‘Common decency’: Beyonce’s Renaissance sparks debate over politics of music sampling

Robin Stone found her seminal ’90s hit Show Me Love being sampled alongside everyone else on Break My Soul, the lead single from Beyoncé’s new album Renaissance. As the song’s performer rather than a writer and producer, she doesn’t need approval to use it — and she doesn’t make any money from it.

While Stone sees the nod as a compliment and a testament to her 30-year relevance, it also brings old wounds. The song’s authors, Alan George and Fred MacFarlane, “never gave me the credit I deserve,” she said. “The first note is mine, the riff is mine, and I add flavor to it. They’ve been eating at my table, and I’ve been feeding their family for over 30 years.”

Stone wasn’t the only artist who was struck by the use of their music during the Renaissance. This week, Beyoncé dropped an interpolation of Kelis’ 2003 hit Milkshake — a sampling that saw excerpts from the song re-recorded and often redone — from the song Energy, which publicly criticized Beyoncé for not letting her know about “community” face”. As Kelis explains, the situation has reignited controversy with the track’s famed songwriters Pharrell Williams and Neptunes’ Chad Hugo, who she claims have “swindled” out of publishing rights to two albums she co-produced .

Hayleigh Bosher, author of Copyright in the Music Industry, said Beyoncé didn’t need to remove the interpolation for legal reasons, but appeared to be out of respect — perhaps because of public perception.

“It doesn’t matter that Beyoncé actually violated Kelis’ rights,” Bosher said. “The point is that people think she’s doing it because the public isn’t educated about music copyright. [Kelis] She doesn’t have any legal status, but by speaking out on social media, she creates emotional and moral capital. “

The discourse surrounding the Renaissance opens up questions about the politics of sampling in modern pop music. Sampling is big business today. Among the 16 “Renaissance” credits are 17 other songs. Meanwhile, half of the current UK top 10 singles chart features samples ranging from Silk’s 1979 track I Can’t Stop (Turning You On) to excerpts from La Roux’s 2009 hit In for the Kill .

As producer and Beyoncé collaborator the-Dream said this week, sampling came of age with the rise of hip-hop, where it was used to make up for scarce production some 50 years ago due to lack of funds. Today, with hip-hop becoming the most popular music genre in America and dance—another heavily sampled music genre—resurging, sampling is a prerequisite for chart-topping success.

While Beyoncé seems to have been wary of crediting her for all her samples, failing to do so – or being accused of not doing so – could lead to costly lawsuits after the music’s release. In 2017, Ed Sheeran added songwriting credits from the three writers of TLC’s No Scrubs to his song Shape of You after being accused of elevating the melody from a ’90s hit.

The song originally contained a TLC sample, which was taken before release. The basis for the controversy, Bosher said, was “a re-creation of a slightly similar part of the song.” As a result, Sheeran handed over 15 percent of Shape of You’s publishing royalties, “which is very high for a small portion of the song,” she said.

The difference between interpolation and direct sampling is another potential source of contention. Interpolation is often used for creative reasons – reinterpreting older versions and paying homage to historically related tracks. However, there is evidence that record labels prefer the former, as only one set of rights — publishing, not those attached to the master recording — needs to be cleared to avoid sacrificing revenue.

A music industry insider with extensive experience with major labels expressed dissatisfaction. “The label doesn’t dictate anything the studio creates. You can’t tell the artist what song to sample.”

Ed Sheeran added songwriting credit to the author of TLC’s No Scrubs on his song Shape of You after being accused of elevating the melody. Photo: Hannah McKay/PA

But they acknowledge that artists may be encouraged to interpolate to avoid what is often a lengthy process of clearing rights that could delay a song’s release date. That’s why the UK summer hit Afraid to Feel by LF System was inserted into Silk’s I Can’t Stop (Turning You On) rather than sampled directly.

Amber Davis, who works with artists including Stormzy and Dave at publisher Warner Chappell Music, said: “In the current climate, you want to drop the song next week, or you’re doing a freestyle with a sample, turnaround time. Stress is quite sensitive.”

While Davis would like to see more complete originals, it doesn’t seem like the practice of extensive sampling is going away anytime soon. In recent years, investors have bought massive catalogs of songs from artists including Leonard Cohen and Justin Timberlake for nine-figure sums, expecting big returns. “The search for new life in songs is the future foundation of many of these investments,” a music industry insider said.

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