How Copyright Law Changed Hip Hop
By Kembrew McLeod, Stay Free! Magazine
When Public Enemy released It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back in 1988, it was as if the album had landed from another planet. Nothing sounded like it at the time. It Takes a Nation came frontloaded with sirens, squeals, and squawks that augmented the chaotic, collaged backing tracks over which P.E. frontman Chuck D laid his politically and poetically radical rhymes. He rapped about white supremacy, capitalism, the music industry, black nationalism, and – in the case of "Caught, Can I Get a Witness?" – digital sampling: "CAUGHT, NOW IN COURT ' CAUSE I STOLE A BEAT / THIS IS A SAMPLING SPORT / MAIL FROM THE COURTS AND JAIL / CLAIMS I STOLE THE BEATS THAT I RAIL ... I FOUND THIS MINERAL THAT I CALL A BEAT / I PAID ZERO."
In the mid- to late 1980s, hip-hop artists had a very small window of opportunity to run wild with the newly emerging sampling technologies before the record labels and lawyers started paying attention. No one took advantage of these technologies more effectively than Public Enemy, who put hundreds of sampled aural fragments into It Takes a Nation and stirred them up to create a new, radical sound that changed the way we hear music. But by 1991, no one paid zero for the records they sampled without getting sued. They had to pay a lot. The following is a combination of two interviews conducted separately with Chuck D and Hank Shocklee.
Read the Interview