Hip Hop Samples and The Law

Hip Hop Samples and The Law

Hip Hop Samples and The LawIs is still safe to harvest your hip hop samples from old vinyl or are those days long gone? Here’s what all hard working Hip Hop producers need to know.

It’s a sad fact that the days of care free sampling have long gone.

There was once a time when DJ’s, producers and artists would happily spend hours, weeks, months and years lifting inspirational hip hop samples from old LP’s ranging from all time classics to long forgotten obscurity.

Back in the Day

Picture crate digging DJ’s and sound engineers dedicating their time to mining for audio diamonds amid mountains of vinyl while rapidly running out of memory on their Akai samplers. Aside from the pure joy of listening to great records there was the added bonus of the hunters high when occasionally you chanced upon a clean drum break or a super hooky vocal with limitless possibilities.

These were glorious days and it’s true that if you’re extremely rich or just really ballsy you can still enjoy the freedom of care free sampling (although these days you’re less likely to run out of memory).

Todays Reality

Copyright law has been around for a long time and for artists and creative’s it’s a very important thing. What it all boils down to for most people is money. If you’ve worked hard at creating something special you’d expect to get paid for it if somebody out there profited from your hard work.

That’s why sampling has become an expensive business. Nowadays a record label will often have a close relationship with a sample clearance company that knows how to get clearance to use the hip hop samples that their artists have included in their songs.

Gambling with Sampling

Sampling Hip HopIt’s a bit of a gamble because normally an artist has no clue what it’s going to cost to use a particular sample. Sometimes an artist will take even more of a gamble and just deal with it when they get caught. The problem you’ve got here is that a lot of record labels won’t dare take that chance.

In general you can be pretty sure that it’s going to cost you more to use a Michael Jackson sample than it would some obscure sample from a record nobody has ever heard. There’s also the fact of who you are. If you’re a new artist with not much heat, the copyright owners of the sample you used might go easy on you, but if you’re a big name then it’s time to add some zero’s to the licensing fee.

To further complicate matters, your song might even offend the copyright holders of the sample and they could refuse to license the sample to you no matter how much you offered to pay. This is a situation you really want to avoid if possible.

The Reaction of the Music Industry

Toward the late 90’s Hip Hop artists were dealing with so many law suites and messy legal drama’s over copyright infringement that I believe this changed the sound of modern production to include more electronic sounds and less samples.

People went back to basics and started using synths and drum machines again. Look at the 80’s revival of recent years and you’re hard pressed to find even a sampled drum fill.

So what can you do?

There are a few options and solutions to the legal issues of sampling:

1 – Use Royalty Free Hip Hop Samples

Since the 1980’s, the royalty free loops and samples industry has exploded. These are ideal because these sounds are created specifically to be used as samples . All you do is pay a small fee up front and you’re now cleared to use those sounds in your songs. These days even sample producers can create productions that will sound like they were lifted from old records – check out some of our hip hop samples.

All of our sounds are royalty free and require no sample clearance.

2 – Don’t use ANY Samples

Sounds extreme but since recording began, thousands of artists have been playing their own instruments and creating their own sounds from scratch. Sampling wouldn’t exist at all if it wasn’t for the people who created the content in the first place. Even early Hip Hop tracks mostly contained drum machines, synths and live performances with no loops or samples. Of course we’d be out of business if you did that so pretend you didn’t read this paragraph.

3 – Get Clearance

If your record label already has a close relationship with a sample clearance house it’s possible to mine your samples from sources that you already know to be affordable. This can save you from massive disappointment but kind of takes the magic out of sampling in the first place.

If you can’t sample what you want, what’s the point?

If you have deep pockets you can sample pretty much anything you like and ultimately this is where business sense and creativity work together. If you’re Jay-Z and you just mastered a song that has a Prince sample as the main hook, you know this is going to cost a large chunk of change, however the song is a sure fire hit and you’ve got a massive fan base so you figure it’s a sound investment.

4 – Take the Risk?

There are some producers and labels out there who are prepared to take the risk and release whatever they want without getting sample clearance. You’ve got to admire their balls and purity. Most will be too small for the big record labels to even care about.

If a record label has any sense they won’t waste their time suing some rapper that has sold only 500 copies of his CD and has played a handful of gigs. They might keep an eye on that rapper however, and wait until his first Platinum selling album wins him a Grammy, then they’ll sue.

5 – Safe Sampling?

There is a massive grey area when it comes to how the law views copyright infringement in terms of sampling and that is when a sample is mutated beyond recognition.

If you were to take a loop from a James Brown record and alter nothing but the pitch and tempo it would still be completely recognizable and you could expect to pay for sample clearance to use that sound.

But what if you were to chop it up, reverse it, re-pitch certain parts, add FX, eq and generally mangle the sound beyond all recognition?

Well for sure it would be less easy to recognize but would it safely get passed the need for sample clearance? I don’t know, it all depends on the copyright owners and the the opinion of the judge. As I said, this grey area is huge and only time will tell as more court cases set a precedent for change.


If you’re a gambler and want to take the risk, good luck to you.

If you just want to get some great Hip Hop Samples for less than the cost of a night out, check out our royalty free Hip Hop Samples.