Do great artists steal? And if so, how can I?

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Do great artists steal? And if so, how can I?

James Lepinsky

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The following is an excerpt from James Lepinsky’s upcoming book “How to Write a Song.” He is not done writing the book yet, but he will definitely let you know when it’s going to be published.
There is a sentiment shared in the discussion of art: do great artists steal? And the answer is yes. All the time. More often than you would think, actually. You may have heard the term, “good artists borrow, great artists steal” before.

Coincidentally, the quote has been accredited to multiple people in history, from Pablo Piccaso to Steve Jobs to Malcolm Gladwell. This idea is the qu’ils mangent de la brioche in the realm of creation, consumption and destruction; a clichéd statement without a consistent history of its appropriate author. French artist, iconoclast, and pioneer of the dadaist movement Marchel Duchamp created a piece entitled, “L.H.O.O.Q,” depicting da Vinci’s Mona Lisa with one slight adjustment — she dons a handlebar mustache reminiscent of either Archduke Franz Ferdinand or Jonathan Van Ness. In hip-hop terms, Duchamp chopped and flipped the original sample of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, and merely added some “bars” over it (get it? bars? Okay, I’ll stop).

Nowhere is the ethical dilemma of “stealing” more common than in music. But we call it something different – sampling. “Stealing” implies a life of crime, so it is best not to criminalize or moralize the creation of art, for sake of not offending these sensitive souls. The idea of sampling is to take an existing piece of recorded music and magically harness sections from one or multiple sources as a foundation for a new musical idea. As mentioned earlier, sampling is the foundation of hip-hop music, birthed in the Bronx as a result of the disco “fad” of the late 1970s. A plethora of musical practices have informed hip-hop’s general ethos, disco being one of them, but also funk (James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” is one of the most widely-sampled drum breaks in the genre) and reggae (pioneer DJ Kool Herc’s Jamaican origins, applying soundsystem culture and ‘toasting’ from his native island). Ever since Kurtis Blow offered us the “Breaks” and Public Enemy stressed that we should not believe “the hype,” hip-hop has proved to be the most lucrative and dominating musical genre in the popular culture, defining American music in a visceral way that jazz and blues never could. Needless to say, sampling has grown quite successful for both the hip-hop progenitors and participants, but this begs the question: Is this plagirism, or is this the advancement of art and music? Is this really a lazy way to create?

You may even be tempted to steal from your favorite songs. All in all, the quote sounds appealing — reminiscent of the first time you shoplifted in your whole life (just leave the condoms in the bag, walk away, and pretend like nothing ever happened). But before you decide to take those condoms you cannot afford, there are some repercussions to consider. Just like any choice one makes, artistic or otherwise, potential artists may be horrified, appalled and disgusted by your interpolation of “Between the Sheets” by the Isley Brothers. At other times, the same people may nod in approval of another use of the “Apache” drum break.

By no means is sampling an antequated, esoteric process, and does not require any black magic or voodoo to harness the sounds of records from yesteryear. The technology for sampling is readily available, revered, and priceless. You may recognize a sampling machine in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, where our namesake protagonist uses coughing, sneezing, and puking soundbites, played from a keyboard. The keyboard that Ferris uses in the film is an E-mu Emulator, whose first model was not released until 1981, five years before our favorite privileged troublemaker graced himself on the silver screen. In a lot of ways, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off has a lot to say about feminism (Jeanie Bueller’s plea for fairness and accountability for her brother’s actions), fascism (Ferris’ willful apathy towards his European socialism test and his palpable white male privilege), the pitfalls of parenting and authority (see: the Buellers and Mr. Rooney), the pitfalls of marriage (see: Cameron’s parents, Ferris’ half-serious proposal to Sloane), and how to effectively ruin “Twist and Shout” with that abysmal dance-number in the middle of the fucking movie. But these are things I would love to discuss on a later date. Other promiment musical acts that have used either the same or a slight variant of Ferris’ keyboard include Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, New Order, and Depeche Mode. Sampling technology comes in many different shapes and sizes, leaving you with countless options — the Mellotron, a keyboard- arranged sampler, used extensively by the Beatles, King Crimson, Yes, and Pink Floyd in the 60s and 70s, to the Akai models, made famous by the late J Dilla. There’s a reason why Dilla’s Akai MPC3000 is behind a glass box in the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. The legacy behind these instruments are already solidified and immortalized. So, if J Dilla can get into a museum, then it is reason enough for you to use sampling and its machines to make great art. But beware — it is just a matter of whether or not you get “caught,” just like any illegal activity. Yes, sampling is technically illegal, but that does not mean you cannot or should not have fun with the practice. The fact that sampling is an “illegal” act did not stop Dilla, DJ Shadow, DJ Premier, Madlib, Pete Rock, Large Professor, Sly & Robbie, Georgia Anne Muldrow, or even Kanye West (getting caught sampling should be the least of his concerns) — so it should not stop you.

But let me stop for a moment to instill some fear in you, if that’s okay for you. If not, this is a great time to close the book. After all, ignorance truly is bliss. In 1991, the Crown Prince of Hip-Hop by the name of Biz Markie entered a lawsuit against Irish one-hit wonder Gilbert O’Sullivan for copyright infringement from Biz’s rap “Alone Again,” which takes an obvious cue from O’Sullivan’s song “Alone Again (Naturally),” released in 1972. As a result, the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, under the guise of Judge Kevin Duffy, found the Biz “guilty of infringing on O’Sullivan’s copyright,” and “ordered the rapper to pay $250,000 in damages and barred [Warner Bros. Records] from continuing to sell either the single or album” (Wang). And yet, you can find the Biz’s version of “Alone Again” with a quick, simple search on YouTube.

The Biz, who has made a career making music with his mouth, is not the only emcee to ever get in a legal dispute over their art as a result of sampling. A year earlier, Lou Reed would end up taking all the royalties for “Can I Kick It?” by A Tribe Called Quest, since the song sampled the bass line from Reed’s controversial and tantalizing hit, “Walk on the Wild Side.” Outside of the hip-hop realm, the trademark Quiet Beatle received a copyright infringement lawsuit for his song “My Sweet Lord” for sounding eerily similar to Spector-esque “He’s So Fine” by the Chiffons. These sorts of things happen to everyone at some point — getting sued. It comes with the territory of being an American citizen and interacting with the public. And these types of incidents cannot always be prevented — artists can be very greedy and will go to great lengths to receive a profit for their antequated creations.

So, were Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and the late Phife Dawg really plagirizing Lou Reed? This debate is more nuanced than a schoolboy copying from his friend’s homework and turning it in as his own — “Can I Kick It” and “Walk on the Wild Side” are two completely different songs with two completely distinct motives. And therefore, this would not be considered an artistic form of copying. However, this may not be enough to persuade either a skeptical listener, a grand jury, or an adversarial justice system. Because as long as we, the United States of America and its residents, have a judicial system that dictates what is and what is not plagirism, then sampling will forever be the unnecessary taboo that it already is instead of a valid approach to artistic creation and expression. It will forever be seen as lazy, and that’s the sad truth.