This week, PBS affiliates throughout North America are showing a documentary called Copyright Criminals, as apart of PBS’ Independent Lens series covering works by independent filmakers. The film takes a look specificially at the world of music where samples have become something of value.
If you’re a regular visitor of my website, you should know what a sample is. If you came here from a Google search and somehow stumbled onto my page, here it is. The word “sample” is described in the film as “to use a segment of another’s musical recording as part of one’s own recording”. In the early days of digital sampling, and I’m specifically talking about early 1980’s when Art Of Noise were some of the pioneers in taking other previously recorded sounds and rhythmically turning it into something else, it wasn’t even called “sampling”, or the act of using a “sample”. Remember this, as I will bring it up again.
The documentary primarily focuses on hip-hop music, since it is a music that became a billion dollar industry by making music from other people’s music. The documentary, directed by Benjamin Franzen and Kembrew McLeod interviews various hip-hop DJ’s and producers, along with lawyers and “music industry insiders” looking at both sides of the sampling equation. While it does describe what sampling is and how creators and fans of hip-hop music and production have turned it into a form of art in comparison to other forms of art, it didn’t take on a cratedigger mentality to dig deeper. In other words, it only scratched the surface. Producers such as El-P and Shock G. talked about their craft, George Clinton spoke on how it felt to create music that would become a huge influence, while Clyde Stubblefield talked about he simply wants to be recognized as the man behind his beat. Sure, he’d love the money too, but he knows the logistics of the music industry and the legal system, and it’s humbling because if he was ruthless, he would make huge demands. It’s almost as if he still senses James Brown lurking in the distance, leery of taking any legal action against the Godfather of Soul.
I think as a surface, slap-butter-on-the-roof-until-it-falls type of documentary, it’s okay. However, one can easily find old archival news footage of some of the artists interviewed in this doc and discover much more informative information. Matt Black of Coldcut was briefly seen here, and yet he was a major part of an MTV news story that also covered De La Soul. As for De La, they did mention their use of “You Showed Me” by The Turtles and how that made a huge impact on their career, for better or worse. While the group and producer Prince Paul did have to give a list of samples used, they only submitted the obvious ones. The Turtles sample was taken from the 45, played at 33, and it became a not-so-obvious one. That is, until a daughter of one of the Turtles (not sure if it was Howard Kaylan or Mark Volman heard the song, played it to his father, and he knew exactly what it was. That trippy, Beatlesque sample was just a Turtles song slowed down. All of this information was not mentioned in the film. The doc did cover the Biz Markie/Gilbert O’Sullivan case, but again, very briefly.
It did touch on the fact that you cannot, under any circumstance, sample any Beatles songs. Yet if you weren’t paying attention, you might have missed the reference to The Betales being a group who also included “found sounds” in their works. I would have loved to have known more about this, but it’s barely a nick.
What was also omitted was earlier examples of sampling, they made reference to blues and jazz often paying “homage”, but they never used the word “homage”. It also focused on black artists, which almost suggested that black artists were the only ones who had taken and delivered, as if they could not come up with things on their own. While Led Zeppelin were seen and heard as part of a video collage, no one mentioned how Led Zeppelin were huge musical thieves.
What exists on Copyright Criminals is good, but it was like grabbing a rock, allowing it to skim the surface of the water, and saying “is that it?” An extra half hour could have been spent on digging deeper, and maybe there’s extra footage on the festival edit of the film or on the DVD version, since PBS does have regulations as to how long their documentaries can be. If anything, perhaps it will encourage more people to discover what sampling is all about. I felt Jeff Chang was someone who revealed an incredible amount of information, coming off as a historian and in truth just a fan of the sounds within the grooves. Yet with Chang throughout the film, I thought it was somewhat funny that some of his closest friends, arguably what we’d call true “copyright criminals”, were not in the film. Then again, if one needs to know more, then can be like Latimore and dig a little deeper.
(Copyright Criminals is a part of PBS’ Independent Lens series, which is being shown on PBS throughout the week, check PBS.org for air times in your city/region.)