How Copyright Law Changed Hip Hop

An interview with Chuck D and Hank Shocklee:

Chuck D: Public Enemy's music was affected [by copyright lawsuits] more than anybody's because we were taking thousands of sounds. If you separated the sounds, they wouldn't have been anything -- they were unrecognizable. The sounds were all collaged together to make a sonic wall. Public Enemy was affected because it is too expensive to defend against a claim. So we had to change our whole style, the style of It Takes a Nation and Fear of a Black Planet, by 1991.

Shocklee: We were forced to start using different organic instruments, but you can't really get the right kind of compression that way. A guitar sampled off a record is going to hit differently than a guitar sampled in the studio. The guitar that's sampled off a record is going to have all the compression that they put on the recording, the equalization. It's going to hit the tape harder. It's going to slap at you. Something that's organic is almost going to have a powder effect. It hits more like a pillow than a piece of wood. So those things change your mood, the feeling you can get off of a record. If you notice that by the early 1990s, the sound has gotten a lot softer.

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10 Responses:

  1. I guess that's why I never liked Public Enemy after Fear of a Black Planet.

    It's not their fault!

  2. wfaulk says:

    Wouldn't the obvious solution be to record a studio sample, apply compression, then use that? Or did they somehow not have access to the same engineers that the rock producers had?

    • wfaulk says:

      Hell, now that I think of it, most tape drives have compression built right into them. They just need to use the right device node.

      • marmoset says:

        So given a track that samples from dozens of different records (not unheard of for PE in their heyday), recorded in dozens of different studios, engineered by dozens of different producers, mastered by several different mastering engineers, exactly which not-yet-invented in 1991 plugin should they have used?

        • wfaulk says:

          Once again, joke. This one about the multiple uses of the term ”compression”.

          I need to use more smilies, I guess.

          Or, in case you were, indeed, referring to my previous post, then the issue as stated is not different levels of sonic compression or different engineers' methods, but rather, that compression didn't happen at all when you recorded the instruments directly. I can't imagine, in 1991, that it would have been too hard to record some shit, then use the engineer's standard toolbox of compression techniques to master it to tape, then sample the tape. (I'm afraid I'm not familiar enough with PE's work to know if pressing to record would have been required.) Sure, it might not be as fast as audioshopping it, but it's not like finding the samples off the old records could have been quick work, either.

    • evan says:

      I know at least portishead reportedly records instruments to records and then samples the records.

  3. unwoman says:

    That's not the only thing that changes when you don't use samples -- the samples provided a collage of recognizable sounds that have not only sonic but also emotional resonance. I think it's a bloody shame that PE were forced to abandon their style which really relied on that recognition, I think. I'm not of the camp that believes that using samples is less artistic than wholly original sounds, because the amount of creativity and mastery of Public Enemy's early works that was required on top of the already-made source material is undeniable. In a lot of cases the choice of samples itself was very significant and had literal or ironic connections with the lyrical content.

  4. taffer says:

    I am so relieved. I figured that most music sucked since the early 90's because I was getting old, but it's because of the copyright lawyers and the RIAA.

    I'd better go download some out-of-print music from a peer-to-peer service now to fight the power.


  5. kiad says:

    You've now got me hooked on fortran 5 and gang of four.

    They both completely kick ass.