De La Soul's New Album Puts a New Spin on the Sampling Controversy
We spoke with Posdnuos about the history of sampling, music lawsuits, and the new method they've developed for this album.
De La Soul has always been a part of my sonic unconscious. Their first album, 3 Feet High and Rising, dropped in 1989, the same year I was born. In college, my twin sister would give me hip-hop history lessons while driving me around Los Angeles. She played the B-side song "Skip to my Loop"—which immediately transported me back to the 90s. The song combined De La Soul's iconic ironic sound with a riff on a children's song I sang in preschool.
De La Soul has experimented with all kinds of samples and sounds over the years. In 1991 they were hit with a lawsuit for sampling the 1968 Turtles' hit "You Showed Me" on their song "Transmitting Live From Mars." The suit was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.
This week, they posted a Kickstarter campaign to fund their first album in 11 years, and it's clear from the video that the lawsuit still has them gun shy. "Remember when we got sued?" Maseo says early on in the video. They then explain that for the new album they hired an assortment of musicians (and a monkey) to create hundreds of hours of music that they will sample from, making it pretty much impossible to sue them over it. Their caution is understandable, given recent high-profile lawsuits against Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke, Sam Smith, as well as Timbaland and Jay-Z.
De La Soul's pitch worked, and within six hours of posting they had hit their $110,000 goal. Since then the numbers have kept climbing to just above $300,000 at the time of writing. Questlove, The Beastie Boys, and Talib Kweli all tweeted that they helped back the album. I caught up with De La Soul's Posdnuos on the phone this week to talk about the history of sampling, music lawsuits, and the new method they've developed for this album.
VICE: Based on your Kickstarter video, a lot of the inspiration behind this album comes from when you got sued in 1991. Were you expecting that sort of legal trouble at the time?
Posdnuos: At the time, we handed in all that information [about what we sampled]. So I guess the label that we were on, Tommy Boy, chose to clear what they chose to clear as opposed to some of the songs they chose not to. The execs at the label really loved the music. They just didn't expect that our album would get as big as it was. There was nothing like it. It was a litmus test. It got popular, so certain songs where we had sampled someone, and they're hearing their work and realize that this wasn't cleared—that was when everything unfortunately happened.
If you recorded the music yourself, what's the difference between a sample and just another track you recorded for the album?
Well I guess it's just the way you're using it. You're right, it could just be like hey, this is a great three minutes of what you played. We can rhyme over it. Once you then put it inside of any type of machine, whether it's an MPC, an SP-12 or Ableton, whatever instrument or software you have, to then loop and alter it, is when it becomes a sample. Even down to just your own voice. I can record myself rhyming but then there could be a portion of what I rhyme—I could sample it and use it in the hook.
Do you think that other people have gotten away with the kind of thing you got sued for?
I'm sure. It depends on how... well, put it like this—what we went through, that became a big profile case. Different artists got a little bit more clever on how they sampled. As opposed to more of a loop, things became more of a chop. Taking half of a sample mixed with someone else's half of a sample. Make almost like your own music out of samples, where it wasn't that easy to detect.
Did it the change the way you make music?
No, I wouldn't say so. We also became cleverer with how we sample. What it did was help the business be taken care of correctly. Instead of, like on the first album, us handing in a loose-leaf paper with the samples for what we used, it was more of a process that every label adopted. Everything became a little more organized where we would write down everything, make sure we had a copy, and our lawyers had a copy. We also provided a tape at the time—because cassettes were still prominent—of the original sample along with how we used it.
There have been a lot of high profile music lawsuits recently. What do you think about those?
It's still here and it's still unfortunate. I saw that even Jay Z is going through something at the moment with the sample Timbaland used in "Big Pimpin'." I'm sure his execs made sure it was cleared, but the people they cleared it with didn't have the right to clear it, and how is that Jay Z's fault? It's tricky! It's almost like you have to have a sample team. Even with Pharrell and Robin, it's hard to say. You know when I first heard it, I immediately heard—wow I almost thought of it as an ode to "Got to Give It Up," because Robin Thicke was singing in a falsetto like Marvin was. You know it was very similar. They chose not to involve the estate of Marvin Gaye—from what I heard that's what happened. I guess that's the thing that didn't give them a leg to stand on.
What made you decide to try this new way of doing things? Where you record everything that you sample in advance. Are you trying to make a point, or come up with a new method that other artists will use as well?
Personally, I wouldn't say that we've created the wheel in what we're trying. I feel that groups like Stetsasonic, which were considered one of the first hip-hop bands, could turn around and sample the drum [they recorded themselves] and add more to it.
But what we're doing is kind of groundbreaking in how we've done it; not in the sense of sampling ourselves, but in that we created tons of music first to be sampled. I feel that we are the first to do that, definitely. And that could lead to people being like, that is a cool idea. Let me just turn around and have a great time for about a month or so with great musicians. Let them play. Let them feel free. Interject here and there. And from there we can have things to sample from, that can be less of a problem in the long run.
This way you have more control over what you sample. Is that limiting at all? Definitely you have more control, but at the same time it's still a journey. It's not like this is not fun because I'm listening to music that I already know. The process of sampling that can be fun—the way you can see Kanye or Q-Tip or ourselves—go into a record store while they're in Dubai or Argentina, pick up a record, and they're listening to something for the first time with the intent of finding something that moves them, that can be manipulated. With what we did, the same magic happened. We spend so much time making music that when we listen back, there will be sessions where we don't even remember playing. It just sounds so fresh.