Crate Digging 101: Uncleared Samples, Piracy or Creativity?

by Dinorah Wilson (Journalism), published November 16th 2011

No sound is original.

Otis Reading’s crooning can’t be missed in the hook of the Kanye West-produced “Otis.” Kelis’ angry monologue featured on “Caught Out There” addictively loops throughout James Blake’s “CMYK.”

From hip-hop to dubstep, songs that we’ve grown to love due to their complexity and inventiveness are often just variations of throwbacks from past generations.  Unbeknownst to many, beat producers are hard at work in the studio mixing, chopping and reworking obscure samples from the early days of music to create new hits. A producer’s decision to sample another artist’s composition contributes to the rich underground scene of beat production. Providing a link between music’s past and present, where sounds of contrasting eras can intermingle with one another to create innovative and memorable songs for listeners to enjoy and appreciate.

However, music is facing a rising trend where the fine line between sampling another’s work and shamelessly passing off a performer’s composition as one’s own has been carelessly trampled. Some DJs not only capitalize off the efforts of earlier musicians, but also refuse to ask for permission to use the original work in their mixes, generating a material profit for themselves. A sour outcome is produced when these producers blindly use the original artist’s creativity as a stepping-stone while denying respect to the original musicians whose musical masterpieces have clearly served as influences.

Madlib, a prominent underground Los Angeles DJ, popularly known as half of the duo Madvillain, is known to sample an extensive amount of music from various genres to create his instrumentals. His albums, including the /Medicine Show/ series and /Madvillainy/, prominantly feature samples ranging from Frank Zappa to sound blips from vintage Street Fighter arcade games. Cuts like these have aroused the interest of many fans that eagerly take on the mission of tracking down his obscure samples.

Through the creation of a sample set, a list of songs and composers that an artist has sampled, a significant amount of Madlib’s samples were identified as un-cleared. In 2008, responding to threats of copyright infringement from industry executives, Madlib lashed out at bloggers from for posting a sample set, saying “pages like this on the internet are no help at all to people like Doom, Madlib, and those that work with them.” As a result, the sample set was removed, as several websites and blogs faced termination or legal action for revealing his un-cleared samples.

For the most part, none of these samples would have been recognized if it had not been for bloggers, who diligently sought out the origins of the beats. Understandably, producers are entitled to feel that despite the usage of earlier samples, due to the time and energy put into creating their music, the credit truly belongs to them. But should fans and blogs suffer consequences because producers refuse to clear their samples?

“I’ll say that I don’t think they should be punished, but I’d have to question their commitment to the group,” said Andre Lira, a Northeastern DJ known for his project, Docta Jeep. However, when asked about the benefits of fans creating lists of an artist’s samples to gain more insight into their beat-making processes, Lira said, “I am in full support of that just because it gives the listener a glimpse into the creative process of the artist, and producers like myself love that sort of thing because you can easily learn from it.”

Ultimately, the process of getting down to a song’s “roots” and finding the original sample is enjoyable to many people looking to add another layer of complexity to their favorite songs. Sample sets are history lessons within music compositions; they are convenient aids for locating the original songs of samples without the hassle of manual “crate digging” glorified in the past.

Still, if there’s one essential rule of “crate-digging,” it is to always pay homage to those musicians who are being sampled, even if it requires more work to clear samples and involves splitting profits. Fans calling attention to the major issue of producers “borrowing without asking” shouldn’t be seen as an exception to the rule.

2 Responses to “Crate Digging 101: Uncleared Samples, Piracy or Creativity?”

  1. Supercoolperson says:

    If you’re going to use “No sound is original” as your opening sentence, you’ve gotta back it up more than just mentioning samples. Everyone knows crate digging is not creating original sounds, I would’ve liked to hear your thoughts more on why that’s no different than a ‘truly original’ song that basically is just a mash-up of old chord progressions and melodies that have been passed down through hundreds of years (since . But what about musique concrete and serialism, or music from other cultures like Gamelan that use different tunings and all that? Does that fit under the same umbrella???
    Sorry for the asinine comment, but using that “whoa huge statement’” of an opener made me want to hear more about what you (and other DJs like the one you interviewed) mentioned. My b G.

    • Dinorah Wilson says:

      Thanks for your feedback.

      I tried my best to stay away from the ethnomusicology-related aspects of this topic, being that I feel this op-ed was simply just my two cents on uncleared samples and not really the appropriate outlet for an in-depth thesis on the progression of sound. 

      Personally, I think that encompassing feature ledes draw in readers like yourself, generate more page views, and get people talking; they’re pretty common for enterprise stories. But I feel you, more info never hurts.