I'm fascinated by the ways creativity gets funneled through business, and so I'm fascinated by sample clearances. As we've covered before, there's no clearer example of just how confusing and uncertain cramming music into a legal and financial box can be, and DJ Khaled's letter to The Fugess thanking them for clearing a sample on his upcoming Major Key album is a giant window into that world.
So how do you clear a sample? You convince the people who own the publishing rights. And how do you do that? WHO KNOWS, WHAT YOU GOT? Sample clearance might mean a sterile negotiation with a giant corporation like Sony/ATV or Warner/Chappell, or it might mean personally tracking down every member of a group and saying whatever you have to say to get that signature, or signatures, on the dotted line.
And to be clear, he does have to get everyone's approval. If Lauryn was eager to do it for some much needed money but Wyclef or Pras weren't, no deal. If Wyclef and Pras loved it but Lauryn decided she wasn't vibing with the song, no deal. (I have to imagine the sample being used in a Nas song, and not some Future trap-banger, helped there.) The Fugees may have broken up over a decade ago, but they'll be tied together through publishing until they day they die, and beyond.
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Jay Z famously lied to the playwright about seeing the play Annie as a kid and loving it to clear the "Hard Knock Life" sample, and RZA pulled off an extremely rare Beatles sample only because he befriended George Harrison's son, and then that son lobbied Harrison on RZA's behalf. Knowing Khaled, he probably bought a condo next to Lauryn's house and brought her home-baked muffins for a year. Sample clearance can be as much about personal relationships as business, and apparently no one in the game does personal relationships better than Khaled.
How much did clearing that sample cost? WHO KNOWS, WHAT YOU GOT? Cost depends on how prominent the sample is, a brief snippet won't run you as much as a sample that serves as the song's hook, but while there are general guidelines, there are no hard and fast rules. Khaled could have signed over 100% of the publishing on the song to make it happen, or could have Svengali-ed his way into using it for free, or at least some home-baked muffins.
Sample clearance can be one the most complicated tasks in all of the entertainment industry, but if I had to bet on anyone to clear a seemingly unclearable sample, I'd bet on Khaled. When it comes to convincing people to help him make his album, he truly is the best.
By Nathan S, the managing editor of DJBooth and a hip-hop writer. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter.
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