Monday, August 30, 2010

Sampling for Beginners

Copyright Criminals is a recent documentary, now available on DVD, about sampling and copyright. It's a bit of a short movie, clocking in at just over an hour, but it was getting some positive attention at the beginning of the year. Now that it's officially available on DVD, I figured it was time I give it a proper review.

On the positive end, it presents good points from both sides, letting those both for and against sampling make their case intelligently. It interviews some interesting people from different walks who are affected by sampling and copyright law, from industry employees to DJs to artists who sample to artists who've been sampled. A segment on Clyde Stubblefield, former drummer for James Brown who's been sampled a bajillion times since he performed the percussion solo heard on 1970's "Funky Drummer," one of the most used breakbeats ever. And it leaves you with a pretty solid understanding of the sampling situation.

On the negative end, well, first of all, like I said, it's short. It's short and spends so much time explaining the fundamentals (in case you've been living under a rock since the 80s), that odds are, you won't come away having learned much of anything. This is really a brief, beginners' course on a complex and compelling issue - I was feeling there should be a sequel to get into the more advanced issues and much richer, more detailed stories of real cases made for those of us who already pretty well understand how sampling works. And I'm not even saying this is basic stuff just for us advanced hardcore heads who collect obscure records to read the run-out grooves... even your grandmother who couldn't name a single rapper to save her life will be bored with this rehashed old turf.

The other negative is the constant mash-ups played throughout the movie, performed by some group called Eclectic Method. For about the first fifteen seconds, it's an interesting illustration of how sampling works (in case that you the rock you lived under was so thick you needed to be shown as well as told). They sample old musical clips and chop them into new beats, the way a hip-hop producer would... a corny hip-hop producer, but still you get the point. And for the visual aspect, they show the performance footage of the music they sample. So, again, it's pandering to a pretty ignorant audience, but it's pretty nicely done.

But it doesn't last for just fifteen seconds. It goes on and recurs. And it just keeps coming back, over and over. Soon, a really large percent of this already short film has been given over to this annoying, stuttering video and examples of sampling that really aren't all that impressive on a musical level, either. It's like they knew they had a super short doc, and in order to pad it out into something resembling feature length (which they didn't reach anyway), they let the editor shamelessly indulge himself by looping this footage over and over. When we were discussing this over on the DWG forums back in January, Bob Disaster put it aptly, "those mash up fannies Eclectic Method made me want to stab my eyes out." ...That really says it all.

So, bottom line? It's worth a watch if you can see it for free. It's short, and there are a few bits in there that are worth your time. But it's all been discussed before, and there are much better discussions on the topic to be found, so I really can't recommend paying to see it or purchasing the DVD. There's just not enough to depth to 95% of the interviews that you'll feel compelled to go back to them; and even if you do feel compelled to have a second look, the memory of those awful mash-ups will drive you away.


  1. Yeah, good call. Definite beginner's guide. They amped this project up and I was actually excited to see it only to be disappointed. I learned nothing except the re-assurance that Clyde Stubblefield is a cool dude.
    I would rather they did a documentary on Clyde Stubblefield than what they actually did.

  2. For a PBS Independent Lens episode I thought it was alright. You're right. No real new ground was covered & to include the "mash up" guys was kind of insulting. Are mash up's even popular anymore?