32 posts categorized "BeatTips Editorial"

April 19, 2016

Kendrick Lamar Sued for Bill Withers Sample on Mixtape; Misconceptions About Copyright and Sampling Raised

Complaint against Lamar gets it wrong. More proof that a compulsory license for sound recordings is needed.


A rapper uses a sample from a song of another artist to create a new song — said rapper places new song on their free mixtape, then gets sued for copyright infringement by the copyright owners of the song that the rapper sampled. We’ve been here before. We’ll be here again. The latest incarnation of this routine involves Kendrick Lamar and his song “I Do This,” featured on his 2009 mixtape The Kendrick Lamar EP, and the 1975 Bill Withers song “Do You Want to Stay.” “I Do This” incorporates a sample of the Withers recording, and the owners of the copyright in the music composition of the song have filed suit against Lamar, Top Dawg, WB Music Corp, and others, for copyright infringement.

Note: This latest copyright infringement suit involving sampling, an established recording artist, and a free mixtape serves as a reminder that samples used on non-commercial releases are not automatically insulated from lawsuits. What’s more interesting is what this new complaint says about copyright law and sampling, and what the trend of sample-based songs on mixtapes says about the value of the art of sampling and who it’s benefiting the most.

The Complaint

According to the complaint filed April 14, 2016 in a federal court in Los Angeles by a lawyer on behalf of Mattie Music Group dba Golden Withers Music Group and Hadley Murrell dba Musidex (the “Plaintiffs”), Kendrick Lamar, Top Dawg Music, WB Music Corp, and others (et. al) unlawfully copied, “note for note,”1 the 1975 Bill Withers song “Do You Want to Stay,” which Plaintiffs claim ownership to the copyright in the musical composition, on Lamar’s 2013 [2009] song “I Do This” (produced by Sounwave). It’s worth noting that Plaintiffs states that “Defendant Lamar, wrote and composed a musical composition entitled “I Do This” and caused phonorecords embodying a performance of “I Do This” by Defendant Lamar to be recorded and released for sale to the public in or about 2013.”2 This is important to note because the Plaintiffs do not own the copyright in the sound recording of the Bill Withers song “Do You Want to Stay.”

Plaintiffs further allege that Lamar’s composition “I Do This” consists of “nothing more than new, so-called Rap or Hip Hop lyrics, set to the existing music of ‘Don’t You Want to Stay,’” and that Defendants did not create any new music for ‘I Do This’ and Defendants did not simply ‘sample’ some of the existing music of ‘Don’t You Want to Stay.’ Rather, the music of ‘I Do This’ is a direct and complete copy of the music of ‘Don’t You Want to Stay. Defendants used the existing recorded music of ‘Don’t You Want To Stay’ and recorded the new, so-called Rap or Hip Hop lyrics, over the existing music.” Also, Plaintiffs allege that Defendants Lamar, et. al knowingly and willfully infringed the copyright of “Don’t You Want To Stay.”3

Finally, Plaintiffs assert that in May, 2013, Plaintiff Musidex sent “a notice of Copyright infringement letter to Defendant Lamar’s attorney, described the aforesaid copyright infringement and demanded that Defendant Lamar cease and desist from all exploitation of “I Do This” and provide a full accounting as to the exploitation of “I Do This.” In March, 2016, Plaintiffs maintain that Plaintiff Golden sent a similar letter to Lamar, et. al.

Breaking Down the Complaint

I’ve examined a number of copyright infringement claims involving sampling, and, as with all of them, the claims made by Mattie Music Group and Hadley Murrell represent an incomplete understanding or misrepresentation of United States copyright law, as well as a dismissive attitude towards hip hop/rap music and the art of sampling itself.

First, I’ll address the Plaintiffs’ assertion that Lamar, et. al “did not create any new music for ‘I Do This,’” and that Lamar, et. al “did not simply ‘sample’ some of the existing music of ‘Don’t You Want to Stay,’” but rather made a "complete copy of the music of ‘Don’t You Want to Stay.” Clearly, the Plaintiffs do not understand what copyright infringement is or how it’s determined in a court of law. What's at question is not whether Lamar sampled — i.e. incorporated “a direct and complete copy of the music of ‘Don’t You Want to Stay” — but rather does the sample amount to actionable copying. In other words, at issue is how much of the Withers sample was used and, more importantly, how was it used, i.e. transformed? The answer to that question, which can be determined by a judge prior to a trial jury, is not found by simply assessing if the appropriation is an exact copy of elements of the appropriated work — by default, a digital sample represents an exact or complete copy of whatever it was sampled from. Hence, both the amount used and transformation aspects of the question are determined only by examining both works as a whole. Further worth noting: When it comes to amount used, what must be looked at is how much of the appropriated work was used, not how much of it constitutes the new work — i.e. not how many times it was used or looped in the new work.

In this regard, Lamar’s “I Do This” does contain new music. Sounwave’s production includes deft drum programming, a combination of a trap sound with elements of classic electro hop. In addition to Soundwave’s beat, “I Do This” contains two separate verses by Lamar, one verse by rapper Jay Rock, and a chorus. Further, “I Do This” does not make use of a “complete” copy of Withers’s “Don’t You Want to Stay,” but rather it incorporates a sample — a roughly 8-second snippet — of the recording “Don’t You Want to Stay.” A “complete copy” of Withers’s “Don’t You Want to Stay” would mean that Lamar used “Don’t You Want to Stay” in its entirety without any transformation.

That the Plaintiffs in this case go so far as to ignore the obvious and allege that Lamar, et. al “did not simply ‘sample’” indicates their lack of understanding of what sampling is and how copyright law in the U.S. actually works. Notwithstanding the fact that digital sampling is a musical process and form of borrowing (copying) widely recognized in the courts, the Plaintiffs’ argument that Lamar, et. al’s copying is not sampling because it makes use of a “direct” copy of the sound recording (which Plaintiffs do not own) is preposterous. Moreover, the Plaintiffs in this case seem to believe that copying of any length constitutes copying in total. But that’s not how it works. As I describe in my book The Art of Sampling, not all forms of copying are actionable, i.e. illegal. Which is to say that all copyrighted material is subject to the de minimis and fair use doctrines — both doctrines speak to when and how an instance of copying is legal under the law. Though different in scope, both of these doctrines weigh the amount of copyrighted material used in coming to a determination of permissible copying. In the case of Lamar, et. al’s use of Withers’s “Don’t You Want to Stay,” the amount used is fairly insignificant, as the sample used constitutes only about 8 seconds of Withers’s 4-minute song. Moreover, “I Do This” represents a significant transformation of the Withers sample; and it’s my opinion that this transformation easily meets the fair use threshold. (Fair use, which examines four specific factors, one of which being amount used, is quite complex and often deeply misunderstood. For a solid understanding of fair use, I urge you to read The Art of Sampling.)

Next, I’ll address the Plaintiffs’ two “cease and desist” letters, what they described as “notice of Copyright infringement” letters, in which they demand “a full accounting as to the exploitation of ‘I Do This.’” A cease and desist letter is a common device copyright holders use to persuade parties, whom they believe are infringing their works, to stop. A cease and desist letter is not a notice of copyright infringement. While some appropriations (i.e. copying, borrowing) — be they in literature, music, photography, etc. — may likely be an infringement, the actual determination of copyright infringement must be made in a court of law on a case by case basis. And with regards to the Plaintiffs' demand that Lamar, et. al "provide a full accounting as to the exploitation of “I Do This,” a cease-and-desist letter — no kind of letter, save a court order — can force someone to provide such information. Thus, either the Plaintiffs knew that this was a silly over reach that no half-decent lawyer would ever fall for, or they believed that Lamar, et. al didn't have half-decent counsel.

Finally, I’ll address the Plaintiffs’ "so-called Rap or Hip Hop lyrics” description. Complaints are carefully written by lawyers who utilize words that they hope will persuade judges. And, whether intended or not, complaints often include descriptions that also reveal the biases of the people filing them. In the complaint filed against Lamar, et. al, the Plaintiffs use the “so-called Rap or Hip Hop lyrics” description twice. I believe there are only two reasons the Plaintiffs make this distinction: a) To suggest to the court that “Rap” or “Hip Hop” lyrics are an other type of lyricism, a lyricism unworthy of recognition or the respect given presumably to other forms of songwriting — a lyricism undeserving of being taken seriously as “new music”; or b) They were simply incapable of hiding their bias against “Rap” or “Hip Hop” as a legitimate music form.

Critical Observation (A): You Can Be Sued for Samples on a Free Mixtape

As I’ve pointed out before, because a mixtape is free, it does not mean that the samples on it are automatically non-infringing. So someone who makes and/or distributes a free mixtape that contains samples on it can be sued for copyright infringement. One of the most notable recent examples of this fact is the lawsuit that Lord Finesse filed against Mac Miller. The lawsuit never made it to trial — as Miller and Finesse settled out of court — but what was at dispute was Miller’s use of Lord Finesse’s instrumental track (beat), unchanged and in its entirety, from his song “Hip 2 Da Game” (1995) on Miller’s song “Kool Aid & Frozen Pizza,” off of Miller’s K.I.D.S. mixtape. Miller never said that he made the beat, nor contested that the beat was Finesse’s, but Rostrum, Miller’s label at the time, implied that the use was OK since K.I.D.S. was a free mixtape and, thus, they never profited from Finesse’s music.

Notwithstanding the fact that the free K.I.D.S. mixtape was used to help launch Mac Miller’s career (he was able to earn revenue from shows and other means), just because the unauthorized used of a copyrighted work — any copyrightable subject matter — is made free does not exclude it from copyright infringement.

But all of this said, also bear in mind that this does not necessarily mean that the filer of a copyright infringement suit will prevail in court. Miller could have taken his chances in court using the affirmative defense of fair use. There is a huge misconception in the United States that someone is guilty of something whenever someone else files a lawsuit against them. Wrong. The United States is one of the most litigious nations in the world; here, people file frivolous lawsuits all the time. For example, Jay Z was recently sued by TufAmerica for a sample that he used in his song "We Run This Town." Manhattan Federal district judge Lewis A. Kaplan dismissed the copyright infringement case brought by TufAmerica, citing: the sound “has essentially no quantitative significance” to the original composition and thus cannot be protected by copyright law.4 Many samplers would likely win in court if they choose to contest the lawsuits their hit with, but routinely, they don’t because they lack the financial and legal resources to take a case to trial, a reality that many who file lawsuits count on.

This is significant, because I Lamar actually does have the resources and, more importantly, the grounds to fight this case. If I were advising Lamar, et. al, my first move would be to file for declatory judgment and seek relief on two grounds: 1) That the Plaintiffs in this case do not own the copyright in the sound recording of the Withers song and thus lack standing; and 2) That the use is fair use.

Critical Observation (B): The Art of Sampling Continues to Be a Valuable Art Form

That Kendrick Lamar (like Mac Miller, Drake, and others) used samples on free mixtapes to help kick start their careers raises one big question: Are artists more cavalier earlier in their careers, or are they simply unaware of what copyright law actually proscribes? I believe it’s a combination of both. But what’s equally important is what this trend says about the value of the art of sampling. Very few discussions (and I’m being generous) in this space ever center around or profile how deeply valued the art of sampling is in hip hop/rap music, as the focus is always on the headline-grabbing copyright infringement lawsuit.

But the reality is, plenty of artists have turned to — and will continue to turn to — the art form and style aesthetic of sampling to kick-start their careers. This is mainly because many artists have viewed — and still view — sampling (sample-based beats) as a reliable means to flushing out their creativity. Further, plenty of artists have used sampling to form and maintain a link to (and comment on) history.

Yet, once established, many of these same artists tend to avoid sampling. Is this simply due to evolution as some (often musically pretentious) people like to suggest? I don’t think so. I believe some artists move away from sampling purely on aesthetic grounds, ie. for the purposes of expanded their musical pallets. Others do so to broaden their collaborative opportunities as well as expand the diversity of their audiences. But all recognize the serious drawbacks to sample clearance. But let’s be clear, the dislike for sample clearance does not mean that artists dislike sampling. Stated another way, I believe that if there were a more efficient, cheaper path to sample clearance, more artists would continue to make sampling a hallmark of their creativity.

Critical Observation (C): We Need a Compulsory License for Sound Recordings; and Artists Must Learn About Copyright Law, Especially De Minimis and Fair Use

Consider the compulsory license for nondramatic musical works that already exists in the United States. Under this compulsory license, which addresses the musical composition, i.e. the artist’s music in written form, individuals are permitted to make “covers” (i.e. new versions of a pre-existing sound recordings) of musical works. To take advantage of this compulsory license, all a recording artist need do is simply provide notice to the copyright holder(s) and pay a royalty, which is a fixed mechanical rate — no upfront usage fee is required. If there was a compulsory license for sampling, something in league with the compulsory license for nondramatic musical works, there would be an explosion of new sample-based music. Free from the arcane processes and restrictions of the ad-hoc sample clearance system that we have to day, artists would be able to sample from whatever song they wanted, just as artists can do full covers of whatever song they want to under the existing compulsory license for nondramatic musical works. As such, artists would be liberated to incorporate the art of sampling as they saw fit, without any sample clearance issues.

Furthermore, with a firm understanding of how copyright law works, specifically the de minimis and fair use doctrines, artists would be empowered to sample in ways that do not likely rise to actionable (i.e. illegal) copying. Thus, with a compulsory license for sound recordings in place, and solid grasp of the de minimis and fair use doctrines, I believe both existing and new artists would make sampling a hallmark of their creativity.

The music and video below is presented here for the purpose of scholarship.

Bill Withers - "Don't You Want to Stay"

Kendrick Lamar feat. Jay Rock - "I Do This" (prod. by Sounwave)


1 Mattie Music Group et al v. Lamar et al, U.S. District Court, Central District of California, No. 16-02561.
2 id.
3 id.
4 Tufamerica, Inc. v.. WB Music Corp. et al, 1:13-cv-07874 S.D.N.Y. (2014); also see, “Judge Dismisses a Suit Over Jay Z’s ‘Run This Town,’” Joe Coscarelli, (New York Times, December 9, 2014).

The Art of Sampling by Amir Said (Sa'id).
"The most trusted name in beatmaking."

March 29, 2016

Independence or Major Label, Informed Decisions Pay Off Best

The value of making self-contained beats and rhymes, and how (why) I turned down a major label record deal.


There's a familiar feeling that all unknown artists have. It's a feeling of hope — that one day, people will know and appreciate your music. For most, that hope will dissolve. Some artists are dope, but fail to ever seriously or consistently put in the work, time, and effort it takes to breakthrough. Some artists are just not that good, but they refuse to take stock of their talent (or lack there of) and remain steadfast in their delusion that they'll make it one day, and if they don't, it's because tastemakers (and everyone else) are haters. Then there are those artists who are quite talented and committed to the process, yet because of mitigating circumstances — music industry bullshit, jail time, lack of funds, no team support, wrong location, wrong time, frustration, etc. — they never get the chance they deserve or the level of recognition equal to their capabilities. Then there's my story.

My pursuit was perhaps best characterized by my commitment to music and my leeriness of the music industry, more specifically, the types individuals that dominate it and the level of shenanigans that are customary within it. Unlike most people who get close enough to sniff a major label record deal, I was never enamored by the whole major label system. I read about the music industry as well as books about business. Incidentally, reading a book or communicating with people who have accurate knowledge to share can save you time, headaches, and emotional distress.

At 19, I read Donald Passman's All You Need to Know About the Music Business, a tomb of music business discovery that broke down a lot of the complexity of how the music industry's business model works. A couple years later, I read Everything You Better Know About the Music Industry by Kashif, a much more direct, you-better-watch-out style book about the music industry that provided further details and much needed nuance. Thus, I was informed about many different aspects of the music industry. I learned more deeply about intellectual property, standard recording contracts, manufacturing, distribution, marketing, promotion, and various key components of art and commerce. But even before I learned of some of the music industry's most oppressive and reprehensible practices, I viewed the major labels as a poorly ran entertainment cartel, one predicated upon cheap (indentured) labor, and mostly void of any consistent sense of creative integrity. So for me, the goal was never to get with the major label system, I wanted to keep away from it.

In 1995, I'd been making beats, on kind of a committed basis, for just about two years. But I was rhymin' before I started making beats. But after the frustration of having to wait for other people to make beats for me to write and rhyme to, I started making beats for myself. Although I was serious almost right from the start, I probably didn't develop a decent level of skill until 1999. Thing about that time frame is that I had a reverence for the art of beatmaking that was instilled in me by the beatmakers (producers) who I looked up to and taught me. Therefore, I was constantly reminded by how much time and effort it would take to build a decent level of beatmaking skills.

By the end of 2000, it all began to come together for me. My beatmaking skills had finally caught up with my rhymin' skills, and within months, I would make "Milk," the song that would give me my first true level of recognition. In 2001, a then very close friend of mine, Tamika "Tammy" Butler, was working at Daddy's House Recording Studio (Bad Boy's recording home). Tammy regularly came in direct contact with various beatmakers (producers), rappers, and other music professionals, so naturally, I put together a CD for her to pass on to those individuals who she and I thought might receive my music well. The CD was hastily put together, nothing fancy at all, and aside from "Milk," it only included two other songs.

Because I scrutinized who Tammy gave the CD to, she would call me from the studio, tell me that "so-and-so" was there, then ask if it was OK to let them hear my CD. Often, I'd say no. Not because I thought my music wasn't good enough. On the contrary, I knew my music was good enough. But I had strong concerns about who exactly heard it. As it was bound to perhaps happen, Tammy, overrode my "No," and let a couple of people hear my CD that I asked her not to.

First, DJ Tony Touch. So I'm at home, working on some beats, and Tammy calls. She tells me that not only did she let DJ Tony Touch hear my CD (against my wishes), but that he asked to have it and she let him "hold" it. Before I could erupt with anger, she goes on to tell me that Tony Touch told her to tell me that my song, "Milk is a MONSTER!" and that he would be placing it on his upcoming mixtape. This was pivotal news for several reasons: (1) This was the first time that a known and respected hip hop/rap music insider had validated my music; (2) That he was willing to place my song on his mixtape (free of charge), meant that he really did believe it was a monster; and (3) DJ Tony Touch's reaction was the exact sort of reaction that I anticipated (hoped for) from a respected hip hop/rap insider. Taking a cue from DJ Tony Touch's co-sign, I didn't bother to wait for any more validation; instead, I went to work and made ten new songs. Together with "Milk," these songs would become my first album, Soul Review.

Several months after Soul Review had been out, catching some street buzz in New York (mostly in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx), I get a call from Marcus Logan, then VP of Marketing at Arista/Star Trak Entertainment. After a series of phone conferences, Logan informs me that he's worked up three deals for me: (1) An album deal with Arista; (2) A single deal with Motown; and (3) A development deal with Artist Direct that would land significant upfront money. Rather than pursue any of those opportunities presented to me, I told Logan that I was no longer interested in obtaining a major label deal. Thus, I had opted for a path of my own, an independent path. (My ultimate goal was to make music on my own terms, write books, and start a publishing company to give other writers opportunities.) After one last phone conference, in which Logan tried to tell me that I was making a big mistake, and in which I thanked him for all that he done and tried to do for me, I walked away from those opportunities. After that, Marcus Logan and I never spoke again. And I went on to sell out every copy of my album, without any marketing team, promotion, or major label backing.

Two years later, at my request and encouragement, Tammy met with Logan in his office. She presented him with a copy of the Third Edition of my book The BeatTips Manual. Because he had once sincerely believed in me and my music, I had wanted to repay him by including him with my plans for BeatTips. However, whether he had been put off by me turning down the offers that he had worked to get for me, or he had simply found no merit in what I was doing, he showed little interest in being involved, and further advised that, "Without any big names attached to the book, it wouldn't sell."

There's one more thing about this time. Tammy again gave a copy of Soul Review to someone against my wishes. Perhaps because I'd gotten mad at her for letting some people hear the early version of the album, or maybe because she simply forgot, whatever the case, it wasn't until three years later (around 2004) that she told me that Just Blaze had told her to tell me to "Give him a call!" A missed opportunity? Perhaps. (To this day, Tammy still feels bad about not immediately relaying Just's message to me.) But funny how things turn out, Just and I would meet some years later and eventually have two pivotal business meetings. He's one of only a handful of people in the music business that I respect and trust.

Today, The BeatTips Manual is available in it's Sixth Edition, and it has been bought, read, and used by people and featured at schools all over the world. It includes exclusive interviews with DJ Premier, DJ Toomp, and 9th Wonder, just to name a few; it offers rare, in-depth knowledge on every aspect from history to instruction and process to business; and it has become the cornerstone of beatmaking education for countless beatmakers (producers).

When I turned down opportunities that were presented to me 16 years ago, it was an informed decision with the thought of future growth in mind. What I've always aimed to do with The BeatTips Manual and The Art of Sampling is to help people do the same: Make informed decisions and grow.

The BeatTips Manual by Amir Said (Sa'id).
"The most trusted name in beatmaking."

March 21, 2016

Think Outside the Box for Custom Snare Sounds

Presets Get the Job Done, But Customized Sounds Help You Create Your Own Style and Sound


An exclusive excerpt from The BeatTips Manual, 6th Edition by Amir Said (Sa'id)

You know the deal: drum sounds are fundamental. Whether you’ve made your 10th or 1,000th beat this week, you’ve learned the importance of dope drum sounds. And when it comes to drum sounds, you can get away with a limited number of non-descript kicks. But without a distinct group of snare sounds, your beats might suffer. Why? Because since the advent of the MPC 2000, widespread sample packs, and software programs galore, many beatmakers have taken to using the exact same stock snares. And, in the process, they’ve decreased the chance of giving their beats a distinctive sound.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There have been some beatmakers who have been able to get away with rocking one or two snares. But in those cases (most of the time), the snares have been cultivated to an ultimate level of distinction, a level in which they work almost with any non-drum arrangement. Keep in mind, however, in order to arrive at such snare sounds, some level of customization had to have gone on previously. So in this BeatTip, I want to discuss some different methods for customizing snares. Some of which were taught to me and some of which I developed on my own.

The first set of snare sounds that I ever customized were part of a classic rock kit (on floppy disk) that came with the E-Mu SP 1200, the first drum machine/sampler I ever used. Some of the snares on the kit were OK, but they didn’t fit where I was trying to go sonically. So after finally recognizing that none of the snare sounds fit with the feel and style of music that I was going for, I went about customizing them. At the time, I didn’t have an analog mixing console to run my sounds through; therefore, I couldn’t easily boost up the bass (the low end) of the sounds I wanted to modify. I did have a dual cassette recorder and a lot of imagination, though.

So here’s what I did the first time I ever attempted to customize snare sounds. I recorded every snare sound that I had to cassette tape. Next, I dubbed (duplicated) them. After dubbing the sounds, I sampled them into my Akai S950. Once inside of the Akai S950, I was really able to get creative. It wasn’t that I couldn’t have chopped or filtered the sounds inside of my old SP 1200, I could have. It was just that the S950 gave me a different sound, plus I felt more comfortable working with its sampling functions than those on the SP-1200.

Next, I went around my room (at that time) with a Shure SM-58 live microphone sampling all sorts of sounds. I took a hammer and hit the bottom of a metal folding chair. I took a drum stick and rapped back and forth on a Nike sneaker box stuffed with socks (I sampled the sneaker box with and without the lid on; there was indeed a noticeable difference). Switching up between the hammer, the drum stick, and a wooden hanger, I hit the inside of a window pain. Needless to say, I sampled every sound that I could imagine, anything that I thought might be interesting. All of this sampling probably took me no more than 10 minutes, tops. By the way, I would also like to think that this process taught me more about acoustics, but I digress…

So having sampled this wide assortment of sounds, all in the same room, mind you, I went about “matching” the sounds with the cassette versions of E-Mu’s classic rock kit as well as several other snare sounds that I had. Incidentally, this was around the time that I first began to understand the process of layering sounds. Particularly, I was discovering the potential for layering, both as a means for customizing drum sounds as well as other sounds. I was also learning how layering could affect the overall texture and tenor of a beat. Not too long after that, I began applying these techniques to all of the drum sounds that I used. And after while, I stopped buying other peoples’ drum kits altogether and I started sampling drums from records and literally making my own drum sounds.

Special Note: Since I first began customizing my snare sounds, I have never used a pre-set drum sound as-is again. Although pre-set drum sounds undoubtedly serve a purpose (I have heard some pretty nice pre-set drums), I’ve always found that customizing your own sounds goes a long way in helping you carve out your own unique style and sound. Still, if I come across a pre-set drum sound that I like, I’ll use it. Of course, I modify it to make my own.

Short list of items great for customizing snares:

• Live microphone with an extended chord to allow you to move freely
around your space.

• A tambourine. Any percussion instrument you can pick up from a music store will help you customize your snare sounds as well create sound composites that are unique.

• A wood block.

• At least one drum stick. (You can use two in rapid succession on any hard surface. You’ll be surprised at what you can come up with after you filter and adjust the pitch on a sound created by two drum sticks.)

• A mallet and a hammer.

• A shaker.

• A real set of bongos are ideal but not absolutely necessary.

• A cassette tape player! Yes…they’re dirt cheap now, and they allow for connection back to the analog age (if that matters to you). Also, nobody will ever be able to duplicate your sounds if you’ve used some combination involving a cassette tape.

• Some sort of wooden board, maybe a chef ’s cutting board, something that you can strike with anything, like a bottom of a shoe, a mallet, a set of keys, a hockey puck, and, of course, a drum stick.

• Some studio foam.

The BeatTips Manual by Amir Said (Sa'id).
"The most trusted name in beatmaking."

January 15, 2015

United Beatmakers Guild (UBG): The BeatTips Proposal for a Beatmakers Union

Amid the beat market exchange, a growing number of talented beatmakers, and desperation beat prices, a beatmakers union holds the answer to a more powerful beatmaking community


In the preface of The BeatTips Manual, I point out that the fundamental purpose of the book (as well the BeatTips network of sites) is to preserve the beatmaking tradition. Moreover, I want to draw more attention to the fact that beatmaking, as a music compositional method, has increasingly become significant around the globe. Thus, in every way possible, I want The BeatTips Manual and BeatTips.com to take the rich heritage and traditions of beatmaking from out of the throws of obscurity, and to bring them front and center into the world of acclaimed musical processes.

In addition to this fundamental purpose, one of my main auxiliary goals for BeatTips is to have it serve as the catalyst for a beatmakers union. For more than twelve years, I’ve worked to help unify and expand the community of beatmakers. And while most beatmakers are steadfastly committed to their art and craft, many do not recognize that beatmaking (hip hop production) is also a powerful trade. Hence, I’ve been committed to raising attention to the artisanship of beatmaking, and I believe the advent of a beatmakers union is not only helpful in this regard, it’s necessary as the craft moves forward.

The Advent of a Beatmakers Union: The BeatTips UBG Proposal

In order to ensure the rights for a rapidly growing number of professional beatmakers, I strongly believe that beatmakers must unionize. The BeatTips proposal for a beatmakers union includes four main points or recommendations:

• I recommend that the name of the union be United Beatmakers Guild (UBG). In my view, beatmaker has always carried a much more significant tone. Beatmakers are the artisans of one of the world’s newest and fastest growing music traditions. As such, beatmaker is a term that’s distinguished from “producer,” which can and often does signifies something altogether different. Further, beatmaker represents a specific form and category of music producer; thus, I find it more befitting (and powerful) that a union bear the name beatmaker. Still, I recognize the ubiquitous nature of the term "producer," therefore, United Producers Guild (UPG) works as well.

• I recommend that UBG focus on three fundamental areas: (1) guaranteed labor contracts with the RIAA, comparable to those held with the American Federation of Musicians (incidentally, beatmakers should also be members of the AFM — beatmakers are indeed musicians, and the AFM should recognize this fact and expand their membership to include beatmakers); (2) a fair compensation system, which includes prompt delivery of payment, fair minimum beat prices, a tiered pricing scheme, and a formal system for assigning proper credits; and (3) standards and best practices — upholding beatmaking/production standards, quality control, and preserving the integrity of the beatmaking craft.

• I recommend that UBG be modeled, in as many ways as possible, on the Screen Actors Guild (SAG).

• I recommend that the majority — if not all — UBG executive leadership posts be held by actual beatmakers (producers). I further recommend that UBG not be lead by beat brokers or owners of similar cottage industry outlets. It is crucial that any beatmakers union not be co-opted by beat placement organizations, beat-broker types or outer-fringe producer managers. This group's argument will be that they have the connections and infrastructure already in place. But if their connections where so strong and infrastructure so undeniably solid, they'd have far more beatmakers (producers) using their services now; they'd also have a lot more influence in the music industry. In truth, they're middle men with minimal power in a world where essentially anyone can contact anyone. Also, this group has been vocal about encouraging non-sample-based beats over sample-based beats. Union leadership should represent beatmakers of both major production styles — sample-based and non-sample-based — and they should not favor one beatmaking style and sound over another regardless of the complexities that may arise from one production style.

• I recommend that membership be restricted to beatmakers/music producers of both major production styles — sample-based and non-sample based. Under no circumstances can anyone who is not, nor has never made beats (produced) be a member of UBG. Persons who are not beatmakers (producers) or have never made beats, for example so-called producer managers, beat brokers, etc. should only be affiliated as independent contractors (if need be), or they could perhaps serve as advisors for limited times (if need be). In some rare cases, proven producer managers could hold pivotal staff administration positions or executive positions if need be.

Understanding What UBG Would Look Like

To have a better understanding of what I envision for UBG, I thought that it would be helpful to share Uh-Oh Beats’ question to me on this matter, along with my detailed response. Here is Uh-Oh’s comments and questions to me in full:

I agree with the union idea. How does one go about entering the union though? Like when I think of a "union," I think of all them old white dudes my dad knows who get together and throw parties and do city work and etc., etc. And to get in the union you have to know someone in the union. Would it be similar to that? And what would be the driving points to get beatmakers to want to join? Because honestly, I would want to join if I was guaranteed $3000 a beat. But honestly, how many beats would I be selling? I’d be happy to get $1000 for a beat, hell to be honest, if someone gave me $500 I’d be amazed and jump all over it. So what’s to say struggling beatmakers with no connections other then the internet, what would be stopping them from going around the union? I think that's the main point of interest we have to look at and address to really make this happen. Because just the other day I sold five beats for $1000, which is the most money I've ever made off my music at one time. (The previous was five beats for $250.

I just find it so hard to sell beats as is, when I'm letting them go for $150 for exclusive and $50 to lease. (Frown upon me all you want lol. I love making beats and it’s that much better getting paid to do something I love. Gotta go cheap if you want to sell ANYTHING with the market so flooded). I can’t imagine honestly asking someone to pay $3000 for one unless their seriously established and working on a serious project.

But the union would also have to have a cap for the amount of members wouldn't it? and serious artists would go to the union for beats. but if there's so many members how would one go about even looking for beats within it?

Before getting into my full response to the concerns and questions raised by Uh-Oh, I have to provide some important context about beat prices themselves. First, the $3,000 price point that Uh-Oh kept referring to in his question comes from an earlier discussion on TBC where I discussed the reality and evolution of beat prices. For years, the legend has been that beatmakers in the 1990s were getting extremely high prices for beats; rumors of $25,000, $50,000, and even $100,000 beat prices were the norm and the sort of thing many budding beatmakers dreamed of obtaining one day. Legend aside, you can be sure that $100,000 for beats weren’t the norm for most beatmakers (producers) in the ‘90s or the early 2000s. As I discuss in more detail in The BeatTips Manual, some undoubtedly did receive upwards of $25,000 — but that was typically for multiple beats.

But the fact is — which labels and recording artists eventually came to realize — $25,000 has always been too much to pay for a beat in the first place. As I write in The BeatTips Manual, “Beatmaking is a new musical phenomenon, as such, the price parameters and ceiling was being set — in real time — in the 1990s. And what was the price parameters and ceiling for beats based on? Well, in many ways, the model for previous music producers. But after while, it became clear that not all beatmakers were actually in the studio with rappers "producing," helping out song ideas, vocal coaching, mixing, etc. As such, beat prices necessarily had to go down. Think about it: If a beat goes to a rapper, without the beatmaker's presence, well, then what you have is a situation were the "building materials" (the beat) are being bought wholesale. That is to say, the beat, without the beatmaker's input, should be less expensive. Add to that mix the fact that the number of able beatmakers grew exponentially over the pass 10 years, and what you get is a dramatic drop in beat prices. In other words, the beat market prices corrected themselves; it was inevitable.”

Second, some have blamed lower beat prices on poor record sales and illegal downloads, but poor music sales and illegal downloads are NOT the major culprit here; they’re not the reason that beat prices have gone down. Poor record sales and illegal downloads merely helped people to see the obvious: beats (not production services) were long overpriced and automatically presumed to be production services in a more traditional sense. Beat prices of $25,000 and above were unreasonable in the first place; it just took a little time for the market to correct itself.

Beat prices actually began to go down more quickly than people realize. By 1994, prices were steadily going down for most acclaimed beatmakers; only a specific few were able to command exorbitant beat prices and fees. Sure, the likes of Dr. Dre, Darkchild, Timbaland, and The Neptunes saw their prices go up; but they didn’t just supply beats, they supplied production services and a highly marketable brand name. But I’m sure they came down off of their prices as they saw their workloads being decreased. Why? It's simple: price point too high, and with no guaranteed hit, there were very few takers willing to absorb the risk or blow to their decreased recording budgets. Many recording artists wised up and started looking elsewhere for new talent, quality production (sometimes even knock-off sounds), and lower prices.

Thus, the true market price range for quality beats has, in reality, always been roughly $3,000-$7,000 per beat (lower obviously for less established names). A product always goes for what the market is willing to bear. While the market was unsure, beat prices were high; once there was more clarity in the market — about the product, about what one was actually getting for their money, about the growing number of qualified beatmakers — the market corrected itself. And consider this fact: In most cases, between 1989-1999, the bigger beat price tags for most acclaimed beatmakers typically covered multiple flat-rate beat deals, usually 3-8 beats (plus in-studio work) or the entire album depending on the beatmaker and the specific rapper or other artist involved. (In my interviews with Marley Marl, DJ Premier, and DJ Toomp, each made this clear about the nature and negotiations of beat prices.)

Here, I’ll provide my full response to the concerns and questions raised by Uh-Oh:

(1) “When I think of a 'union,' I think of all them old white dudes my dad knows who get together and throw parties and do city work and etc.”

There are a number of different unions, but essentially all "worker unions" share two primary goals for its members: fair wages and better labor conditions. The labor union that you're probably most familiar with is in the vein of an auto/trucking union, or city workers union, something along those lines. A musicians union — which is what a beatmakers union would be — is a creative arts-based union. Just like any other union, there are rotating wage concerns and labor situations. A beatmakers union would seek to secure better wages for ALL members as well as better labor conditions. A beatmakers union would guarantee a minimum sell price, the selling floor.

Also, a union would guarantee a top tier payment scale, both based on beatmaker status (name recognition and number of commercial releases) and the magnitude of the project; for instance, big-time major or indie commercial releases, free mixtapes, etc. In terms of UBG, there would be a standard fee, which is union scale. Then there would be a graduated scale fee, or better said, a “veteran's minimum.” The veteran's minimum would be calculated on a beatmakers overall presence/time/significance in the field. Point is, it wouldn't matter simply “how long” some one’s been around. There are many beatmakers who have been around for 15 years, that doesn’t mean that they've had much of an impact on the hip hop/rap and/or beatmaking traditions.

Membership in a creative arts-based union is different than, let's say, the UAW (United Auto Workers). Union membership is NOT fundamentally based on "who you know." Instead, membership is based on your actual professional work. For instance, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) is a union for professional actors. SAG has feature film, indie film, television commercial contracts, etc. What gets you into SAG is your first SAG sanctioned gig. So let’s say you go to an open audition for an upcoming feature film. Whether you’ve acted before or not, if you get the role, you automatically have to becaome a member of SAG; if you do not join SAG before principle shooting begins, then the producers (the studio) are restricted from using you in the role if it’s a SAG sanctioned feature. Once you’re a member of SAG, you get a notice about the initial SAG entry fee and subsequent dues, which is based on a small percentage of your annual earnings.

Now, the very important thing to understand here about SAG is that they’ve already worked out the “starting point” for all of its members. That is to say, because of SAG, there is a minimum day rate (paid rate per each day) that ALL actors must get, based on the type and size — big budget feature, small budget feature, indie, etc. — of the film. This also includes labor conditions that must be met, for example: personal trailers for principle actors, guaranteed work breaks, guaranteed overtime pay, guaranteed lunch breaks and food, transportation, etc. Before there was an actors union, NONE OF THIS was guaranteed! Movie studios could, and routinely did, pay an actor whatever they wanted. In fact, before SAG, motion picture studios would sign actors to long-term, draconian contracts, loaning the actors out to other studios as they chose.

Further, because SAG has jurisdiction over so many areas, film/television production companies face hefty fines when they use a non-union member for a SAG-sanctioned project. Thus, film/television companies do not mess around with this, they ONLY use SAG members for SAG-sanctioned projects.

(2) “What would be the driving points to get beatmakers to join?”

That's easy: better wages, appropriate labor conditions, and the promise of more work.

(3) As for “getting around the union?”

As with SAG, if a beatmakers union secured the right agreements with major labels (RIAA) and indie labels, jurisdiction would make it impossible for non-union members to get work on those projects sanctioned by the union. Point is: there's a bigger picture here. Of course, there will be selfish people who think that they can (and will) go it alone. But the reality is this: the number of professionally qualified new beatmakers is steadily growing. A beatmakers union is the best way to harness that power and create an environment for more beatmakers to consistently get paid for their work. If done right, every talented beatmaker would join the union, as opportunities outside of UBG would be minimal.

Incidentally, I believe now is the right time to move forward with a beatmakers union, because ALL labels are weakened, particularly in terms of leverage; they know anyone can make and distribute their own music. If a beatmakers union can demonstrate how it can help turn around the larger sales picture, labels will likely make a number of important concessions to a beatmakers union. Bottom line: The labels want (need) to make money. If an exclusive deal with a powerful beatmakers union helps them achieve that goal, they’ll be more than willing to work with UBG.

Keep in mind, in recent years, one of the major problems in hip hop/rap music has been quality control particularly in the area of beats. If a beatmakers union was powerful enough to show labels (big and small) that it was in their strategic advantage to do a deal with UBG, they would. Should the labels ignore such a powerful union, the alternative would mean that they’d have to compete with a united force of individuals who have much more influence over the internet and the streets than they do.

(4) “But the union would also have to have a cap for the amount of members wouldn't it?”

No! There’s no cap on the amount of new projects someone can think of, create, and distribute for commercial purposes. So why would there be a cap on the number of members in a beatmakers union? Again, entry into UBG would be based on a beatmakers contribution to a commercially released project or professional mixtape. This project could be a beatmaker's own commercially released project, even a free mixtape if was distributed to a large enough audience (not a mixtape that was just handed to a handful of friends); such a mixtape would have to have had garnered some widespread level of critical acclaim. But in the union I envision, all of the parameters of entry could not be determined by just one person. The metrics would be simple and automatic, with a streamlined process for registering with UBG.

(5) “If there’s so many members how would one go about even looking for beats within it?”

Each member would be registered with UBG, and labels and individuals could submit beat requests to what I would call the UBG’s “Beat Request Registry.” Each "BR" request would have a number and link to the actual request. ONLY members in good standing (meaning dues paid, no worker complaints, etc.) would have access to the BR filings.

It is my firm belief that a strong and united beatmakers union is the only way to assure decent beat prices and pay parity in the new beat market exchange, a phenomenon I detail in The BeatTips Manual. I’ve been calling for the creation of a union for beatmakers for over ten years now. In that time, the bottom-lines of some of the most well-known beatmakers (producers) have been pinched, and there’s been a tremendous rise in the number of talented beatmakers turning pro with different levels of production placements. Thus, right now is the time for serious strides towards a beatmakers union to be made. UBG can become a reality.

The BeatTips Manual by Amir Said (Sa'id).
"The most trusted name in beatmaking."

November 25, 2014

The Mainstream Isn’t the Boogeyman: Why the Mainstream Imbalance Argument Falls Flat

Party Music, Early 90s Music, Trap Music, and Awareness — More Than Anything Else, Personal Taste, Knowledge of the Art Form, and Individual Choice Determines the Style and Sound of Music that One Makes, Not the Mainstream


from left: DJ Tony Tone, LA Sunshine, and Charlie Chase — The gym of Taft High School in the South Bronx, ca. 1982 (Photo credit: Joe Conzo)

Departures from traditions usually lead to new traditions, which are themselves reimagined (repurposed and reworked) themes, tropes, and devices of the traditions from which they departed or forged themselves from. For some, this break from tradition is quite difficult to accept. For others, the changing or expanding of tradition is rather liberating.

In this light, some commentators prefer to summarize hip hop/rap’s current manifestation as the result of hip hop/rap having evolved and grown up. But hip hop/rap didn't "grow up," as some snobbishly argue. Hip hop/rap wasn't some immature kid wild in its youth and in need of growing up. Hip hop/rap has always thrived on a rough rawness as well as a level of polish; of course, the rawness being the more powerful of these two components. Not to be outdone by the evolutionists, there are other commentators who wax poetically about how far hip hop/rap music has fallen in recent years. But even here I take issue. While the overall quality of hip hop/rap has seen a decline in some areas, I believe that as hip hop/rap grew in popularity from its humble beginnings, it simply expanded, allowing for more regional and international voices to enter into (i.e. add to) the tradition. Ironically, or perhaps not, it is this expansion that has now largely led to the frustration of many who feel that the so-called real hip hop/rap has been overtaken by the artificial, supposedly less authentic hip hop/rap of the mainstream.

Nowhere does this frustration about the present-day state of hip hop/rap bubble up to the surface more than on Twitter, the ubiquitous social media website that countless people use for rather forgettable soap-box moments that are often dogmatic, authoritative, riddled with inaccuracies, and personal opinions or theories presented as fact. If you look at Twitter on any given day or night, you will notice that it can quickly descend into a forum for people (of different ages, races, ethnicities, gender, and levels of hip hop/rap knowledge) to rant about what's wrong with post-'90s hip hop/rap music. Often within these rants, you’ll find the “mainstream imbalance” argument put forth. This argument maintains that the biggest reason that hip hop/rap music is suffering right now is because of a lack of balance in the mainstream. Or, for some commentators, another way of (condescendingly) saying it is that there’s too much trap music in the mainstream and not enough “other” or alternative choices. I don’t subscribe to this argument because I believe that today’s mainstream actually has far much less influence than it did in the '90s.

The Narrowing of the Mainstream: More Choice Means Less Dependence

In the past 15 years or so, there’s been an explosion of choice in the marketplace. When it comes to music today, there’s more choice than ever! Individuals have much more freedom to directly choose the music that they want to hear, or for that matter ignore. This means that individuals have infinite control over what they hear and how and when they hear it. Also, there’s been a noticeable decline in the power of the radio. While not entirely dead, substantially fewer people tune into the radio for their music consumption and recommendations. Right now, there’s a wide variety of outlets for listeners to consume, discover, and learn about both new and old music. For many people, the web has displaced the role that radio and television has traditionally played. Currently, there’s much less of a dependence on the radio and television — the primary vehicles of the mainstream — for guidance because people can get their cues and recommendations elsewhere, like from various new music targeted websites, music service providers, and, of course, their growing peer networks via social media. Whether an individual takes advantage of this unprecedented level of choice is not the fault of the mainstream.

Certainly, with the abundance of choice came the narrowing of the mainstream. And this makes perfect sense. As overall product choice increases, mainstream product offerings — i.e. those products overtly intended for mass appeal — naturally contract. This is because those with the strongest marketing power, the biggest promotional sway in the marketplace, and the greatest control over manufacturing and the channels of distribution want to ensure the success of the products in their orbit. Thus, they hope to achieve this by limiting what actually gets pushed in the marketplace. Think in terms of physical shelf space in a store. There’s only so much space for products to be placed on the shelves at Walmart, Target, or Best Buy; so those products with mass appeal, i.e. those with the most widespread recognition and the greater chance of selling, get the shelf space. Or think about when the radio only plays a certain number of (the same) songs everyday. That practice isn’t based on a vendetta against a balanced mainstream, it’s a business model designed to control the market space and ensure “hits.” If radio stations and their programmers (or music television shows and their producers) believed that balance in their programming would ensure hits and greater profitability, they’d do it. But that’s not the philosophy that many radio stations believe in. They understand the widespread contraction in the mainstream; more importantly, they understand the nature of today’s fractionalized media. In other words, precisely because there’s so much choice and actual variety, they’ve decided to narrow the music that they put into their rotation.

Still, it must not be forgotten that products gain “mass appeal” for different reasons. Let’s also remember that mass appeal simply means something that appeals to the masses, i.e. a great mass of people. Smartphones have mass appeal; mid-sized SUVs have mass appeal; running sneakers have mass appeal. All three are mainstream products (albeit without the emotional weight of music) and each may have their opponents, but none of them are inherently bad. But in the hip hop/rap music scene of today, just the mere idea of mass appeal is often taken by many to mean something that is inherently bad. Of course, the cover for some commentators who have this opinion is that they’re merely referencing the imbalance in the mainstream.

Thus, this is a dangerous side effect of the mainstream imbalance argument: an implication that anything that’s truly good in hip hop/rap music can’t or shouldn’t really have mass appeal or mainstream recognition even though it deserves it. In fact, there are many people who fundamentally believe that real hip hop/rap music isn’t really meant for the masses; the idea of who true hip hop/rap music is meant for has long had traction. Bizarre, I know. This is obviously counter to what you think many opponents of the mainstream would want. After all, isn’t part of their argument that the mainstream suffers from imbalance, that it needs more variety, presumably more of the kind of hip hop/rap music that’s inline with their taste? Yet, as soon as someone break throughs to the mainstream from the underground, there’s often a backlash from previous supporters who are upset that their favorites are now mainstream, or rather less exclusive.

But I see no irony here because there’s also a sense of elitist pride and authoritativeness that can be deducted from all of this. Just as there are some people who want to be known for and take pride in how much they love hip hop, or being among the first to hear or recognize a new hip hop/rap artist, etc., there are a number of hip hop/rap music writers who want their taste in hip hop/rap music and their “first-to-be-up-on-it” credentials to be recognized. This is akin to the “Anti-tastemaker/But I want to be known as a tastemaker” duality, where one loudly exclaims rejection of tastemakers and tastemaking, but all the while they write, not to just inform but to presumably develop a following — a following that just might make them one of the tastemakers. Perhaps this pursuit of covert (overt) tastemaker status is all about helping to bring more balance to the mainstream, no?

The Mainstream is Not Responsible for the Music that Individuals Choose to Create

Still, I get the point: I acknowledge that there’s an imbalance in the mainstream. But I’m less interested in the obvious. I’m more interested in exploring the overlooked root causes for this imbalance, not lamenting about the imbalance itself. For me, the cause for this imbalance begins with the style and sound of hip hop/rap individuals choose to make. I don’t see the mainstream as some evil boogeyman who’s responsible for getting people to make lousy hip hop/rap music; nor do I see the mainstream as inherently incapable of inspiring anyone to offer up anything good.

Music makers, like all artists, make choices based on their personal taste and knowledge of their art form, as well as their individual purpose for creating art. When you get right down to it, all artists create because they are driven to do so. The extent to which this drive comes from creative compulsion, recognition and fame, or financial profit has as much to do with why and what artists create as anything else. While there are some music makers who will preach that they are “not in it for the money,” there are others who are unabashedly focused on making a profit from their creative labor. Does the former stand on higher creative or moral ground than the latter? All things considered, the mainstream, just like the underground, is a construct, a path that music makers reconcile with their music tastes, knowledge, level of creativity, and purpose.

For this reason, I believe people should be held accountable, not a category. The mainstream isn’t a person, it’s not an entity, it’s not a publication — it’s not something you can complain to. In entertainment, “mainstream” is a generic descriptor typically used to distinguish something that’s high concept, common among the masses, built primarily for profit, and/or popularly well-known. In truth, however, mainstream need not be any of things because there are no hard rules about what gets to crossover into the mainstream; however, notoriety, i.e. mass awareness, seems to be the one constant underlying factor. Once the masses become aware of a product and they engage with it, the product becomes mainstream. In other words, awareness has great power. Focus more on awareness or how to create better awareness about alternative music, and focus less on highlighting the imbalance in the mainstream. Isn’t that the most effective way of actually adding more balance to the mainstream?

But for the loudest mainstream-imbalance proponents, it’s always the mainstream that’s mostly to blame for what’s wrong with, or missing in, hip hop/rap music today. What also can’t be ignored is that some proponents often imply that reaching for a spot in the mainstream is bad, but holding a spot in the underground is good and noble. I don’t see anything wrong with an artist seeking mass appeal or underground critical acclaim, both pursuits are valid. Whether or not any of those who propagate the mainstream imbalance argument would describe themselves as purists, experts, or life-time hip hop/rap fans is of no concern to me. But what does concern me is the tendency for many of them to twist, misrepresent, romanticize, ignore, understate, and overstate key components of hip hop history (all the while predictably blaming the “mainstream” itself as the culprit for it’s own imbalance). And three such components that routinely get butchered in these rants are party music, early '90s music, and trap music.

Cold Crush Brothers Performing at Harlem World, ca. 1983 (Photo credit: Joe Conzo)

Regarding Tradition, Personal Taste, and Individual Choice

Party music in hip hop is tradition, so it’s not a phenomenon that should be discussed or dismissed lightly. However, some commentators prefer to romanticize the early roots of hip hop and present it as a consciously political movement right from the very start. While the socio-economic reality of the backdrop of hip hop is rife with complexities, including issues of poverty, crime, violence, street gang culture, and urban renewal, the notion that the earliest pioneers and practitioners of hip hop were “political” — in every aspect of the well-understood sense of the word — is way off mark. From the onset of hip hop in the early 1970s (late 1960s if you count the significant role graffiti writers played), prior to studio recorded hip hop/rap music, party music was the driving force (in The BeatTips Manual, I cover the roles that party music played, as well as the early history of hip hop culture in great depth and detail). Whether someone rapped a nursery style rhyme of braggadocia or a cursory tale about life in the streets, most rappers of hip hop’s first golden era ( ca. 1973-1979) deliberately made music to be enjoyed at parties, i.e. park jams, rec centers, clubs, lounges. Even when lyricism expanded, both in terms of content and mechanics, party music — and its significance — did not wane.

Yet some commentators would have you believe that real hip hop/rap, early hip hop/rap music, was all but devoid of anyone with questionable integrity; devoid of anyone who dumbed down their music; devoid of silly rhymes or schemes to get attention; devoid of any obvious celebration of money and material things; that the purpose of all of the earliest hip hop architects was only pure love, nothing else. While there was certainly far less money in hip hop/rap before it hit the studio, there was still plenty of compensation in the form of prestige, fame, and women — and many early hip hop practitioners saw party music as means to obtaining all three! Today, many music makers still see party music — which is basically what most trap music tends to be — as viable means to prestige, fame, women, and money.

On one hand, you can blame some commentators’ romanticism on their skewed view of hip hop history, which sometimes seems to be based on incomplete research, conjecture, the inaccurate research of others, or dogmatic theories. I understand, but what’s great about researching early hip hop history is reading the interviews with some of the earliest practitioners, particularly their early interviews where they say — in their own words — what hip hop was about to them. The earliest published “hip hop” interviews — with the first musical architects of hip hop culture — emerge around 1983. Perhaps there are more interviews and coverage in existence, but hip hop seems to have gained no mainstream journalistic interest prior to 1983, save for coverage of 1979’s “Rapper’s Delight.” Further, the first hip hop interviews published in book form arrive in 1984. None of the interviewees (including Kool Herc, Grand Master Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Caz, and others), in either Rap Attack (Toop, 1984) or Hip Hop (Hager, 1984), make hip hop out to be a thing only done out of love. In fact, party music and money figure prominently in these interviews and first publications. Indeed, by the mid-1970s, hip hop DJs desired and expected to get paid; rappers followed after them. And by the late 1970s and early 1980s, disputes over money had lead to a number of rap groups breaking up. That’s not all for the love! But this also doesn’t mean that they didn’t love hip hop. Of course they loved hip hop, they just clearly wanted compensation and recognition; thus, they did those things that they thought would give them that.

On the other hand, you can blame some commentators’ romanticism about hip hop on the gift and curse of hip hop’s second golden era (ca. 1988-1995), which many wrongly consider to be hip hop’s only golden era — see the problem? The gift and curse of the late 1980s and early 1990s was that the hip hop/rap music tradition expanded to include an “art music” sub-tradition, a music meant for deeper observation, not just partying or dancing. Not coincidentally, this art music expansion coincided with the emergence of a number of key beatmaking pioneers. This was the gift. The curse was that the music of this period was deemed to be the only form of real hip hop/rap music. Prior to 1988, 15 years of hip hop/rap music and hip hop culture had already existed. Yet today, when something is said to be “that real hip hop shit,” the underlining meaning is that it's something that only echoes the early '90s or late 80s. Does this mean that hip hop/rap music from 1973 to 1979 was not real? This is an important question, as there were a number of sub-traditions in hip hop that one could draw parallels with today’s scene — none more noticeable than party music and the motives behind it.

To be certain, hip hop/rap is a music tradition that contains a number of different sub-traditions. Depending on who you ask, it is the disdain for some post-90s traditions — namely trap music and some of the lyrical dimensions that typically accompany it — that irritate many people. Incidentally, I wonder if any of the mainstream imbalance proponents ever go to clubs, where today’s mainstream often shares some of its glory with hip hop/rap classics from the past and new tunes on the come up. If they do boycott clubs, such an anti-club or club-music stance is ironic: Clubs have always been an important staple of hip hop culture. Nonetheless, before I go further, it's worth pointing out that not all '90s inspired hip hop/rap is good or useful; conversely, not all trap music is terrible or useless. If you disagree with this simple premise, i.e. if you believe that ALL '90s inspired hip hop/rap is good and ALL trap music is bad, then it's likely your view of hip hop/rap music is much more narrow than you think. Remember: Hip hop’s second Golden Era begins roughly 10 years after it’s first one ended in 1979. So which era’s really real?

DJ Toomp at his production studio in Atlanta (Photo credit: Amir Said)

Usually in music, what's beautiful to most is what's familiar to them, the thing that they already know, the thing they recognize; and it usually follows that what's ugly and distasteful to them is what can't fit into their expectation of what something should sound like. In the latter scenario, one can dismiss an entire aesthetic simply because it doesn't subscribe to what one already likes. And that's fine. What can be problematic, however, is when one demonizes the entire aesthetic itself. This is often the case with trap music. That they are merely railing against so-called mainstream hip hop/rap music or the “lack of balance" in mainstream hip hop/rap music is the common pretext for some peoples' opposition to trap music. But when you consider the decreased importance of radio and the reality that there is now a limitless number of ways to choose, consume, and find new music, the mainstream imbalance argument seems antiquated.

The issue isn't with the trap music sub-tradition itself; although, unfortunately, there are some who routinely argue that trap music isn't "real" hip hop. The issue relies with personal responsibility. Trap music doesn't make beatmakers (producers) or rappers hold back creativity. DJ Toomp has a catalog of great stuff. Likewise, trap music doesn't force lyricists to dumb down their lyrics or their message. Big K.R.I.T. and T.I., artists from two different spectrums in terms of sales and notoriety, have proven capable of highly creative lyricism that is at times profound and at times fun and light. And while I find most (not all) trap music to either be run-of-the-mill, mindless, or uninspiring, I don’t think trap music itself is the culprit.


Proponents of the mainstream imbalance argument also want to ascribe a (big) share of the blame to the general hip hop/rap music press, in some cases specific bloggers. Now, while I do believe that hip hop/rap music criticism has declined in a number of areas (for instance, plenty of music reviews from a number of hip hop writers are more fanboy love letters than critical observation and insight), and that there are a number of dogmatic, know-it-all, and self-righteous music bloggers in hip hop/rap, I can't bring myself to blame them for the mainstream’s imbalance. That's because the decision to create music is a personal one. Just the same, what style and sound of hip hop/rap music one chooses to make is also a personal decision. As creative decisions in hip hop/rap music go, what someone chooses to do or not is always based upon four factors: (1) Personal taste, which is based on one’s creative influences and knowledge of the art form; (2) Current trends; (3) Past traditions and trends; and (4) purpose — either creative compulsion, recognition and fame, or financial gain.

The Problem with Creative Safety in Numbers

The beatmaking (hip hop production) community was not always as vast and accessible as it is now. Between 1979 (the year of the first studio recorded hip hop songs) and 1984, there were only a handful of music producers who specialized in hip hop production. And from 1985 to 1989, the list didn't swell. it wasn't until the early '90s that we saw a minor explosion in the number of dedicated beatmakers. It was also in the early '90s that we get our first glimpse of an actual beatmaking community. But this community was much less accessible than the present beatmaking community, mostly because the cost of production tools, lack of instructional and teaching materials, and, of course, the lack of a robust internet. Thus, the beatmaking community found it relatively easy to establish (non-written) metrics of quality and creative standards. In other words, the small number of beatmakers in the early '90s made it easier for the beatmaking community to police itself.

Fast forward two decades later, and the number of beatmakers — not to mention other music producers who dabble in hip hop — has swelled dramatically. While some may prematurely conclude that this is a bad thing, I think it’s good. There’s strength in numbers. But there are two main problems that have emerged with the rapid inclusion of scores of new beatmakers. First, a fundamental lack of knowledge of the art form, particularly its history. Most new beatmakers often overlook the musical and historical knowledge in pursuit of the instructional knowledge. This is one reason why YouTube beatmaking videos routinely make up the main educational regiment of vast numbers of new (and not-so new) beatmakers. And while a small number of these videos may be helpful (the majority hold little educational value) in teaching someone how to do some technical steps in a given music process, seemingly none of these videos offer extensive background understanding, historical context, or other critical education nuances. This creates an environment in which the ultimate goal is the pursuit of technical process, rather than the pursuit of beatmaking know-how and understanding. And this know-how and understanding only comes after you’re familiar with all of the spheres of beatmaking — the technical, the logical, and the creative spheres. That requires a lot more than just instruction on how to use a given piece of gear or how to perform a specific process. (For a more in-depth discussion of the three spheres of beatmaking, read The BeatTips Manual)

The second problem that a rapid swelling of the number of beatmakers has caused is creative cover or safety. With so many new beatmakers, it’s hard for there to be any real self-policing. Instead of creative standards and quality metrics being a key goal of many new beatmakers, we now have a little league baseball atmosphere, where everyone gets to play and no one’s beats are ever bad, it’s just someone else’s opinion, or someone’s just hating. In this atmosphere, as long as you’re doing the same bare minimum technical things, you’re creatively safe. This is certainly the case with regards to trap music because trap music has a low barrier of entry, especially knowledge-wise. Some of the most popular trap music is very sparse, nothing more than an 808 kick drum-led arrangement and a couple of sounds. I’ve often described this tier of trap music as almost anti-music because there’s not much really going on in the beat. But never mind that there’s different degrees of quality and complexity when it comes to trap music beats (and rhymes), the only thing that matters to lots of new beatmakers who pursue this style and sound is that they can make trap music. And again, because the threshold for what constitutes trap music is so low, these beatmakers can take comfort in the creative cover (safety) that exists by the sheer number of beatmakers doing the exact same thing.

Conversely, the sample-based East Coast/New York rap sound, whether you like it or not, has a higher barrier of entry knowledge-wise. The art of sampling isn’t something easily picked up; you don’t get a sampler and some records one day, then make something dope or even decent the next. On the other hand, to make entry-level trap music one can simply tinker around with some 808 sounds and come up with something passable. Note: This is entry level trap music; but entry level trap music still has its support! Entry level sampling requires a bit more knowledge and experience, particularly in the areas of chopping, arrangement, and drum programming. Also, there’s not the same level of creative cover (safety) in sampling because there are still clear metrics about what is decent in sampling.

There Are Some Music Makers Who Simply Want Mass Appeal, and There Are Some Who Don’t

Finally, there’s the nationwide populous appeal of trap music. It’s not difficult to hear what the current national sound is; both new and veteran beatmakers (and rappers) can see what the mainstream is primarily made of. As mentioned before, one’s purpose in making music is an important individual choice. Lots of music makers want mass appeal and everything that comes along with it. And for many, the quickest or most accessible path is to simply duplicate what the mainstream is already showcasing. Still, there are plenty of others who don’t want mass appeal, but instead, they want critical acclaim within a given niche or style and sound of hip hop/rap music.

Some simply want mass appeal and they’re only interested in what they believe to be the best way to get there. And while simply making a replica of what’s already out (tried formula though it may be) isn’t the guarantee that some believe it is, the mainstream — in the abstract — isn’t why someone makes one form of music over another. Again: Why someone chooses to make a given type of music boils down to: (1) Their personal taste, which is based on one’s creative influences and knowledge of the art form; (2) Current trends; (3) Past traditions and trends; and (4) Purpose — either creative compulsion, recognition and fame, or financial gain. But one can gain recognition, fame, and financial gain side-stepping the mainstream altogether. Unfortunately, many are simply unaware of that. Thus, I find that the biggest cause for today’s imbalanced mainstream isn’t the mainstream itself, but a widespread lack of either the will or desire among many individuals to do something outside of the mainstream’s safety zone. I think much of the blame for this can be placed on a huge lack of awareness — notably a lack of awareness of hip hop/rap history, a lack of awareness of alternatives modes to success, and a lack of awareness of just how varied hip hop/rap music can be.

To change (or expand) mainstream hip hop/rap, you have to change the conversation. Pull back the curtains on the mainstream imbalance argument, and what you’ll find, at its core, is a conversation about contemporary music and the direction its gone in for the past two decades. The mainstream is an easy target; it’s the most visible apparatus in popular culture. But mainstream, abstractly speaking, isn’t the problem — it’s not the sickness, it’s the symptom. There will always be a mainstream. And what’s represented as a given mainstream will reflect the creative decisions of the groups of music makers, as well as the influence of the tastemakers, of the time. You want to change what’s represented as mainstream hip hop/rap music, i.e. add more balance to it? Well, aside from deepening media coverage of powerful alternatives, you have to change the music makers. Help make new music makers become more aware of the many different styles and sounds of hip hop/rap music, and help them become aware of hip hop’s long held emphasis on originality and innovation. Doing so will inevitably lead to a more balanced mainstream.

The BeatTips Manual by Amir Said (Sa'id).
"The most trusted name in beatmaking."

April 17, 2014

The Notorious Fair Use: Why New Sampling Case May be the Beginning of the End of the Infringement Shakedown

Amid Leroy Hutson's Infringement Accusations, the Will to Test Fair Use in the Courts Grows Stronger


It looks like the late Notorious B.I.G.’s impact on music may have a second act. Only this time, the impact will likely hold critical implications for sampling and U.S. copyright law. On March 31, 2014, in what was considered to be a preemptive lawsuit, the estate of Notorious B.I.G. filed for declaratory judgment in a California federal court, seeking relief that B.I.G’s 1994 song “The What” — off of the classic album Ready to Die — was not a copyright infringement of the 1974 song “Can’t Say Enough About Mom,” performed by Leroy Hutson (co-written by Hutson and Michael Hawkins). While the suit raised the issues of valid copyright ownership, statute of limitations, and the doctrine of laches (waiting too long to file the claim), and producer indemnification, it was the fair use claim that undoubtedly had many of those on both sides of the sampling and copyright law quandary closely watching how this case would turn out.

The Complaint

According to the complaint filed by lawyers on behalf of B.I.G.’s estate, Leroy Huston “began a campaign of accusations against Plaintiff [Christopher Wallace PKA ‘Notorious B.I.G.,’ ‘Biggie,’ and ‘Biggie Smalls’], claiming that the Recording [‘The What,’ produced by Easy Mo Bee and featuring Method Man] violated his alleged copyright in ‘Can’t Say Enough About Mom.’” The complaint describes Hutson’s “campaign of accusations” as having began in 2012, when lawyers for Hutson sent Bad Boy Records notice of alleged copyright infringement, and having included numerous requests for financial compensation (as much as 50% of all income attributable to the recording) and part ownership (also as much as 50%); each request routinely made with the accompanying threat of a copyright infringement lawsuit. [source case: Notorious B.I.G. LLC v Lee Hutson, 2:14-cv-02415 (3/31/14).]

In other words, Hutson repeatedly harassed Bad Boy Records (and Atlantic Records, Warner Music Group, and EMI), likely in an attempt to force a quick financial settlement in exchange for not filing a copyright infringement lawsuit for an uncleared sample of Hutson’s song. These “ongoing, intensifying, and ultimately baseless accusations,” especially Hutson’s recent (and second) attempt to get a “legal hold” placed on “all royalties of the Recording” and to put a stop to “all distribution of the album [Ready to Die],” are what prompted the estate of Notorious B.I.G. to file civil action for declaratory relief.

They Were Never Scared — the Law Was Always on Their Side

Rather than cave to the threat of a copyright infringement lawsuit and settle out of court (as the labels tend to do), the estate of Notorious B.I.G. retained an expert to help assist them in analysis and comparison of the two songs at question. Citing in the complaint their expert’s findings and including Easy Mo Bee’s (the producer of the B.I.G. track) meticulous, multidimensional description of how he composed “The What,” the estate of Notorious B.I.G. — which did not deny the actual sampling — asserted in the complaint that the “use has not violated any valid copyright interest held by” Hutson, and, more importantly, that the “use” is both “de minimis and fair use.” Thus, B.I.G.’s estate rejected the common infringement shakedown and balked at paying Mr. Hutson or assigning an owner percentage to him, particularly without first doing their own due diligence. Having done their due diligence, B.I.G.’s estate concluded that “The What” did not infringe upon “Can’t Say Enough About Mom,” and they demonstrated their preparedness to prove it in court. In other words, Hutson’s infringement shakedown attempt was thwarted mainly because the estate of Notorious B.I.G. was, unlike the labels and most established artists, never scared to affirm fair use.

Thing is, When determining unlawful appropriation, the courts engage in a substantial similarity analysis in which quantitative and qualitative factors are assessed. An allegedly infringing work is considered substantially similar when it is nearly indistinguishable from the copyrighted work it appropriated. Quantitative analysis examines whether the sample constituted a substantial portion of the appropriated work, NOT whether it made up a substantial portion of the allegedly infringing work. Qualitative analysis considers whether the sample (copied portion) is qualitatively important to the allegedly infringed work as a whole. This means how critical, qualitatively speaking, is the sample (copied portion) to the appropriated work, and as a whole, how similar are the allegedly infringing song and the song it sampled. In order to determine proof of substantial similarity in a copyright infringement case, the courts conduct a two-part test of extrinsic similarity and intrinsic similarity. The extrinsic test is objective in nature and requires the party who brought the infringement claim to identify specific criteria which it alleges have been copied. (For a more thorough understanding of fair use and a proper fair use analysis, please read my book The Art of Sampling.)

So at question were three things: 1) As a whole, how similar is “The What” and “Can’t Say Enough About Mom?;” 2) How critical, qualitatively speaking, is the sample (copied portion) to “Can’t Say Enough About Mom?;” and 3) Does “The What” sample a substantial portion of “Can’t Say Enough About Mom?” In my own analysis and comparison, I found no substantial similarity between “The What” and “Can’t Say Enough About Mom.” In fact, if there ever was a more clear cut case of fair use, I haven’t heard it. Quantitatively and qualitatively speaking, the sample is a 4-second snippet of a barely audible fade out that appears — only once on the entire 5:54 long song — at the 5:50 mark. This snippet is neither substantial to the melody, rhythm, chorus, or main theme of “Can’t Say Enough About Mom.” And even an “ordinary person” could tell that “Can’t Say Enough About Mom” is a song about a son’s tribute to his mother, wherein he repeatedly professes his love and respect for his mother. Whereas “The What” is a braggadocios song about a skeptical worldview (the hook says, “Fuck the World!...”) in which the protagonists praise the values of being independent, street wise, and well armed. Certainly, the estate of Notorious B.I.G. came to a similar conclusion in their own analysis.

Origins of the Infringement Shakedown, and Why Hutson thought He Could Threaten His Way to a Nice Financial Settlement

To truly understand how the “infringement shakedown” came to be, you must first look at Grand Upright v. Warner Bros. and Bridgeport v. Dimension Films, two landmark court cases involving sampling and copyright law. (I cover both cases in greater detail in my book The Art of Sampling.)

In Grand Upright Music, Ltd. v. Warner Bros. Records, Inc. (New York, 1991), songwriter/recording artist Gilbert O’Sullivan filed suit against recording artist Biz Markie and his then-record labels Warner Bros. Records and Cold Chillin’, charging that “Alone Again,” a song on Markie’s album I Need A Haircut, contained an unauthorized “digital sample” of O’Sullivan’s 1972 hit song “Alone Again (Naturally)." The court found that Biz Markie/Warner Bros., et. al had willfully committed copyright infringement, granted an injunction against Warner Bros. to prevent further copyright infringement of Grand Upright’s song “Alone Again,” and referred the defendants for criminal prosecution. But before sentencing, the parties settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.

Although the question of fair use was never raised in Grand Upright, after the court’s decision, many labels took a better-to-be-safe-than-sorry stance, insisting that all samples be cleared. More importantly, following Grand Upright, the art of sampling was, in effect, criminalized and assigned a stigma of “theft” and “piracy.” A stigma that still plagues the art of sampling today.

Bridgeport Music, Inc. v. Dimension Films (Tennessee, 2001) centered around the use of N.W.A.’s song “100 Miles and Runnin’” in the 1998 No Limit Films produced/Dimension Films distributed film “I Got The Hook Up.” For part of the creation of the song “100 Miles and Runnin’,” N.W.A. had sampled a small piece of Funkadelic’s song “Get Off Your Ass and Jam.” This was all done without Funkadelic’s permission and with no compensation paid to either Bridgeport Music, which at the time owned the publishing rights to Funkadelic’s music, or to Westbound Records, which at the time owned the sound recording copyright to “Get Off Your Ass and Jam.” Bridgeport Music, Westbound Records, and other plaintiffs filed suit against Dimension Films, et. al, claiming that “100 Miles and Runnin’” infringed on their copyright in the song “Get Off Your Ass and Jam.” Dimension Films/No Limit argued that the sample in question was de minimis (legally insubstantial), and therefore, it did not amount to actionable copying under copyright law. The district court found the de minimis defense to be appropriate, and granted summary judgment for Dimension Films/No Limit. However, the appeals court reversed the district court and ruled that sampling of a sound recording — regardless of length— was, in effect, unlawful without the permission of the copyright holder. "Get a license or do not sample…," the circuit court wrote, essentially making the outrageously ridiculous claim that any unlicensed sampling of a sound recording violates the copyright of the copyright holder.

BUT, it’s important to note that the circuit court did not consider fair use (as they should have) in their decision. In fact, the court expressly noted that its decision did not preclude the availability of a fair use defense, even in the context of sampling. Which implies that the court, despite its nonsensical ruling, actually recognized that some instances of sampling do qualify as fair use.

Since Grand Upright and Bridgeport, RIAA labels have sought to clear samples — no matter the nature of the use — rather than take the chance of being sued for copyright infringement; “sample trolls” like Bridgeport Music have gone wild with infringement suits; and just the threat of a copyright infringement lawsuit has prompted lopsided undue settlements. This has lead to a tepid approach to sampling by the RIAA labels and many music makers. In turn, an ad-hoc (mostly one-sided and useless) sample clearance system has emerged. But as I make clear in The Art of Sampling, clearance of all samples isn’t the law, it’s just become industry custom!

Mud and Deception on the Profile of Fair Use

The profile of the fair use doctrine has all but faded in the music industry, as the RIAA labels have demonstrated no will to test fair use in the courts. But the lack of will to test fair use in the courts isn’t surprising. When it comes to the question of sampling and fair use, the RIAA labels and many well-known music lawyers, notably Dina LaPolt, have long tried to discredit fair use, typically misrepresenting it and even attacking its very concept and role in U.S. copyright law. Of course, these attacks have not been born out by a proper reading of the fair use doctrine as it's codified in the U.S. code. Strikingly, LaPolt and other similar opponents of fair use routinely mis-define fair use: On one hand, overlooking the fact that fair use is a critical safeguard meant to protect against the expansion of the "limited monopoly" of copyright holders, and on the other hand, consistently describing fair use as nothing more than "JUST a defense," rather than a right of the public.

The Will to Test Fair Use in the Courts Continues to Grow

Whether the estate of the Notorious B.I.G. was simply shielding itself from any potential lawsuit from Leroy Hutson or aiming for some grander statement, I think it’s clear that this case, one way or the other, is a watershed moment in the history of the sampling and copyright law quandary. Notwithstanding the other issues raised in the filing, namely the validity of Hutson’s copyright ownership (sorry, a Wikipedia citing certainly does not establish Hutson’s copyright in a song), this is a perfect test case for sampling and fair use.

On April 2, 2014, two days after the estate of the Notorious B.I.G. filed their complaint, Hutson formally filed a lawsuit for copyright infringement in the U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, in Manhattan — Hutson et al v. The Estate of Christopher Wallace et al — against the estate of B.I.G., Bad Boy, EMI, Universal Music Group, and Warner Music Group. This New York case was stayed, pending a resolution of Hutson’s Motion to Dismiss the California case.

On July 3, 2014, the preemptive suit brought by the estate of Notorious B.I.G. was dismissed (as perhaps it should have been, given that the California court had no jurisdiction), and legal action continued to move forward in the New York court — where the estate of Notorious B.I.G. filed a motion to dismiss on September 5, 2014 — all the way up until October 24, 2014. On December 21, 2015, the New York court filed its decision, granting B.I.G.’s estate’s motion to dismiss.

However, none of the fair use issues raised by B.I.G.’s estate were addressed in the court’s decision. Instead, the court held that since Hutson could not prove ownership of the copyright in “Can’t Say Enough About Mom” (Hutson acknowledged a settlement that he made with Rhino and Warner Records in 2008 over Curtom Records recordings in which he granted copyright ownership of “Can’t Say Enough About Mom” and other recordings to Rhino), he lacked standing to sue B.I.G.’s estate for copyright infringement.

So what now? Does this mean that B.I.G.’s estate will face a lawsuit from Rhino for the same alleged infringement? I highly doubt it. But if they do, I can’t see the defense by B.I.G.’s being any different or less persuasive. So while Judge Sullivan didn’t get into the fair use issues that B.I.G.’s estate raised in its defense, this case is still important. For one thing, B.I.G.’s estate had the will to fight this copyright infringement lawsuit; their aggressive action will only serve to prompt others to do the same in the face of similar lawsuits. Second, and more importantly, the action taken by B.I.G.’s estate raises the profile of fair use and helps make the will to test fair use in other sampling/copyright infringement cases much stronger. I’ve long held that the infringement shakedowns in music sampling would end sooner or later. On the heels of this B.I.G. case (and the Jay-Z TufAmerica v. WB Music Corp. et al case, which I cover in the following section), it looks like the ending’s going to be much sooner.

The music and videos below are presented here for the purpose of scholarship.

The Notorious B.I.G. feat. Method Man – “The What” (Prod. by Easy Mo Bee)

Leroy Hutson - “Can't Say Enough About Mom<"


The BeatTips Manual by Sa'id.
"The most trusted name in beatmaking and hip hop/rap music education."

December 23, 2013

Stealth Drop: The Untold Lessons You Should Draw from DJ Premier's "Bars in the Booth" Launch and Beyoncé's Surprise Album Release

The New Reality About Marketing and Promotion Favors the Artist with a Core Base and Brand…and a Strong Signal


See what DJ Premier just did? On a random Thursday afternoon, without any advance notice or promotion, he debuts his new Youtube channel, “Premier Wuz Here,” highlighting it with the first installment of his new in-studio rhyme series, “Bars in the Booth,” featuring rapper Papoose. The reaction was swift. Cheers, shock, appreciation, and sincere praise abounded throughout social media. This was the stealth drop — something that Beyoncé had just pulled off on a much grander scale the week before.

It’s worth examining just why DJ Premier and Beyoncé — both pinnacles in their respective corners of the music industry — could successfully do what they did. Premier can do this for four main reasons. First, he's trusted. He has never left off making music for his core base. More importantly, he has never wavered from the cornerstone of hip hop/rap that he represents. Second, DJ Premier has always maintained a consistent level of creativity and a distinct style and sound. You go to Premier for his sound, and you know precisely what you’re going to get in terms of quality and credibility. Third, Premier has consistently sustained control over his own content and has always explored new ways to get his musical hand print into the world. From his early days of seeking and securing production work outside of Gang Starr, to the acquisition of the famed D&D Recording Studios (his studio home base for more than 20 years), to the start of his own record label, Year Round, Premier has remained self-contained and independently focused. Finally, DJ Premier is greatly respected among his peers and fans a like. No one can (or ever has) questioned his commitment to hip hop/rap music. Thus, taken together, these four factors make it possible for DJ Premier to pull off the stealth drop.

Of course, DJ Premier's launch is not an album release, nor is it within the larger spectrum of Beyoncé's stealth drop. Still, it's vital to Premier's continued prospects in a number of ways. For one thing, It serves to generate more good faith in the marketplace for the revered producer. Also, it keeps DJ Premier’s name fresh and in the now. Furthermore, it presents new revenue streams in the form channel sponsorships, the (inevitable) audio releases of "Bars in the Booth" episodes, and, of course, additional production work. I have to believe that this is planned long-term thinking, something that Premier has always been focused on.

Now, let's look at Beyoncé...

When Beyoncé recently released her new self-titled album — quite successfully — without any marketing, promotion, or advanced notice, she didn’t just buck the traditional marketing and promotion stratagems that surround new record releases, she exposed — like her husband, Jay Z did some months earlier with his Samsung partnership — the new reality about marketing and promotion in this era. Today, there is an abundance of choice, with an infinite number of channels to tune into and enjoy or be distracted by. This, as many scholars, marketers, and consumer analysts have all observed, has made for the constant turn over of volumes of new offerings that, because of the sheer numbers and indefinite tail of products, amount to noise.

Thus, with so much noise being generated, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for content creators to get their signal across. Which means, savvy artists (and marketers) are exploring ways to better make their signals cut through all the noise. And even though Beyoncé is a tier 1 entertainer, with all of the media benefits that such a position ensures, she still has to be able to make sure that her signal cuts through. Traditionally, this has meant turning over marketing and promotional control to people who usually defer to a stale (but often proven) stratagem — one that emphasizes a specific release date build-up and push above everything else.

Typically, releases for artists of Beyoncé’s stature feed off of a multi-month lead-time, where press — television, print, and digital media — is secured three months (at least) in advanced and planned for publication around the time of the official release date. By opting out of this tried and proven strategy, Beyoncé effectively shook up the marketing and promo clock and reversed the way coverage works, as no doubt media outlets will now have to scramble and compete to cover her album now that it’s been released.

So what can hip hop/rap artists (beatmakers/producers are artists as well) glean from all of this?

For starters, think about longevity and what it means to you. Recognize the fact that household names like DJ Premier and Beyoncé didn’t earn their stature overnight. So relax. Don’t split your focus into a thousand different trends, all in an effort to hedge those opportunities that may appear to promise overnight fame. Instead, stay committed to your own musical ideas and tastes and don’t waver. This doesn’t mean that you should avoid progress or the expansion of your style and sound. It means being true to your music. It also means staying off the path of fool’s-gold trends and unrealistic opportunities that do not align with your core sensibilities.

Another take away is that you should strive to create not just a quality product but a unique experience. While most of us do not have the resources to bundle videos together with every song on an album, we do have the ability to at least make something unique if we dare try. So it’s important to create something worthwhile, something that no one else can quite offer.

Next, it’s equally important to then deliver that product and experience quickly through channels of distribution that you have some level of control or influence over. The drip, drip, drip roll out of song leaks is anti-climatic in an era that’s quite fractious and teaming with lots of noise. Plus, consumers reward people, products, brands, and services that consistently prove themselves to be valuable. Countless, unnecessary song leaks leading up to an official album release can have averse effects. Listeners often get fatigued and sometimes even irritated by the constant asking to listen — remember, a leak isn’t entitled to a listen! And if you drip out one disappointing or just average song, you will actually discourage your core audience, as well as potential fans, from buying your album when it drops. In other words, leaking songs from your own album — especially an album that, despite puffed-up email blast claims, isn't really "highly anticipated" — is often not a solid marketing and promotion strategy. What’s worse? Dropping a free mixtape (of a dozen or so average songs no less) in the lead up to your promoted commercial release. Always remember: Listeners must be earned, not mistreated with multiple "leaks" for leak's sake.

Finally, even the self-title of Beyoncé’s new album brings something to mind. Don't name your album a "part 2" of an album you've done before unless the original (the part 1, per se) was widely known and well received. Otherwise, you might come off looking more like a status poser rather than an thoughtful artist. Part 2's of classics like, for instance, Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Links make creative and marketing sense because: (1) they represent reflections of pivotal albums and moments in hip hop/rap music history; (2) they offer insightful commentary on the current state of affairs of not just hip hop/rap itself, but of the artists who made such albums; and (3) they send a strong marketing and promotional signal of what to expect from the part 2 album, thereby rallying support from core fans.

DJ Premier and Beyoncé: A Deeper Connection

Look past the entertainer stardom and the music genres that separate the two, and you see the common threads that unite DJ Premier and Beyoncé. Both are household names in their respective music worlds. More telling is the paths that both have taken to achieve their stature. Neither are the invention of the overnight-sensation construct that so many seek in today's instant gratification and attention-span challenged media world. Instead, each started out among the rank and file, not positions of power and influence. And each overcame early adversity. DJ Premier's position in Gang Starr almost never was; the original group imploded when several of the founding members quit, leaving Guru to recruit Premier, who had seen his own group disband right on the brink of a record deal with Wild Pitch (read my exclusive interview with DJ Premier in The BeatTips Manual for the complete story). And Beyoncé withstood Destiny's Child’s (her former group) early slow start, struggle, member realignment, and ultimate reinvention. It’s also worth pointing out that both DJ Premier and Beyoncé stayed devoted to the core fan bases that they developed, effectively making the notion of longevity a crucial factor in their staying power.

The music and video below is presented for the purpose of scholarship.

DJ Premier's "Bars in the Booth: Papoose"

The BeatTips Manual by Sa'id.
"The most trusted name in beatmaking and hip hop/rap music education."

December 16, 2013

Kanye West Flips “Strange Fruit” for “Blood On the Leaves,” and There’s Nothing Wrong with That

Sampling in Hip Hop/Rap Need Not Be Politically Correct


First, it was “Blood on the Leaves.” Outrage from all over for how Kanye West appropriated Nina Simone’s heart wrenching rendition of “Strange Fruit,” a 1939 song about lynching (a song some today curiously describe as being sacred). Then, it was “Bound 2.” More group-think outrage about a decadent song and video which features a topless — and unapologetically erotic — Kim Kardashian, the mother of Kanye West’s daughter and his soon to be wife…

Typically, I avoid publishing commentary on matters like these, opting, at most, to share my brief thoughts among close friends and colleagues. That was my reaction when “Blood on the Leaves” was blasted by a broad swath of different people, all seemingly jockeying to prove just how distasteful “Blood on the Leaves” was. But wait: Hip hop/rap need not be politically correct to be dope. Sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself…
And more recently, that was my initial reaction to the “Bound 2” fall out, which was dismissed as old hat, in poor taste, and un-genius like, as well as parodied by James Franco and Seth Rogin. But what’s all the fuss about? A well-known, modern pop culture figure making pop art? Got it…

Now, before I continue, please let me preface the following by simply stating that I’m acutely aware of the history of lynching in the United States, as I am of the history of black American music and 20th century popular American music for that matter. I’m also adept at speaking about Colonial America, American slavery, and the Ante-bellum and Reconstruction Periods. That said, I’m also very aware of a number of different twentieth-century American popular music and cultural developments, in particular, the art of sampling in the hip hop/rap music tradition. And that is what I’d like to speak to.

The art of sampling in the hip hop/rap music tradition can be celebrated for a number of different reasons by music makers, fans, and scholars alike. But particularly for those who make sample-based beats or those in tune to hip hop’s power to convert anything to its own sensibility, the art of sampling is deeply celebrated for its power to reconceptualize, recontextualize, and repurpose sound recordings in ways that express the hip hop attitude, style, and feel. But that aside — if it can really be put to the side — for the moment, I get it: Some (maybe many) might disagree with Kanye West’s politics or, specifically in this case, his crass flexibility with one of the most profound black American songs of the 20th century. I get that. But whether you’re politically correct (allegedly), indifferent, or not too informed about the lynching and slave histories of the United States isn’t the point here.

Kanye West is pop artist. And by “pop” I mean popular, in the sense of what that word meant almost a half-century ago, not an underhanded way of saying lack of creativity or vision or worse still, today’s mainstream. Yes, Kanye West is a pop artist — one who’s pedigree is rooted deeply in the sampling tradition of hip hop/rap music. Does all of this buy him a pass? No. Does all of this excuse his appropriation of Nina Simone’s wonderful rendition of the beautifully dark and dreary “Strange Fruit?” No. But who said West needs a pass? And who says that he has to excuse himself from making use of his musical training, production skill set, or pop cultural influences and ideas? Moreover, who says he has to excuse himself or apologize for combining his training, skill set(s), and creativity in ways that he chooses, ways that he deems useful for exercising his imagination, emotions, or even observations — no matter how absurd — of culture and society?

Is Kanye West’s sampling of Nina Simone’s version of “Strange Fruit” vulgar? Perhaps. But then again, so is a lot of the sampling that makes up the hip hop/rap canon. Is West’s sampling of Simone’s version of “Strange Fruit” outrageous? Again, perhaps to some. But pop stars — especially those who are creatively capable and riding the high of decadent self-awareness, superficialness, and reality-t.v. like absurdity — are outrageous by the nature of the fame construct that they’ve created and are typically compelled to fuel. But, unlike many a pop star who’ve been lead by a thousand of wizards behind the curtain, this guy, Kanye West, knows his shit! Call him an asshole, say he’s arrogant, say he’s always looking for attention, tell him he’s a fake genius. He’s no doubt heard it all before. Still, the man is an artist. Or if you like, he’s an artiste. Again, that doesn’t give him a pass. But that also doesn’t mean he has to be bound by convention, especially when the art of sampling, by its nature, has the power to transform and reconceptualize convention. So, however you fancy him, Kanye West is a student of music history and music production (and, like it or not, pop culture). Which means, when it comes to the art of sampling, he’s schooled in the “cut”, the “rupture”, the “break”, the “sound-stab” and, of course, the (sped-up) “vocal sample”.

So is West’s use of Simone’s version of “Strange Fruit” shallow? Listen, if you’re critiquing “Blood on the Leaves” based on political science, or on the (misguided) notion that “Strange Fruit” is sacred, then maybe it is to you. Even as great and meaningful as it is, “Strange Fruit,” like any sound recording, is, in the end, source material to the sample-based musician. And one of the greatest traits that a sample-based musician or a rapper can have is objectivity. While I do not know if the idea for the song came before the beat was assembled or if the track was made prior to the beat, what is clear is that a piece of Simone’s vocals on “Strange Fruit” was flipped, sonically and conceptually, and transformed into something new. If you have a hard time with a talented, self-aware, outspoken, and vane music artist converting a line from one of Nina Simone’s better known recordings into a backdrop for rhyme-rants about 21st century bitch problems or the gaps of socio-economic status, cool. Maybe one of those cable talk shows can use your (useless) outrage. But don’t bother trying to describe “Blood on the Leaves” as a bad musical move, especially when you may not quite get the art of sampling.

Side note: I think Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” is one of the most important Black American songs ever recorded. And often, when pinned down for my single favorite song, any genre, I offer “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Yet, if Kanye West, or DJ Premier, or any other sample-based musician flips it well, more power to them. Because, you see, in hip hop/rap, whether we like the political correctness of a sample flip or not, if it sounds dope, it’s dope!

The BeatTips Manual by Sa'id.
"The most trusted name in beatmaking and hip hop/rap music education."

November 04, 2013

Why Do You Make Beats?

We All Have Our Own Reasons for Making Beats, But Being Clear and Upfront About them Goes a Long Way


Because you're compelled to create?
Because it helps you cope with life?
Because you want to make money?
Because you want to share ideas?
Because you want to provide fuel for other creative people?
Because you want to get girls?
Because you want to be one of the best who ever did it?
Because you want your musical voice heard?
Because it's the best way you know how to expess yourself?
Because it makes you feel good?
Because it keeps you sane?
Because it keeps you sober?
Because it's your best chance to avoid an office job?
Because it's an escape from your office job?
Because you're a better person when you make it?
Because you want to be part of the continuum of well-respected music makers?
Because you think today's music is lousy and you want to help change that?
Because you think today's music is great and you want to contribute that?
Because you want to go on tour?
Because you want a blog write-up?
Because it's what you were meant to do?
Because you bought all the gear to do it?
Because someone told you that you couldn't do it?
Because you can't see your existence without it?
Because you want to be a part of hip hop/rap culture?
Because it's your favorite hobby?
Because it's how you earn your living?
Because you like being told that you make dope beats?
Because it's the only good thing you know how to do?
Because it keeps you out of trouble?
Because it helps you with your other talents?
Because it's fun?
Because it's challenging?
Because it's cool?

Whatever your reason(s), be clear and honest about it. Only then will you be able to appreciate and deal with the consequences of your purpose(s).

The BeatTips Manual by Sa'id.
"The most trusted name in beatmaking and hip hop/rap music education."

October 28, 2013

Beats Made Per Week vs. Regimented Practice

Which is the Better Developmental Path for You?


Making a set number of beats per week has long been an activity well-represented among many beatmakers. Indeed, in the numerous interviews that I've conducted with beatmakers, many have told me about the sheer number of beats that they use to (and in some cases, still do) make or attempt to make per week. Moreover, the beats-made per-week quota has become so commonplace among beatmakers that it is now widely seen as a natural link to the development of beatmaking skill. But does the sheer maintenance of a specific quantity of beats made per week actually guarantee a deeper skill for beatmaking?

I suspect that a commitment to such a formula does generate a legitimate level of proficiency—not necessarily great skill—in beatmaking, particularly in terms of actually completing a beat. However, I wonder if this proficiency in “beat completion,” if you will, actually translates to a higher quality (and better understanding) of beats. For some, I think so. Still, for most, I’m not entirely convinced that it does.

Hear me out. Let’s say you make 20 beats per week. If you maintain that level of output, by year’s end, you will have made over a thousand beats. Does this mean that at year’s end, your sum total of beats made is an accurate measurement of your development as a beatmaker? Well, of course, in some ways it does. But I've never been comfortable with evaluating my development based on the quantity of my production output, but rather the quality of my production output, and more importantly, the individual breakthroughs (conceptual understanding, method mastery, etc.) that I experienced amid regularly scheduled practice sessions.

In fact, in regards to a developmental path for beatmakers, I believe that maintaining a strict per week beat quota raises more questions than it answers. For instance, does a rigorous schedule of beats made per week correct your beatmaking deficiencies? Let’s say you have difficulty with programming drums. Will making 20 beats per week correct that problem of yours? It might, but then again, not necessarily. For me, the most effective way to correct any deficiency, whether it be drum programming or any other process, is to hold isolated practice sessions wherein you work on nothing but correcting that deficiency. Such a dedicated drum programming practice session could be 30 minutes of studying the drum programming (patterns) of those beatmakers (producers) whose beats you admire most. And this could be followed up by another 30 minutes of sketching out your own drum patterns, using the ideas and understanding that you've gleamed from your study. I find that this kind of dedicated practice offers more promise than arbitrary beats-made-per-week quotas.

And what about those things that you do well as a beatmaker? Does a beats-made-per-week quota help you recognize the things that you do best? Again, for some, I'm sure it does to a certain degree. After all, one advantage of completing an arsenal of beats each week is that it allows you to survey, study, and audit your own style and sound. Still, I also believe that regular regimented practice sessions also help you to identify the better elements and characteristics of your beatmaking style and sound.

Thus, in my final analysis, I'd say that there's value in both approaches. I do believe that maintaining some sort of beats-made-per-week quota is beneficial. However, I caution that the maintenance of any such quota, without regular regimented practices, is far less beneficial. Indeed, practice in beatmaking, as with any other music process, is always necessary. No matter how developed you may be as a beatmaker, it's important to continue to sharpen your skills. And by this I mean, practice without the intent of always creating a new beat, but instead, the intent of furthering your skill and understanding of the multiple processes of beatmaking as well as music in general.

The BeatTips Manual by Sa'id.
"The most trusted name in beatmaking and hip hop/rap music education."

Dedicated to exploring the art of beatmaking in all of its glory.

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