The Fine Line Between Creation and Theft: An Exploration of “Originality” in Digitally Manipulated Music

Essential Question

What makes a work of art “original,” and how does the use of “sampling” technology in Hip Hop challenge perceptions of “originality”?


The act of sampling, or using a piece of an existing recording as part of a new recording, has been essential to Hip Hop musicians and producers since the genre’s inception in the 1970s. First in the Bronx, and soon after in other boroughs of New York City, DJs used turntables to spin records, combine songs, and scratch rhythms entertaining audiences in public spaces as well as dance clubs. Pioneering DJs such as DJ Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash noticed that, among other things, dancers preferred the instrumental “breaks”–sections that usually featured just drums and bass–in certain records, so they developed techniques using two turntables to extend these sections. These “breaks” also provided the background music for early rappers, the MCs. In 1979, the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” became the first popular song to contain rapping and, in some form, sampling. Hired by veteran musician and pioneering rap producer Sylvia Robinson, the Sugar Hill Records house band performed a “break” live by extending a short section of Chic’s “Good Times” as an instrumental backdrop for the Sugarhill Gang’s raps. Over the early 1980s, as Hip Hop became a fixture in American popular music, producers made use of live bands but, more often,  began to incorporate the emerging digital technology of drum machines and samplers.

By the mid-1980s, drum machines and digital keyboards were embraced wholeheartedly by Hip Hop producers, for whom building tracks with these devices largely replaced recording with live bands. Early digital samplers were large, difficult to use and prohibitively expensive to most Hip Hop producers. New, more affordable, smaller samplers arrived in 1986-7 and were embraced by producers, quickly leading to a conceptual shift in what it meant to “play a break.” Machines such as the E-mu SP-12 allowed users to “sample” up to 1.2 seconds of existing recordings and then play them back in new ways, often “looping” those short segments into something longer. Though samplers were introduced initially as a means to record short sounds for digital keyboards, Hip Hop producers discovered they were useful for something different: snatching bits of existing records–drum beats, vocal lines, spoken words–to be reconfigured in sonic collages. Sampling became the centerpiece of Hip Hop production–albums such as Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and The Beastie Boys Paul’s Boutique are layered with dozens of samples–and a major facet of what many consider the genre’s “Golden Age” in the late 80s and early 90s. Much as they had done with turntables a decade earlier, Hip Hop creators turned a technology on its head, using it creatively in a way its makers never fully intended.

When Hip Hop was something mostly confined to the nation’s inner cities and not the commercial force it would become, the practice of sampling bits and pieces of music from copyrighted recordings was largely ignored by record labels and their legal teams. But as rap recordings and the broader culture of Hip Hop gained popularity and began to generate sizable revenue in the U.S., inevitably the questions of rights and remuneration arose. In 1989 members of The Turtles filed suit against rap group De La Soul and their Tommy Boy record label for the use of several seconds of the 1969 recording “You Showed Me.” The case, which was settled out of court but resulted in a $1.7 million dollar payout for The Turtles, established sampling as big business and led many people to ask the question: “What makes something original”? To some ears, De La Soul had created something altogether new with the Turtles’ recording. Others felt differently.

As it relates to art and music, “originality” has come to be viewed by many as a slippery concept. There are those who argue that no artist creates in a vacuum; musicians, writers and painters have always been influenced by other artists, drawing on their work as source material. Some have argued that musicians like Led Zeppelin were “stealing” because of their appropriation of American Blues riffs and vocal themes. And again, though De La Soul used a digital copy of a section of The Turtles’ “You Show Me” in their recording “Transmitting Live From Mars,” many would argue that The Turtles’ recording was transformed and thus the De La Soul recording is “original.”

In this lesson, students use examples from visual art as well as rap to enter into a “structured academic controversy” that explores the concept of originality.

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Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • Key terms and concepts of U.S. Copyright Law
    • What “sampling” is as both a musical and technological practice
    • How people assimilate and disseminate cultural information
    • About visual artist Richard Price
    • About the concept of appropriation
    • About the social history of Bronx, NY at the time of the creation of Hip Hop
  2. Be able to (skills):
    • Make connections between artistic movements and the social and economic conditions from which they emerge
    • Consider the complexities and ambiguities of controversial issues
    • Identify and consider both sides of a debated issue
    • Integrate information from texts and videos to make thematic connections and create deeper understandings
    • Make connections between the history of sampling and their own musical experiences
    • Question and analyze concepts of originality in music and other art forms
    • Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions on topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.