As a publication that aims to educate electronic music and hip-hop lovers, it’s a bit ironic to delve into something as nuanced sample snitching. Sample snitching refers to publicly uncovering samples used in a song that hasn’t previously been credited. A golden rule in hip-hop, “no sample snitching” has seemingly lost its awareness in the music community, with TikTok accounts even going viral for exposing samples of popular songs.
But there are two ends of a sample: the artists who sample, and those they sampled from—so we can understand why this is a controversial topic in music. To really investigate how sample snitching has evolved over the years, and how it affects both hip-hop and electronic music communities, we spoke to some experts in the field to give us some insight.
The History of Sampling
The Celluloid tape recorder was invented in 1909 by Franklin C. Goodale; who adapted movie film to instead work for analog audio recording. Decades later in the 40s, French composer Pierre Schaffer used pre-recorded samples and then looped, pitch-shifted, sped them up or slowed them down. This is our first introduction to what we now know as sampling.
Sampling became popularized in music in the late 80s. It was a way for hip-hop producers who couldn’t afford the same technology as the biggest beatmakers at the time. But the technique became an art form of its own. Notably, DJ Shadow landed in the 1996 Guinness Book of World Records for his sample usage in Entroducing…, which is widely acknowledged upon as one of the best hip-hop albums of all time.
Obviously, this didn’t sit well with major labels, who always interpreted sampling as stealing. Even huge names like The Beastie Boys, Biz Markie, and De La Soul have been hit with lawsuits that they’re still paying for to this day.
The generational disparity of sample snitching
People who grew up seeing their favorite artists get into trouble with these labels came to the conclusion that there was a reason artists wouldn’t divulge their sample sources. That’s where the rule of “no sample snitching” comes in.
Prolific and revered hip-hop historian Dart Adams also brings up that while it isn’t outdated, the differences in the culture of sample snitching are generational. “I’ll see Tiktoks and [Instagram] Reels where people go and reveal what samples are used. First of all, I get why that would be something that people will be into, since they didn’t grow up in the era that I did.”
But we’re in a different time now. Sites like WhoSampled, Genius, and Wikipedia are used for online sample digging. Shazam’s technology can tell us any track we want to know. And music fans and journalists are eager to share their music knowledge. So is “no sample snitching” outdated?
John Morrison (DJ, producer, and music journalist for sites like NPR, Bandcamp, and The Wired) chimes in. He says, “I wouldn’t say that the term sample snitching is outdated at all. The culture of secrecy around sample sources partially arose to protect sampling artists from lawsuits.” And these lawsuits still happen today.
Can people “snitch” with tact?
As avid music academics, we all love knowing what songs inspired the ones we’re listening to. And even for me, it’s become a hobby to allocate hours to crate dig for what samples were used in songs. But knowing that publicly disclosing this information might put my favorite artists in a tough spot got me thinking: Is there actually a way we as music fans or even music blogs can educate fellow music lovers with tact?
The founder of electronic and hip-hop blog FUXWITHIT, Colin Vlasak, answers “Not really.” However, he continues with, “But that’s not really their intent. I think they offer immense value in music discovery but I’m sure they’re not without causing some issues for artists… I also think there’s a big difference between sampling for a random underground SoundCloud drop and making a record for a Drake album.”
On the other hand, producers themselves get why people would want to share, but still don’t agree with it. DJ Premier has famously been able to clear most of the samples he used but still doesn’t think snitching is the way to go. In a recorded interview, the producer expresses why:
I understand their reason for [sample snitching]. They want to dissect my science, but it’s still snitching because you understand how many artists that we sample don’t appreciate or don’t even respect rappers. Not all of them. Some will clear, some of them just need the check.
Who does sample snitching actually affect?
Intellectual property laws were created to protect artists’ original work. And as one anonymous label owner told Pitchfork, “Uncleared samples are illegal, so you’re enjoying this illegal music. When you do illegal shit, you should probably not talk about it too publicly on the internet.” The solution? Prolific entertainment lawyer Adam C. Freedman, who represents many of today’s top electronic music producers, writes, “If you want to legally use a sample of a piece of music in your work, you have to obtain permission, every single time.”
But as Premiere put it, that might not always be easy. The Copyright Act of 1976 includes the fair use doctrine, which is supposed to permit limited use of copyright material without permission. The four factors that determine whether or not something is fair use are:
- the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
- the nature of the copyrighted work;
- the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
- the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.
The Fair Use exemption should give samplers the ability to continue, but in reality, it just depends on how good your lawyers are. And major labels will absolutely be able to take on smaller, independent artists. With the underground hip-hop community predominantly made up of disenfranchised Black people, these laws disproportionately affect them.
Morrison adds, “Independent Black artists generally have less access to resources and financial backing so when we are sued, there’s no machine to come to our assistance, so in that way, sample-snitching would impact us disproportionately.”
marcus d, a producer who’s worked with rappers such as Curren$y and Royce Da 5’9″ puts it like this:
I think it’s just another form of policing black culture. People don’t realize record labels pay people a full salary to scour the internet for content that infringes on copyrights they own. Sample-snitching in Youtube comments gets people sued, and Whosampled is like a comprehensive directory that makes the job of identifying, tracking, and suing hip-hop artists really fuckin’ simple. Back in the early 2010s Kno (of Cunninlynguists) likened it to basically doxing your weed dealer.
Dart Adams says another problem with these laws is the justice system itself. He explains, “A lot of the people that determine if this is fair use or a completely new composition have no background in music, sampling, or electronic music, and don’t know what it takes to flip a sample, or what anything in this space really means.”
While copyright laws are supposed to encourage artists to continue to create, either by protecting their work or allowing fair use, it might be doing the opposite instead. El. of Lofi Vibe says these regulations can stifle artists’ creativity. “You just want to make art, and it can put a limit on one’s ability to push the envelope when you have to clear your every move with someone else. Imagine having to ask the inventor of the chair if you too can create a chair.”
Sampling in electronic music
While many of the known cases and loudest voices against sample snitching come from hip-hop, it isn’t limited to the genre. Some electronic subgenres heavily rely on samples, too. However, when I brought up the topic to the people I know in the dance music community, so many of them had no idea what sample snitching was or why people shouldn’t do it.
Adams agrees that hip-hop and electronic music are more similar than people like to admit. “The funny thing about electronic music is if you go back and you look at the equipment they use, they use the same equipment that web producers used in the late 80s to the mid-90s, the exact same equipment, the exact same rigs.”
The difference in the treatment of each community may lie in racial injustice. While the fanbases of both hip-hop and electronic music are extremely diverse—and the histories of both genres are rooted in African American culture—the top artists of each scene have a stark contrast in demographics.
Just because electronic producers aren’t as vocal, there are still a few have spoken up. Italian beatmaker msft. tells ThisSongIsSick, “Well I genuinely feel sample snitching is cringe, especially when you’re not making dubstep or dnb which are the two genres (in my opinion) where you need to showcase your ability in sound design.” But he indicates that the people who do it aren’t doing it to purposely hurt anyone. “I feel it’s something carried out pretty much by small communities, without the intent of hurting the artists or belittle them but just to subtly flex their knowledge.”
Sampling: An art form
Even looking through the comments of that DJ Premiere interview, I saw people call the revered turntablist a thief. But as fans of sample-heavy music, it would be remiss of us to not disagree and conclude that sampling is an art form of its own. El. puts it neatly:
I see sampling as a way of breathing new life into the original source or introducing others to the artist who created the original song. Sampling is more than loops. It’s being given a set amount of resources and being asked to build something entirely new from it. It’s innovative. You’re deconstructing a house to build one with your vision.
And while we can understand why people feel almost entitled to knowing and sharing everything about the music that inspires them, unfortunately, producers don’t get the same grace when sampling the music that inspired them. Especially when they get served papers for it.
marcus d says it best, at the close of our interview. “There will always be risks associated with sampling…but if fans like and appreciate the style of music an artist makes, they need to understand that sample snitching is only hurting the artist and making their life much more difficult…all stemming from some weird need for internet points or approval.”