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Beastie Boys and the Business of Sampling

The Beastie Boys’ best-known albums were produced during a period of unrestrained creativity and experimentation within hip hop. For the Beastie Boys and other artists and producers from the early days of hip hop, sampling – the incorporation of previously recorded music – was much more than just a short-cut to get the sounds they wanted.

Sampling made early hip-hop a conduit for and record of collective musical memory, as DJs and producers experimented with consumer electronics to find new ways of making music. While some samples, like those taken from the music of James Brown, became well-known within hip hop circles, others were drawn from obscure, forgotten recordings discovered by ‘crate digging’ DJs at flea markets, who jealously guarded the details of their finds.

By effectively making sampling illegal through the imposition of burdensome financial requirements, the American legal establishment (urged on by the RIAA and others representing the interests of rights-holding owners and companies) put the brakes on what was one of the most exciting and significant creative movements in modern popular music. The result is that artists have to make great financial sacrifices if they want to release a recording that conveys the dynamic and communicative nature of music as it exists in the ‘real world’.

While those in favor of anti-sampling legislation and enforcement argue that they are necessary to protect the interests of creators, they often benefit companies that have their own questionable histories of financial fairness and transparency. While artists deserve to be protected against outright piracy, the anti-sampling legal climate has had a much more far-reaching consequences, resulting in a stifling of creativity and innovation.

Matt Miller (PHD) is a popular music scholar and film maker. His new book is called Bounce: Rap Music and Local Identity in New Orleans.

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