If you're wondering why Judge Victor Valdivia's reviews all read the same, it's because they're all sampled and looped.
Can you own a sound?
In 2004, LA-based DJ/producer Danger Mouse released what would become the apotheosis of sample-based digital music. He took the vocal tracks from Jay-Z's The Black Album (2003) and mixed them with musical samples and loops taken from the Beatles' self-titled 1968 White Album. The resulting release, dubbed The Grey Album, was only initially available in limited release, but was then hit with a court injunction by the Beatles' label, EMI, barring its manufacture after they cited Danger Mouse's unauthorized use of Beatles samples. Suddenly, The Grey Album became an extremely hot property and was leaked onto the Internet, where millions of fans downloaded it clandestinely. The irony, of course, is that if EMI had negotiated a deal with Danger Mouse to allow the album to be officially released, everyone, especially EMI, could have netted a tidy profit. Instead, the album that may have possibly been the most downloaded of the year didn't make a dime for anybody.
Copyright Criminals addresses the issue at the heart of this controversy: With the advancements in digital sampling technology and the increasing ease with which musicians can put together music using samples, has the original intent of the Copyright Act outlived its usefulness? Is it no longer practical or even possible for artists and, more importantly, record labels, to impose strict restrictions on how and when samples can be licensed? These are not easy questions, and it's not surprising that the interviewees, who range from hip-hop producers to lawyers, can't answer them completely.
The selection of interviewees is remarkable. Virtually any hip-hop and electronic producer of note is included. From Public Enemy, De La Soul, Def Jux overlord El-P (who provides the soundtrack), Mix Master Mike, DJ Spooky, and DJ Q-Bert on the pro-sampling side to legal experts, lawyers, and overrated alterna-hack Steve Albini on the con, Copyright Criminals does a great job getting all possible perspectives. There is no consensus, of course—even as hip-hop producers and artists defend sampling as an integral part of hip-hop culture, aging self-appointed musical integrity watchdog Albini proclaims that sampling violates the principles of live musicianship. Never mind that many of the artists that Albini has produced, from Bush to Helmet, are so painfully derivative of earlier and better ones that they essentially end up as equally mechanical human samplers. A more interesting perspective is provided by interviews with the two most sampled artists in hip-hop: Parliament/Funkadelic overlord George Clinton and Clyde Stubblefield, the drummer for James Brown's band. Stubblefield's drum lick on "Funky Drummer" has provided the musical backbone to virtually every hip-hop song released in the late '80s and early '90s, while Clinton's music pretty much made Dr. Dre's entire career possible. Both men discuss how they accept that hip-hop sampling revitalized their careers at a crucial time while also remarking that they wish they would have been compensated more fairly than they were.
The documentary also addresses the legal aspects of sampling and makes the point that copyright law, which has not been updated since 1977, may be out of date in addressing the modern digital music landscape. The legal experts interviewed here, even the ones who argue for rigid controls over sampling, all agree that technology has changed much too radically to fit in with the existing law. Since the documentary gives brief but informative histories of the major legal cases involving sampling, you can see how accurate this sentiment is. For instance, when EMI sought an injunction against Danger Mouse for The Grey Album, there was no real attempt to find a monetary solution that could have pleased everyone. Instead, the judge merely ordered that the album no longer be manufactured or officially distributed without taking into consideration just how impossible it is to completely eradicate anything that's been released over the Internet. That's not exactly the kind of judgment that someone familiar with how the music industry really works would suggest.
As good as this documentary is, it's not as thorough as it could have been. It only addresses the issue of sampling as related to hip-hop. It might have been useful to give a more comprehensive picture of how sampling has been an integral part of popular music since well before the rise of hip-hop. The Mellotron, a musical instrument that uses tape loops of prerecorded instruments like flutes and strings, was a prototype sampler first used by the Beatles in the '60s and later became a staple of prog-rock bands like Yes and the Moody Blues in the '70s. The documentary could have drawn a clearer line between this and the cheap samplers and keyboards introduced in the early '80s, which changed sampling from an expensive technology available only to the biggest artists to a quick alternative to instruments for struggling producers and rappers. Also, while artists like Chuck D and De La Soul mention that the extensive need to clear samples nowadays means that the intricate sample-heavy albums of the late '80s are a thing of the past, they don't really address how they've adapted their recording process accordingly. It might have been interesting to show how these producers no work in the studio under new circumstances to get an idea of how sampling is used nowadays. These are not major flaws, but the documentary is so good that it's hard not to wish it was longer and more wide-ranging.
IndiePix has done a good job presenting Copyright Criminals on DVD. There is a fair smattering of extras. There are extended interviews (87:59) with Chuck D, De La Soul, and Stubblefield that are worth a look for fans. There is a collection of shorts put together by the Center for Social Media called "Fair Use Explained" (25:13). These address some of the issues surrounding what is and isn't legal when using copyrighted material, although be warned that they are a little dry and technical. The disc also includes a jukebox that plays instrumental electronic tracks by producers El-P and RJD2 heard in the documentary. All of these are available on their albums, but if you've never heard El-P or RJD2's music before, this makes for a fine sampler. Finally, the disc is rounded out by a theatrical trailer. The anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer and Dolby Digital 2.0 mix are both solid with no flaws to speak of.
Regardless of its flaws, Copyright Criminals remains a worthy documentary. It asks the hard questions about the need for artists to be fairly compensated for their music while also demonstrating how the evolution of sampling has become inevitable. That there are no easy answers, and that there won't be until a serious effort is made to adapt copyright laws to match the huge advances in technology, is an important point that it makes. Most of all, though, Copyright Criminals is recommended for anyone interested in an essential part of current musical culture.
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