On the Capitalistic and Racist Dynamics of Sampling

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By Jean‑Hugues Kabuiku & Mathys Rennela

This work is an extended transcript of our intervention at the cultural program The Politics of Music set up by Kunstenfestivaldesarts in Brussels on May 14th 2022.

“Racism as a technique for exploiting black people and for fomenting the hostility of working-class whites toward blacks, so as to enable white capitalists to extract value from everyone else.” This is how Walter Johnson defines the concept of racial capitalism in The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States. In this essay, we discuss how sampling is a technique that fits in a legal and socio-economic framework that stems from racial capitalism. We outline how sampling is used to undermine Black artistry and explain that those racist and capitalist dynamics highlight the way the music industry operates.

The Amen Break is not only the most recognizable but also the most used sample in music history. Yet, the musicians which recorded the track it is taken from was never properly compensated for it. Richard L. Spencer, leader of the band which wrote the heavily sampled piece, only received a meager compensation in 2015, following a crowdfunding campaign. “The young man who played that drumbeat, Gregory Coleman, died homeless and broke in Atlanta, Georgia.”, he said in an interview with the BBC.[1]https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-34785551

The famous sample starts at 1:26

This example is neither isolated nor unique. Renée Jarreau writes in Black Women Helped Build House Music. Their Credit Is Often Left off Records:

“As house music reached the mainstream in the late 1980s and early 1990s, [disco] singers now heard their voices dubbed into international hits that reached well beyond the club. But they found themselves erased even as these songs found massive chart success. 

Martha Wash recorded original vocals under the auspices that they were demos for other singers, but was shocked to find those records released with her vocals intact, her name left off of the credits, and skinny models lip-syncing to her voice in the music videos for those songs.”[2]https://zora.medium.com/black-women-helped-build-house-music-their-credit-is-often-left-off-records-8fc505300bd1

Sampling as a technique lives in a very racialised legal framework. In Race and the Legal Treatment of Digital Sampling, Vernellia R. Randall writes that:

“The copyright system continues to misinterpret the nature and goals of using digital technology to reinterpret existing sources. As a result, American courts create legally binding hierarchies of cultural forms that marginalize artists who borrow openly. Such cultural regulation is made even more troubling by the racial undertones underlying the copyright system's failure to recognize digital sampling as a valid art form.”[3]https://www.racism.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1446:legaltreatmentdigitalsampling&catid=55&Itemid=178&showall=1&limitstart=

The capitalist and racist dynamics of sampling are not as much tied to sampling as a technique in itself, but rather to the industry in which sampling is used as a technique. This is a systemic problem.

The recording industry’s “racialized” political economy

Cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon calls the recording industry’s “racialized political economy.” Mahon writes that Black performers “occupy a subordinate position,” even as their music serves as a “central creative resource” in the industry and the culture. Mahon further explains in 1998: “African-American innovators historically created the genres which defined popular music in America: blues, jazz, rock and roll, soul, and more recently, rap and hip-hop. Rap and R & B categories alone grossed $700 million for the recording industry.”[4] Copyright Culture & (and) Black Music A Legacy of Unequal Protection  -  Kevin J. Greene

As an entertainment lawyer K. J. Greene puts it “The treatment of Black artists by the music industry and the copyright system reveals a pervasive history of infringement. For blues artists particularly, it was almost as if their work- some of the most innovative, original, and imaginative artistic work ever produced in America was, to use a legal term of art, "in the public domain", i.e., freely usable by anyone.”[5] Copyright Culture & (and) Black Music A Legacy of Unequal Protection  -  Kevin J. Greene

French music history is paved with the appropriation of Black (diasporic) music, as if it was an echo of France's colonial history. We wrote in a previous essay that:

“Although the French colonial empire is no more, French neocolonial dynamics remain in France’s former colonies, in particular on the African continent and in the Caribbean. Exploitative behaviours in France’s Overseas departments and territories (DOM-TOM) go far beyond France’s definitive abolition of slavery in 1848. The DOM-TOMs remain economically secluded, which translates into a cost of living which is far superior to Metropolitan France while people earn less. A minority of descendents of white settlers (the békés) still holds most of the land (and infamous cane sugar plantations), and lobbies to continue the use of chlordecone, a pesticide banned in Europe.”[6]https://technomaterialism.com/2021/10/16/dance-music-as-a-diasporic-musical-innovation/

Zouk is a French Caribbean music genre that sits at the crossroad of multiple Caribbean dance music styles, with heavy inspirations from Haitian dance music (such as Compas) and biguine. Created by the Guadeloupean band Kassav’, the genre received international recognition (including in North America), with bands such as La Compagnie Créole associated at the time with the D.I.S.C.O.-famed French producer Daniel Vangarde.

Vangarde’s son, Thomas Bangalter went on to form with his friend Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo what is arguably the most notorious French electronic music group duo: Daft Punk. In order to highlight the exploitative practice of the recording industry, we zoom in on the history of Daft Punk’s award-winning album Discovery, released in 2001. Benefiting from Daniel Vangarde’s industry access, and containing at least seven samples from Black artists, only three of the artists whose work was sampled were compensated for it.

Unfair compensation and sampling

In 1979, Eddie Johns, then 28 years old, released an album, More Spell on You, with a punchy disco title track produced and recorded in Paris. Daft Punk will go on to sample it 30 years later. The duo chopped the track’s horn sections into short samples and rearranged those snippets into a new hook for the track One More Time. That song became Daft Punk’s biggest hit to date and its first million-selling single.[7]https://www.yahoo.com/entertainment/blogs/chart-watch/week-ending-june-16-2013-songs-pharrell-chart-230453610.html The song helped the duo transition from its status as a respected club music act into one of the most popular electronic groups in the world. Pitchfork called One More Time the fifth-best song of the 2000s,[8]https://pitchfork.com/features/lists-and-guides/7693-the-top-500-tracks-of-the-2000s-20-1/?page=11 and Rolling Stone called Discovery one of the 500 best albums of all time, in any genre.[9]https://weraveyou.com/2020/09/rolling-stone-adds-dance-music-albums-to-500-greatest-albums-of-all-time/

Eddie Johns told his side of the story in a 2021 interview with the LA times. Johns was neither compensated for his work, nor listed as a songwriter in the credits of One More Time. A stroke left him unable to work, forcing him into homelessness for more than a decade. The article further states that:

“The rights to More Spell on You — first released in France on the label Président — were acquired by a French label and publishing company, GM Musipro, that reissues vintage French rock and pop. It’s where Daft Punk pays its royalties for permission to sample More Spell on You. The firm’s founder, Georges Mary, confirmed via phone and email that his company does receive those payments from Daft Punk but did not specify an amount.”[10]https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/music/story/2021-05-06/daft-punk-one-more-time-eddie-johns-homeless

This exemplifies how the music industry operates: two French white men fail to credit a Black singer who is heavily sampled on their hit track, and pay royalties to the French label which owns the rights of the record, most likely thanks to a predatory contract signed by Johns.

This story echoes the experience of many Black artists which did not receive their dues, often under the excuse that reaching out to the songwriters was difficult or impossible.

Consider for instance U.K artist A Guy Called Gerald's legal battle with Rham Records: he had to launch a crowdfunding campaign to help finance a legal fight over unpaid royalties, Gerald was never paid royalties for his 1988 hit single Voodoo Ray or his 1989 album Hot Lemonade by the label.[11]https://pitchfork.com/news/a-guy-called-gerald-raising-funds-for-legal-battle-over-royalties-dispute 

Rham Record went as far as stating that they have repeatedly attempted to contact Gerald and his team to pay the royalties and neither him or his team answered them. In reality, the label was repeatedly told to stop exploiting the song.

In the spring of 1993, at the age of 57, Sam Moore (of soul and R&B duo Sam & Dave) wrote to his union’s health and retirement plan to inquire about the status of his pension account. Moore learned he was entitled to a single payment of US$2,285, and a monthly payment of US$67, for up to five years. These figures, the H&R Funds told Moore, were based on his earnings since the early 1960s: around US$66,000. With the help of a pension expert, Moore and his wife (who was also his manager) estimated these decades of earnings added up to more like US$3 million. They believed his pension should have been around US$9,000 per month.[12] Thieves in the Temple -  Kevin J. Greene

Unfair compensation: “it’s not a bug, it’s a feature!”

Earlier, we discussed how Eddie Johns had to struggle with homelessness while his Daft Punk-sampled song was a million dollar hit, with royalties paid to a French production company instead of him, using the excuse that they were not able to get a hold of him. Excuses that we saw were also used for British musician A Guy Called Gerald. 

The use of the same excuse in those two very different contexts regarding black artists highlights the systemic nature of black dispossession in dance music. In the case of Sam Moore, it was about wrong estimates for his pension funds. Music scholars have noted that Black artists, as a class of performers, routinely found their works appropriated and exploited by publishers and managers. 

What if Eddie Johns was in an author’s right organization? Such organizations (for Johns, France’s SACEM)[13]https://www.sacem.fr/ task themselves with ensuring fair compensation in exchange for a yearly paid membership fee. Had Johns joined SACEM, he might have received payments and this is where the issue lies. Entertainment lawyer Kevin J. Greene states in Thieves in the Temple: “Because the creators of these works were legally unsophisticated and often illiterate, copyright formalities such as registration put them at a severe disadvantage. Grafted onto the legal requirements of copyright law were predatory music industry practices that required sharing of copyright ownership and credit.”

Credit  : By Staselnik - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0[14]https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33424138

However, this point of view does not account for the recording industry’s racial capitalism. The cultural landscape and music seem to reflect the dynamic of dispossession that black people and other minoritized people encounter in society. There is a long history of whitewashing and dispossession of black and queer music - at the intersection of both dynamics sit world famous artists, from Elvis with blues/rock'n'roll to Madonna with Vogue. The music industry is an American invention, created on the back of the US' Black population. With a system resembling the process of extractivism, natural resources are being replaced by the labor of Black musicians. Exploitation of Black artists is a deliberate product of an industry shaped almost entirely by white people. In this context, it is likely that an organization such as SACEM would have still failed Eddie Johns. In other words, unfair compensation is not a bug, it’s a feature.

Abolishing copyrights

We need to center materialist criticism of the industry to ask ourselves the right questions.

The racist dynamics discussed here are bound to be maintained for as long as sampling as a technique is embedded within the capitalist system that the music industry is part of.

In the essay Imagine There's No Copyright and No Cultural Conglomerates Too, Joost Smiers  & Marieke Van Schijnde argue the following:

“Research has shown that, of rights-related income, roughly ten percent goes to ninety percent of the artists and, vice versa, ninety percent goes to ten percent. Martin Kretschmer and Friedemann Kawohl have ‘indications that such winner-takes-all markets are prevalent in most cultural industries’ (2004).”[15]https://networkcultures.org/blog/publication/no-4-imagine-there-are-is-no-copyright-and-no-cultural-conglomorates-too-joost-smiers-marieke-van-schijndel/

Few artists earn a living wage from royalties. And now in the era of streaming services, any artist without industry backing cannot expect much more than the ridiculously low Spotify payout (between $0.00331 and $0.00437 per stream).[16]https://freeyourmusic.com/blog/how-much-does-spotify-pay-per-stream

Overall copyright laws have never fulfilled the expectation of providing many artists with a reasonable income, especially Black artists. This is not due to copyright as a concept alone: it also has to do with the racialized nature of capital. As Smiers & van Schijnde write:

“Far more artists should be able to earn a reasonable income from their work than are able to at present.” 

Ideas like Creative Commons,[17]https://creativecommons.org/licenses/?lang=fr-FR combined with a social welfare safety net resembling concepts such as Universal Basic Income, offer an alternative to copyright laws which actually improves the material life conditions of artists. They can lead towards a radical materialist approach of the “Creative Industry” and move away from the notion of “industry” in the first place. 

The story of Eddie Johns’ uncompensated sample on Daft Punk’s One More Time shatters the myth that the strict application of intellectual property rights generates wealth. We do not argue against sampling as a technique: “the prohibition of sampling, based on copyright, has resulted in a lot of music being less interesting”.[18]https://networkcultures.org/blog/publication/no-4-imagine-there-are-is-no-copyright-and-no-cultural-conglomorates-too-joost-smiers-marieke-van-schijndel/ What is argued here is that until we dismantle white supremacy, the exploitative and racial dynamics of sampling are inescapable, especially in the context of white producers sampling Black artists. From a purely economic point of view, the way forward is to push for the abolition of copyright laws, which never catered to artists in the first place.


1 https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-34785551
2 https://zora.medium.com/black-women-helped-build-house-music-their-credit-is-often-left-off-records-8fc505300bd1
3 https://www.racism.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1446:legaltreatmentdigitalsampling&catid=55&Itemid=178&showall=1&limitstart=
4 Copyright Culture & (and) Black Music A Legacy of Unequal Protection  -  Kevin J. Greene
5 Copyright Culture & (and) Black Music A Legacy of Unequal Protection  -  Kevin J. Greene
6 https://technomaterialism.com/2021/10/16/dance-music-as-a-diasporic-musical-innovation/
7 https://www.yahoo.com/entertainment/blogs/chart-watch/week-ending-june-16-2013-songs-pharrell-chart-230453610.html
8 https://pitchfork.com/features/lists-and-guides/7693-the-top-500-tracks-of-the-2000s-20-1/?page=11
9 https://weraveyou.com/2020/09/rolling-stone-adds-dance-music-albums-to-500-greatest-albums-of-all-time/
10 https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/music/story/2021-05-06/daft-punk-one-more-time-eddie-johns-homeless
11 https://pitchfork.com/news/a-guy-called-gerald-raising-funds-for-legal-battle-over-royalties-dispute
12 Thieves in the Temple -  Kevin J. Greene
13 https://www.sacem.fr/
14 https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33424138
15, 18 https://networkcultures.org/blog/publication/no-4-imagine-there-are-is-no-copyright-and-no-cultural-conglomorates-too-joost-smiers-marieke-van-schijndel/
16 https://freeyourmusic.com/blog/how-much-does-spotify-pay-per-stream
17 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/?lang=fr-FR