RZA Has Some Controversial Views On Sample Lawsuits In 2015. Do You Agree?
Since even before 1993’s Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), RZA has been a producer who liked to sample. From Janet Jackson to Al Green, Mary Poppins to The Electric Prunes, The Abbott’s crates go deep, and unpredictable. However, after nearly 25 years of writing and composing music sold at retail, the Brooklyn, New York MC/DJ/producer/actor says that lines need to be drawn in copyright infringement royalties.
In the shadow of an ongoing, multi-million dollar dispute between the estate of Marvin Gaye and Robin Thicke, Pharrell, and T.I. surrounding “Blurred Lines,” RZA says that artists who were illegally sampled after the 1991 legislative change should only be able to collect up to 50% of the resulting song’s royalties.
“If you utilize somebody’s artistic expression blatantly, to [the point] where it’s an identifiable thing, then there should be some sort of compensation to the person who inspires you,” RZA told The Daily Beast at this past week’s South By Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. From RZA’s experience, the producer’s affect on the original needs to be considered. Bobby Digital used Bing Crosby’s 1942 Decca Records hit “White Christmas” (which was sampled by Blowfly, among others) as a hypothetical example. “Even though I use his portion as an instrument—because the sampler is an instrument—he should not be able to come in and take 100% of my song. The most he should get is 50%. There should be a cut off. Fifty percent is the most.”
“I’ve been in situations where I’ve sampled something and the original copyright holder took 90%,” RZA said, referring to the legal battle surrounding sampling elements of 1972’s Wandering Ginza Butterfly film. “[Assuming a 90% value of royalties], they ignored all the programming, drumming, keyboard playing I played on top of it, they ignored every lyric, every hook, everything that we built to make it a song. And we wound up selling more copies than the [soundtrack ever did]—but yet they took 90% of the song.” However, when copyright lawsuits occur, they almost always follow un-cleared samples.
If not sued, the copyright holders would receive nothing. So who’s right, and who’s wrong? Is 90% a warranted slap on the wrist, or is it greedy? Also, does it matter if the party behind the lawsuit is the creator of the song (something that artists like the late Barry White and Syl Johnson were/are notorious for), or if it’s from labels or families, in the case of Marvin Gaye’s estate?
Quite notably, RZA’s Wu-Tang Clan was sampled (and presumably compensated) on albums such as Drake’s Nothing Was The Same, Mary J. Blige’s My Life II…The Journey Continues, and The Notorious B.I.G.’s Life After Death.
Songs such as Vanilla Ice’s “Ice, Ice Baby,” The Fugees’ “The Score,” and Biz Markie’s “Alone Again” (a benchmark lawsuit) have been greatly punished for uncleared use of samples.
What do you think is right?