How the Sample Snitch Won


Zo is a staff writer at Okayplayer where he covers…

Sample snitch stealing recordSample snitch stealing record

There’s a mini war happening between old-school hip-hop conservatives and a more progressive opposition pleading for a higher standard of transparency in music. Graphic: @popephoenix for Okayplayer 

Hip-hop’s code of silence pits producers against an obsessively resourceful block of fans. With the crate-digging community thriving online, there’s no stopping the sample snitch.

“Y’all are violating, straight up and down,” shouts a scratchy-throated DJ Premier as the beat fades on Gang Starr‘s “Royalty.” The track’s curtain call is effectively an indictment, putting targets on the backs of the break record compilations that circulated during the 1980s and 1990s. Arguably hip-hop’s first sample snitch, those albums (Super Disco Breaks, Ultimate Break Beats, Dusty Fingers, and the like) often held the source code for some of the most revered rap records above and below ground, along with the names of producers and tracks that quoted or interpolated elements of each song. For sample-based producers (who, at the time, accounted for the majority of those operating in the beatmaking landscape) this was a flagrant, albeit unavoidable, liability. Failing to clear sources was expensive. And the legal departments of labels have never passed on an opportunity to collect.

Nearing 25 years since the Moment of Truth callout, Preemo’s sample snitch screed has become the guiding dogma of hip-hop production. In fact, the Gang Starr producer’s sentiments towards the practice of aggregating and outing reference material are now echoed by peers, predecessors, and even descendants. “I see why a lot of my homies don’t sample. They got sued because y’all [are] talking about them on the blogs and stuff,” Madlib told told BBC Radio 1’s Benji B in a 2013 interview, empathizing with producers ditching their MPCs for increasingly affordable and versatile MIDI controllers. More recently, producer Nicholas Craven invoked Premier’s “Royalty” sign-off and the words of other grailed rap producers in his own seemingly unprovoked rant on Twitter. “The guy who created the new era of underground hip-hop said NO SAMPLE SNITCHING what more do you need?,” Craven wrote, pointing at a characteristically cold Roc Marciano interview from 2015.  And though he may not have intended to do so, Craven’s outburst sparked a fairly heated debate over the nature of sampling and who it actually victimizes.

Almost instantly, the replies to Craven’s posts erupted into a renewed showdown between proponents of hip-hop’s decades-long standoff with the sample snitch and those defending the rights of artists getting quoted with no accreditation. Lauding the hushed protocol as a necessary and foundational defense mechanism for producers, the former faction cited hip-hop’s battered legal history, while a more progressive opposition pleaded for a higher standard of transparency in music across the aboard. Making matters even more complicated, Craven’s remarks arrived at a time when the source codes to notable and obscure songs are easier to access (and harder to hide) than ever.

By the time the Beat Konducta denounced the rap buff blog circuit for too loudly discussing their findings, crate-diggers had already established an online ecosystem for sharing the quotes they spotted in their digital and physical excavations. The migration was both seamless and inevitable. On Facebook, groups formed to facilitate an exchange of known and newly unearthed sample fodder amongst tens of thousands of members. On Twitter and Instagram, accounts were created almost solely to display the bridge between hip-hop classics and the tracks they borrowed from. Since its launch, Youtube has become a goldmine for any collector with taste deeper than their pockets. And then there’s Chris Reed’s Whosampled. Founded in 2008, the ever-expanding database is effectively (and controversially) creating a crowd-sourced tree of life for any song with an explicit interpretation of another, sprouting a branch every time a new connection between disparate generations is discovered. And as new platforms came to rise, homeschooled musicologists are growing even more obsessively resourceful, bringing their love of music deconstruction to TikTok and Twitch, where a new generation of aspiring pad-smashers is now learning to bend and fragment sound from other producers one flip demonstration at a time.

Hell, it’s almost as if rap fans, regardless of whether they ever actually pick up a sampler, are as invested in the etymology of the music they love as the person creating it. And why wouldn’t they be? All of this flows out from the same strain of inspired dissemination that compels musicians to compulsively update one another on what’s entered their respective rotation, the same communal urge to pull from and foster a forum of influence.

Listen, in its current form, the internet is far from flawless. The lone upside to this whole “everyone and everything is always in your pocket” experiment is being afforded a venue to share insight as it arrives. Granted, this doesn’t give anyone carte blanche to post intentionally unverifiable assertions (we all know how that’s been going.) But we’re not talking about people ramped up on amphetamines, tallboys of Mountain Dew, and Alex Jones talking points, anxiously awaiting a Q-Anon drop to signal the next attempt at an insurrection. The vast majority of people in those online communities are devoted to the collective undertaking of tracing a sound back to its root with absolutely no profit incentive. And if there’s a group of music enthusiasts better qualified for sniffing out sources than rap fans, they’ve yet to be properly introduced. At a time when the virtual spaces we occupy are owned by only a handful of colossal corporate entities selling connectivity as a new type of intimacy, while actively destroying democratic systems by allowing misinformation campaigns to flourish, those committed to the thankless task of fact-checking anything should be celebrated, not demonized.

Modern sample-reliant musicians could take a cue from 9th Wonder. One of the most prominent and revered samplers of a generation, the Little Brother producer approaches music dissection and attribution with academic precision, embracing the open-source era of sampling. That is, so long as the source gets their due. It should be noted, even Premier has changed his tune on adequately citing the origins of the music he repurposes. “We gotta respect the fact that these people created, and put their blood, sweat, and tears, into this music that we’re taking and creating our own version [of,]” the Gang Star producer told Rob Markman in a 2017 interview. “We didn’t understand the laws and all that back then,” Preemo confessed, noting the sense of obligation to prior vanguards he’s developed over the years.

At the end of the day, waging war with a group that adoringly analyzes your art and occasionally uncovers a song you failed to clear is working against your own fanbase, who, like the very information a producer is attempting to protect, is more decentralized than ever. And the expectation that fans, who could aid you in properly licensing out a sampled artist’s music,  are supposed to take a vow of silence over their own findings is equally absurd. After all, music nerds are going to music nerd where and whenever they’re given the opportunity, on or offline. It’s time producers accepted the L in this age-old debate and begin utilizing a tech-and-research-savvy block of their own following as an asset instead of trying to stomp them out. Art is best appreciated by a well-informed patron and hip-hop will ultimately be better off once they’re actually embraced.

That we’ve arrived at an honest and principled discourse over musical references is itself an indication that the sample snitch is no longer some ravenous money-hungry selector carelessly outing producers, just a cease and desist order away from being muzzled. And it may just mean they’ve won.