Blurred Lines: Pharrell, Sampling, and Producer Accountability

The deposition videos from Skateboard P's "Blurred Lines" trial paint an ugly picture.
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"We work really, really hard on our material. We spend months writing it and years recording it. You don't go into a museum and paint a moustache on somebody else's painting" - Don Henley

For as long as sampling has been around, there have been questions of it’s legitimacy as a practice.

There are those who love hip-hop, who see sampling as an amazing artform and would do anything to protect it against those who simply don't understand. I’m one of those people. Sampling is far and away my favorite aspect of hip-hop. From 9th Wonder to Kanye to Dilla, some of the most respected, beloved figures in hip-hop have based their careers off sampling. A great sample stirs something deep inside me; it’s a feeling I’ve never been able to get anywhere else in music. It’s incredible to hear someone take something old, transform it, and make something completely new. Quite often, as is the case for many millennials, the way I learn and connect with older music is through the art of sampling.

Not everybody sees it that way.

"The whole kinda cut-and-paste thing is a certain kind of artform all by itself. I don't know if I call it songwriting from a musician's standpoint. ... Beck is obviously a consummate musician. He plays instruments, many instruments. He can make his own record without having a fleet of computer operators onboard." - Michael Mcdonald

Veteran artists like Michael McDonald and Don Henley see things differently. To them sampling isn’t art nor does it require any skill. It’s taking someone else's original composition, pressing a few buttons on a computer, and passing it off as your own. To them, it’s stealing. Plain and simple.

So, who’s right?

As much as I’d love to sit here and claim producers who sample are 100% in the right, completely free of intentional wrongdoing, I just can’t. I’ll protect sampling to the death, but in order to preserve the art, in order to legitimize it, we need to have a frank discussion about the blurred thin line between sampling and stealing, because there is a line and we often play fast and loose on either side of it.  

Case in point, Pharrell.

It might seem like years ago, but it’s only been months since “Blurred Lines” was everywhere all the time. You may recall earlier this year, Pharrell and Robin Thicke were ordered to pay Marvin Gaye’s estate $7.4 million because their song sounded eerily similar to Marvin “Got to Give it Up.” After doing my own research and reading Nathan’s conclusions -- ”Copyright law has always been about balancing the recognized good that comes from the public exchange of ideas and protecting the originators of those ideas, but this ruling tilts that balance dangerously towards the side of protection”-- I immediately placed myself on Team Pharrell.

I think secretly, deep down I knew Pharrell wasn’t fully forthcoming about the track's creative process, but in my effort to defend sampling and stay true to hip-hop, I decided that it wasn’t Pharrell who was in the wrong, but it was just another example of "the man," the ones who don't understand or love hip-hop, trying to push an agenda. Sampling has been attacked unjustly before and I hated to see it happening again. If we don’t rally around Pharrell, and stop the attack now, it will only get worse, I thought.

Then Pharrell's “Blurred Lines” deposition videos leaked and my opinion changed... completely.

Yeesh. That was downright ugly. I don’t pretend to be a lawyer nor am I a musicologist, but I can tell when someone is caught in a lie; his body language and his refusal to answer 99% of the questions he was asked says it all. Pharrell’s defense rested heavily on his knowledge of music theory, but here, when given simple, straightforward terms to explain, he repeatedly answered with “I’m not comfortable.” His refusal to answer leads me to believe he either has no idea what terms like “pentatonic” mean or he knows that if he answers, if he admits to being able to read notes instead of being shady about it, he will get caught in a lie.

How can Pharrell claim ignorance if he is well versed in music theory? And then there are the lies. Williams says that he wasn't thinking of Marvin Gaye during the creation of the song, but is then presented with a quote from an interview he had previously conducted, where he discusses thinking about Marvin Gaye in the creation of “Blurred Lines.” Wait, what? It was at that exact moment that my opinion completely changed. Though Pharrell didn't sample Gaye outright, he certainly drew inspiration from "Got To Give It Up" and whether you sample directly or take inspiration from, it's important to provide credit where credit is due; Gaye most certainly deserved credit. So, while not sampling directly, Pharrell was no longer a victim of the powers that be who were waging a war against sampling, he was a part of the problem.

I’m tired of people dismissing sampling and hip-hop in general, but if we want to try and stop it we must realize the ways in which we all feed into it. The reason why old guard artists like McDonald feel like hip-hop is nothing more than cutting and pasting is because artists and producers like Pharrell try to surreptitiously circumvent the rules, skating by unnoticed or using sampling as a shield as they take someone else's work and profit off of it.

Inspiration is fine and sampling is amazing, but when you do it without proper citation or credit it becomes stealing. If the only repercussion for an artist like Pharrell, who has taken someone's work and attempted to pass it off as their own, is a multi-million dollar slap on the wrist, fine, but it’s not. When someone like Pharrell, one of the most popular and renowned producers in the world, is caught, it tarnishes the legitimacy of the art form.

Whether you are 9th Wonder, Pharrell, or even a struggle producer, if you are going to practice the art of sampling, you have a responsibility to do it the right way. If and when you don't, please know that it will only hurt the legitimacy of sampling as an art form, making it more difficult for those that do it correctly to get the attention and admiration their work deserves. 

Sampling, paying homage to something old while building something new, is art. Taking someone else's work and passing it off as your own without giving proper credit is theft... no matter how you flip it. 

[Lucas Garrison is a writer for DJBooth.net. You can also tweet him your favorite Migos songs at @LucasDJBooth. Image via Instagram.]

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