In case you missed it, Drake was recently sued by the estate of late jazz musician Jimmy Smith for sampling the latter’s “Jimmy Smith Rap” in the intro of Drake’s “Pound Cake/Paris Morton Music 2.” As of publishing, it’s amounted to a game of he-said/they-said, as Drake’s liner notes allege that the sample was properly licensed, but Smith’s estate denies having ever been contacted. The suit amounts to about $300k in damages for these lyrics that set a chill vibe, before sampling Wu-Tang and Ellie Goulding:
Good God Almighty. Like back in the old days. You know, years ago they had the A&R men to tell you what to play, how to play it and you know whether it’s disco and rock but we just went in the studio and we did it. We had the champagne in the studio, of course, compliments of the company, and we just laid back and did it. So we hope you enjoy listening to this album half as much as we enjoyed playing it for you. Because we had a ball. Only real music is gonna last, all the other bullshit is here today and gone tomorrow…
When the facts all come out, it’ll be a cut-and-dry case of right and wrong with an implied context either way. If Smith’s estate did give permission, it’d signal they’re exploiting Drake’s success for their own financial gain. On the other hand, if Drake is indeed lying about getting permission, that amounts to copy-paste plagiarism. Sadly, the second seems to be true more often, and while any artist deserves the benefit of the doubt, hip hop relies far too much on this tactic. Many seem to not understand the problem.
Let’s just go back before the dawn of sampling for a second: once upon a time, if artist A recorded a cover a song written by artist B, A had to pay royalties to B for any sales generated with the cover. That’s assuming that artist A actually performed the song, which sampling producers aren’t even doing. Or, let’s say that it’s not a cover, but B completely changed the song – shifting parts, adding new sections, changing the speed, and so on, as producers often do. That still leaves A as the composer – who gets royalties – and B as the arranger. This is all concrete music law that’s been around for decades, bordering on centuries.
Drake’s dealing of the debacle with the Smith estate recalls a mind-boggling line of defense most hip hop heads’ use to rationalize carte-blanche sampling summed up neatly in the 2009 documentary, Copyright Criminals. Basically, it amounts to “well, our art would die if we had to pay for sampling.” If paying, or at least negotiating, for your co-opted material kills your ability to make money, then maybe you should take a crack at writing instead of arranging (or copying and pasting). G-Funk era producers made it happen, so can you.
As easy as it is to not be a fan of Drake, this isn’t to paint him in a bad light if he’s indeed innocent – he does that well enough on his own with his super-hypocritical Jay-Z beef-for-publicity (remember who actually “Started from the Bottom,” Drake). Let’s just clarify the difference between stealing and creating, since there seems to be a lot of confusion going around lately.