art of Sampling
|By Amir Said (Sa’id)|
Last night (Tuesday, January 19) PBS premiered Copyright Criminals, a documentary film based on the art of sampling and the complexities that surround it. Billed as the examination of the “creative and commercial value of musical sampling,” Copyright Criminals is mostly off base and surprisingly limited in scope.
The film opens with a very predictable titles on black definition of sampling:
1: to use a segment of another’s musical recording as part of one’s own recording.“
I found this definition to be very misleading and rather disturbing. What’s the purpose and significance of including the description: “another’s musical recording,” and not simply “sound recording?” The art of sampling—in its most fundamental meaning—is less about possession and more about creation, style, and reconstruction of any recorded sound that appeals to the would-be sampler. So as to where the filmmakers received that definition of “sample,” is unclear. However, it is clear, right from the start, that the filmmakers intend to frame their discussion of the art of sampling in a context of ownership rather than one of art and/or cultural significance. Although I expected the ownership context (given the name of the film), I was surprised by Copyright Criminal’s otherwise lax coverage of the cultural and artistic context of the art of sampling. Note. Heavy screen time with drummer Clyde Stublefield, member of James Brown’s band (1965-1970), was appreciated, but not at the expense of a more thorough exploration of sampling’s origins in the hip hop/rap and beatmaking traditions.
The next thing that I find rather troubling about Copyright Criminals is the fact that the film does not attempt to draw a distinction between the art of sampling in the beatmaking tradition of hip hop/rap music and the current so-called “remix culture.” Instead, the film tries to (forcefully) situate the art of sampling as the nucleus of this remix culture. Wrong! The art of sampling does not come from, nor does it subscribe to, the parameters of remix culture (as first coined and described best by Lawrence Lessig). To be certain, the art of sampling—in the hip hop/rap tradition—is something entirely different than the “remix culture” of now. The art of sampling in hip hop/rap music is a direct outgrowth of the methods of early hip hop/rap DJs, a very critical distinction that Copyright Criminals mentions but fails to thoroughly flush out. Moreover, the film seems to ignore what the remix culture really is: the outgrowth of the combination of the outer limits of late 1990s hip hop/rap music, more advanced and accessible sampling technology, and the illegal download climate of contemporary culture. The latter component of this combination is never even raised in the film.
Copyright Criminals also features some rather curious interviewee choices.
Many of the interviewees (presumably drafted by the filmmakers for their expertise on the art of sampling or the legal complexities surrounding it) will be unfamiliar to most. More importantly, what was particularly disturbing was the absence of at least one hip hop/rap sample-based architect from the pioneering ranks that include: Marley Marl, DJ Premier, The RZA, Dr. Dre, Large Professor, Pete Rock (appears in a 3 second sound bite), DJ Shadow, Buckwild, Showbiz, Prince Paul, or the like. Indeed, some on-screen feedback from at least one of these pioneers should have been included. A discussion without at least one of them, or even a mention of them and/or their positions on and contribution to the art of sampling was, at best, irresponsible; at worst, it was negligent and reckless.
In fact, even just a bit of discussion with Just Blaze, or 9th Wonder, or some other post-pioneer sample-based beatmaker would have been more encouraging. And to be clear: I have nothing against DJ Abilities and Eyedea, or Sage Francis, or Miho Hatori, or Malmos (MC Schmidt and Drew Daniel). However, the question that begs to be answered is: What sort of informational reference point are the filmmakers trying to convey by featuring these particular artists (samplers)? Documentary films have the power of presumed authenticity. Thus, without any prior knowledge of the art of sampling, one might believe (assume) that these aforementioned artists (samplers) are indeed experts on or representative of the sampling field. Notwithstanding any of their talents or knowledge, however, they can not substitute for the 10 or so sampling architects that I previously mentioned.
I was also alarmed by the fact that the negative bias against sampling never seemed to be seriously challenged. Case in point is when Steve Albini (musician/recording engineer) rants against the art of sampling, using the very tired and superficial assessment of sampling as a “lazy” method of musical creation. Albini comes off as both an music elitist and someone who’s clearly uninformed about hip hop culture, the hip hop/rap music tradition, and the art of sampling. In speaking about sampling he says:
“As a creative tool for someone to use a sample of a piece of existing music, for their music, I think it’s an extraordinarily lazy artistic choice. It’s much easier to take something that is already awesome and play it again with your name on it.”
Right. As if that’s really what the art of sampling is about.
The fact that the filmmakers chose not to include even one interviewee to directly address or counter Steve Albini’s claims was rather disappointing to me. Moreover, to add insult to Albini’s woefully uninformed statement, right after he’s done speaking, the film cuts to an image of MC Hammer winning an award for the song “Can’t Touch This” (1990), a song that uses a prominent sample of Rick James’ hit song, “Super Freak” (1981). This is an incredibly frustrating moment in Copyright Criminals, as here, the film seems to imply that not only is Albini right, but also that Hammer’s use of “Super Freak” personifies what the art of sampling is all about—as if that’s the only and most fundamental form of the art of sampling in the beatmaking tradition of hip hop/rap music. And notwithstanding MC Hammer’s commercial popularity, the film makes absolutely no effort to give context to viewers as to who MC Hammer was or his position in the hip hop/rap lexicon, or even how his use of sampling wasn’t even necessarily respected by his peers in 1990. Unfortunately, however, if you’re unfamiliar with who MC Hammer is/was, which is the case for most current 13 to 30 year-olds, then this point is lost. But to perhaps give you context I’ll say this: Using MC Hammer to personify the serious art of sampling is like using Diddy (Puff Daddy) to personify the serious art of complex lyricism.
Finally, as for the “copyright” spectrum of Copyright Criminals, there is much left to be desired there as well. I expected the film to include some discussion of what American copyright law and policy is. I mean, at least something on what the code of the Copyright Act actually says—especially as it pertains to sound recordings—was certainly warranted in a documentary of this nature. Unfortunately, there is no direct discussion of current American copyright law or even a brief break down of the original intent and purpose of American copyright law. Furthermore, although pivotal sampling infringement cases and suits are casually discussed and/or alluded to in the film, we really get nothing more than a glimpse of De La Soul’s trouble with The Turtles, and Biz Markie’s and Warner’s problem with Gilbert O’Sullivan; we don’t get the real picture (details) as to how De La Soul’s and Biz Markie’s predicaments affected the perception of the art of sampling and the subsequent legal policy towards it.
The Bottom line
Though there are some areas in Copyright Criminals that I found engaging and, at times, somewhat encouraging, (specifically the segments with media professor, Siva Vaidhyanathan), overall, the film just flat out disappoints. The fact that this documentary tries to (forcefully) situate the art of sampling within the new, supposedly grander “remix culture” is not only unfair to the chief architects and pioneers of the art of sampling, it’s an utterly absurd gesture to hip hop/rap culture in general, as it implies that hip hop is a part of remix culture…not that remix culture itself is, in part, an outgrowth of the outer fringes of the hip hop/rap music tradition.
Furthermore, Copyright Criminals avoids delving deeper into the meaning and origins of the art of sampling, and how it might be reconciled with the original intent and purpose of American copyright law and policy. Indeed, make no mistake, Copyright Criminals is squarely focused on the art of sampling within an ownership (property) framework, not the context of artistic innovation or even the cultural parameters from which sampling was born. Because of this, the film comes off just as bland as some of the re-hashed, uninformed arguments made against the art of sampling. As a result, Copyright Criminals actually fails to illuminate the legal complexities surrounding sampling, and it offers no solution to or even a thoroughly clear scope of the problem associated with sampling and copyright law.Articles, Reviews