We Live In The Sampling Economy


This is the story of how one song helped create nearly 1300 new songs, and what your business can learn from the art of sampling and remixing.

There are significantly good odds that you’ve heard Clyde Stubblefield’s work, yet you probably don’t know who Clyde Stubblefield is.

Although Clyde played drums on dozens of James Brown songs, it is a short drum break about five minutes into the song “Funky Drummer” that made Clyde Stubblefield legendary. That short drum break is one of the most sampled pieces in hip hop history.

“Fight The Power” by Public Enemy might be the most high-profile and impactful use of Clyde’s work, it is by no means the only song that samples that drum break.

LL Cool J used it in “Mama Said Knock You Out”.

Run D.M.C. borrowed it for “Run’s House”.

Prince borrowed it. Sinead O’Connor used it. Madonna’s “Justify My Love” sampled it.

Nas, Rakim, 2 Live Crew, Scarface, Big Daddy Kane, Jay Z, and Kool Moe Dee all used that very same drum break in their music.

Nearly 1300 songs took a brief sample of James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” and used it to create something entirely new. 

That’s the sampling economy at work. It has driven hip hop and EDM for decades, and the lessons of the remix are vital to modern business. After all, there are only so many “new” ideas. There is a finite number of chords, notes, progressions, and words. At some point, doesn’t everything become a remix of something else?

The most-frequently sampled song in music belongs to a rather obscure 1982 hip hop song called “Change the Beat” by Fab 5 Freddy, aka Fred Brathwaite. At last count, documents 1830 different songs that sample “Change the Beat”. 

“Thrift Shop” by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis was one of those 1830 songs. It was a #1 hit and sold over seven million copies in the U.S. alone. During the fall of 2012 and winter of 2013, “Thrift Shop” was the song you couldn’t avoid even if you wanted to. It was everywhere. Robert Copsey, a reviewer with Digital Spy, gave the song a 5-star rating and called it “original and musically daring”. And it was original and daring! With it’s funny lyrics about shopping for used clothes, “Thrift Shop” eschewed the typically self-aggrandizing hip hop attitude.

Can a song that is “original and daring” rely on a sample from a 30-year old song and still be “original and daring”? 

According to British DJ and producer Mark Ronson, absolutely. In order to be original and daring, you need to bring something fresh to the table. Great artists take a small piece of something created previously, and they – as Ronson says – flip it. They make it uniquely theirs. According to Ronson, the argument that using samples isn’t original completely misses the point. “We live in the post-sampling era,” Ronson said in a 2014 TED Talk. “We take the things that we love and we build on them. And when we really add something significant and original and we merge our musical journey with this, we have a chance to be part of the evolution of that music that we love and be linked with it once it becomes something new again.”

Ironically, “Thift Shop” was replaced at #1 on the charts by a song called “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke featuring T.I. and Pharrell, a song that very prominently borrowed upon an older recording. The family of the late Marvin Gaye publically stated that they felt “Blurred Lines” used the sound and feel of Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up”. Thicke acknowledged that “Blurred Lines” was influenced by songs like “Got to Give It Up”, but that his song was not plagiarized. Numerous artists agreed, noting that borrowing “sound and feel” could easily be called inspiration or influence instead of theft. The court didn’t agree. In a very controversial verdict, a jury awarded Gaye’s family $7.4 million in damages for copyright infringement. In addition, the writing credits were changed to add Marvin Gaye, resulting in long-term royalties to Gaye’s estate.

While it remains a grey area where respectful sampling ends and copyright infringement begins, there is no question that we live in an era of unprecedented access to the technology to easily sample almost anything. We also live in an era of changing values and opinions, with a generation of hip hop and electronic music artists coming of age in an environment where sampling is a perfectly acceptable form of creative expression.

As an entrepreneur, you can create amazing new things by sampling… taking old things and repurposing them in a unique and fresh way.

Drift Eyewear is a boutique eyewear company based in Chicago. The company uses reclaimed wood to hand-craft designer frames. From wood found at the bottom of the Mississippi River to maple taken from a retired skateboard, Drift finds the materials and inspiration for their frames by repurposing existing wood and creating a completely new product. Is this any different than a modern artist being inspired by and sampling the work of others in order to create something entirely new?

In 2008, Ray DelMuro purchased a small bottle-cutting kit and started creating drinking glasses from old wine bottles. The drinking glasses led to housewares, planters, carafes, votive holders, and much more… all crafted from recycled wine bottles. And Refresh Glass was created.

Today, you can sip from Refresh Glass at Spago in Las Vegas, the Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Geyserville, California, J&G Steakhouse in Scottsdale, Arizona, and many other fine restaurants around the world. Refresh Glass does custom work for fine dining, casual restaurants, weddings, and individual homes. Every piece of glass is recycled from a rescued wine bottle. Refresh Glass is on a mission to rescue 10 million bottles, and they keep track of their progress on their website. At this point they have turned over 900,000 wine bottles into brand new products.

While there is plenty of ambiguous territory in the world of copyright infringement, most of the successful brands engaged in sampling, repurposing, or upcycling, are not stealing anything.

They are using elements of something from the past, like driftwood or a wine bottle, and making something entirely new. This is the very same process that musicians use to sample elements from forty years ago, turning them into brand new songs that we fall in love with. Just like musicians who sample, these entrepreneurs are passionate about what they create, they bring something new to the world, and they genuinely see and value the impact their new creation leaves on the world.

While it should go without saying, I’ll say it anyway. If you plan to build a business based on sampling the work of others, consult a smart lawyer who knows the inner workings of copyright law. 

By the way, Clyde Stubblefield isn’t credited as a co-writer or musician on ANY of the songs that sampled his drumming from “Funky Drummer”. He hasn’t seen a cent in royalties. The sampling economy is fine, but don’t we have an obligation to reward, or at least acknowledge, those from whom we borrow? 

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Clyde Stubblefield, James Brown, Mark Ronson, Public Enemy 1,049 Comments