One hallmark of important art, in any medium, is a thoughtful relation with artistic precursors. Every artist reckons with heroes and rivals, influences and nemeses, and the old work becomes a part of the new. In Adam Bradley’s seminal monograph on hip-hop lyrics, Book of Rhymes, legendary MC Mos Def describes his desire to participate in posterity: “I wanted it to be something that was durable. You can listen to all these Jimi records and Miles records and Curtis Mayfield records; I wanted to be able to add something to that conversation.”
In the last thirty years, technology has transformed the conversation between past and present musicians: it is now possible to quote a previous work not only note for note, but byte for byte. The turntable and the sampler are the hip-hop artist’s quintessential instruments. The culture of hip-hop bricolage, coupled with intense commercial pressures in the recording industry and an inevitable proliferation of rip-off artists, has created difficult challenges for copyright law and for the concept of licensing. Several cultures must adapt to each other, and often they are doing so in the courtroom.
In a study both comprehensively theoretical and rich with the voices of musicians and producers, Kembrew McLeod and Peter DiCola have addressed together both the legal and the cultural implications of digital sampling in the music industry. Creative License: The Law and Culture of Digital Sampling (Duke University Press, 2011), in tandem with related multimedia projects from the Future of Music Coalition, lays out what they have learned and suggests a way forward for the industry in the digital age.