Is Sampling Of ‘White Rockers’ By Hip-Hop Artists Cultural Appropriation?

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Someone asked me the other day whether hip-hop artists sampling rock artists’ music falls under the “cultural appropriation” term that gets kicked around so much these days.

Short answer: No. That’s not what we mean when we say culture (which includes art, language, history, etc.) has been “appropriated.” Actually, we should take care to use the more accurate “misappropriated,” because that’s what’s really happening when we use that term. There’s a difference between a cultural outsider learning about and appreciating a culture, versus duplicating aspects of it for the outsiders’ gain and erasing the originators’ involvement (i.e. selling it under a different name, or changing its context to remove important spiritual or historical connections).

So, sampling rockers’ music isn’t quite the same as misappropriation, for two reasons: One, credit, and two, compensation.

Basically, when a composition is sampled, the artist doing the sampling must credit the original composer, and compensate them for use of their intellectual property. There are laws in place that protect the original composer’s copyright, because the original creator did the hard work of composition, and most people would agree that work requires compensation and credit.

For example, on Jay-Z’s infamous declaration of war against Mobb Deep and Nas, “The Takeover,” producer Kanye West sampled The Doors’ “Five To One.” We know this because copyright law required Jay-Z to credit The Doors, as well as pay for the rights to use the sample in the first place.

This may have entailed a one-off payment, or a split deal to pay The Doors a percentage of every sale of “The Takeover,” but the point is, The Doors were both credited and compensated for their composition.

Now, what’s interesting is this: The Doors, and other white “rock” artists play a style of music originated in the 1950s by Black artists. In fact the “King of rock and roll” is Elvis, a white singer and guitarist whose most famous hit, “Hound Dog,” was actually a cover of a blues song originated by Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton in 1952.

Elvis’ version — which changed and removed lyrics from the original composition, taking it from an indictment of a no-good ex-lover to a song about a literal coon hound — is one of the best-selling rock and roll songs of all time, with over 10 million copies sold.