I held out this terrific Comment of the Day by Isaac for almost a week, waiting for just the right moment. The right moment occurred when I decided that having to write one more word about mass shootings, “the resistance” losing its mind, or the news media finally giving up any pretense of competence and objectivity would turn ME into a mass shooter. The topic here is hip-hop and “beat-jacking,” of which I previously knew nothing.
Here is Isaac’s Comment of the Day on #4 in “Thank God It’s Friday” Ethics Warm-Up, 8/2/2019: Non-Reciprocal Loyalty, Woke Virtue-Signaling, Reasonable Vigilantes, And Pseudo-Plagiarism“:
Intentionally appropriating someone else’s song and adapting it, without permission from the original artist, I think would be considered unethical. In hip hop parlance this is “jacking,” “beat jacking” or “biting” and is considered okay by no one, even though it happens all the time. Hip hop history is filled with drama and fighting over stolen beats and songs. But where, if anywhere, the law needs to come in on this is a mystery. It’s near impossible to prove what’s intentional and what isn’t.
The line between “beat jacking” and just “sampling” (the foundation of hip hop and a few other genres) can be blurry but there is a difference. Here’s a quick and dirty guide:
-If you pull an MC Hammer or Vanilla Ice and basically perform karaoke over someone else’s music, that is obvious beat-jacking and you face cultural rejection and/or retribution. It’s also FIRMLY illegal to do this now, and it was toeing the line when Hammer and Ice did it (Vanilla Ice was forced to pay up despite having slightly changed the famous bass line of “under pressure” for his lousy song.) The more well-known the original, stolen song is, the less likely your peers will tolerate this, legal or not.
-If you do the above with permission (and usually payment,) it’s simply a “rendition” “cover” or “flipped” song. As in, “Eminem flipped the chorus of ‘Dream On’ by Aerosmith.” This might be looked at sideways as a lack of creativity, but is mostly considered fine.
-If you use a drum break, bass line, or other snippet of a song, and use it as part of an original composition, this is “sampling.” This is the foundation of hip hop music, but is now firmly established as ILLEGAL, and how likely you are to get away with it depends on how many units you sell, because record labels will fiercely protect their intellectual property. Big name artists can afford to pay artists for sampling their music, but generally, the large labels these days prefer to just save themselves the hassle and risk, and use studio musicians.
-Then there’s “sampling” from a hip hop song, or from other types of sample-based music like Portishead. This is universally considered what you would call a “bitch move;” just the worst. If it’s an actual sample of an audio recording, it’s illegal, but if it’s just imitating a beat’s sound, the legality depends on all sorts of other variables…which is where Katy Perry comes in.
There is almost zero chance that Katy Perry was unfamiliar with “Joyful Noise,” so it’s most likely that she (really, her producers) liked the beat and decided they could incorporate it, tweaking it just enough to avoid having to get any permission or give any credit. That’s not nice, but I don’t think it should be illegal, for all the reasons Jack gave. Chief among them, the fact that there’s no way to prove intent.
However, there was always a 50/50 chance that Flame was going to win this lawsuit. Beats are the foundation of most modern pop songs, and even a recognizable bass line can be protected by law. How that logic applies to something like 12-bar blues, where every song is essentially the same tune, or drum n bass, where 1000s of songs are based on one sample created by a drummer who never received any royalties and died homeless, is a mystery to me. The whole thing is a mess.
One other thing: Since the dawn of rock and roll, legendary artists have made their names by just plain cannibalizing gospel music, without compensation or acknowledgement. Half of Ray Charles’ breakout hits were just tunes stolen from contemporary gospel artists, with one or two words changed, for which Charles claimed full credit. The Rolling Stones’ first big self-written hit was an adaptation of a gospel song, which of course the band didn’t credit in any way. There’s also a long history of white artists appropriating black artists’ music, often without proper credit or compensation. Those were real injustices, although perhaps we’ve swung out too far in the other direction now.