LOCAL VOCAL: When sampling becomes theft

by Mike Jenkins

Dubstep/trap/electronic music producer Mimosa hit Ziggy’s in full effect on Nov. 16, unleashing an incendiary array of layered synthesizers and thunderous sub-bass elements that shook fans and beer bottles to their breaking point.

Mimosa blasted hip-hop samples and fierce electro-bass tunes that had fans jumping and jiving in sync with the beat. If the music alone wasn’t enough to have every fan in the building fighting gravity, his stage presence and dance ensemble became a counterpoise for matching his passion with that of the audience. Entranced by the music, head upward facing the heavens, Mimosa stomped to the bass hits while bringing his arms up from the sky back down to earth affixing his hands in V formation. It was as though Mimosa was summoning thunder from God and delivering straight into the soul of the crowd.

And while the show and performance were noteworthy, midway through the set I couldn’t help questioning to myself: Is any of this legal?

Principally the moment struck when the song “Don’t Lose Your Head’ by Zion I & Too Short hit the speakers.

It was clear that few people other than myself in the audience had any realization that Mimosa was no longer exploring new horizons of music, but rather exploiting former dawns of artists to an audiences’ untrained ear. Zion I & Too Short are the artists who created that track and masterfully rendered the synthesizer sync-ups and audience cheer noise backdrops, not Mimosa, who could be seen dancing feet away from the turntables rendering nothing authentic to the music listening experience. The performance begged the question, where did the dichotomy of music ownership and beat-jacking become tolerated to the degree in which artists no longer face the disastrous consequences that sequestered the career of Vanilla Ice decades ago?

I asked music producer, friend, and former roommate Mark McMullan to shed some light on the notions of Mimosa’s sampling.

McMullan explained: “That artist is riding on the ignorance of his audience. His audience needs to know what’s his and what isn’t his. If he’s sampling from another source, his audience… in their trance! will be oblivious to it.”

After mentioning my disapproval of various samples used in the Mimosa show, including the speed-ups of “Juicy” by Notorious BIG and the outright thievery of “Don’t Lose Your Head” by Zion I & Too Short, I asked Mark for his take on music legitimacy.

“He is using someone else’s work to sample, and to make a show of his supposed skills,” McMullan said. “Now the audience needs to know he has talent or no talent. If you go to somebody like DeadMau5 (Joel Zimmerman) or Kascade (Ryan Raddon) you’ll know he’s (speaking of Ryan Raddon) done his homework, and those artists that he’s promoting and working with are his original stuff. That is why you pay $50 bucks to see DeadMau5 and you pay $15 for Mimosa.

So it would appear that you, the audience, must pay $50 bucks to hear originality and $15 for partial originality and a remainder of complete illegitimacy? I asked McMullan to explain this for me.

“It could be everything from the market he’s in, to how smart his audience is! Because if he sucks, if he’s not valid, he’s not going to have a smart audience. Because we know better!” The rationale of some people is quite in opposition to those of McMullan and I. Take mash-up artist Girltalk for example. Their conclusion on the matter is clear. Ripping artists is not only to be tolerated; it is to be promoted. Rip: A Remix Manifesto, a documentary exploring the sound world of Girltalk and investigating the legalities of copyright protection and artist opinion of the matter expresses the following interview with Girltalk, also known as Greg Gillis.

“Pop artists like Elton John think they’re untouchable, obviously they create that and force that idea into your mind that they’re untouchable. Being able to manipulate and do whatever you want to… you know just put Elton John in a headlock and you know just put a beat behind him and pour beer on his head!” But copyright law is very clear, and sampling even a single note is grounds for a lawsuit. Meaning all of those people jumping to the thunderous beat Mimosa summoned from God should not be dancing at all. At least not for the price they paid for admission. But Girltalk doesn’t see it this way.

Gillis explained, “People have a hard time taking a step back and seeing sampling as an instrument. In the future people are gonna look back and say, ‘Wow, I can’t believe people were having these moral struggles with collage-ing two songs together.” However, where the dilemma resides is not the home of morality, but rather the palace of economy and fiscal responsibility. Original writers, publishers and performers are not being compensated when artists like Girltalk and Mimosa hit the stage with their music sampling unoriginal to them. And what’s more troubling is that audiences themselves are now fitting the bill. !