Films & Schedules
  • Copyright Criminals: This is a Sampling Sport

  • Benjamin Franzen

  • Kembrew McLeod

Country: USA
65 minutes

Saturday September 1907:00PM YONGE DUNDAS SQUARE



TIFF In Concert Film Series: The world premiere of Copyright Criminals

Computers, software, and even mobile phones have radically altered our relationship to mass culture and technology—providing consumers with the tools to become producers (or “remixers”) of their media environments. Long before everyday people began posting their video mash-ups on the Web, hip-hop musicians perfected the art of audio  montage through a sport they called “sampling.” While it is true that, for instance, most people can hear Rick James’ “Superfreak” in MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This,” this simplified example does little justice to the complex rhythms, references, and nuanced layers of sound created by Public Enemy, De La Soul, the Beastie Boys, and others in the 1980s. By the early 1990s, the practice of sampling collided headfirst with copyright law—fundamentally altering the nature of this musical genre, and provoking debates about copyright, compensation, and creativity in the age of intellectual property.

Copyright Criminals: This Is a Sampling Sport examines the creative and commercial value of musical sampling, including the related debates over artistic expression, copyright law, and (of course) money. This documentary traces the rise of hip-hop from the urban streets of New York to its current status as a multibillion-dollar industry. For more than thirty years, innovative hip-hop performers and producers have been re-using portions of previously recorded music in new, otherwise original compositions. When lawyers and record companies got involved, what was once referred to as a “borrowed melody” became a “copyright infringement.” The film showcases many of hip-hop music’s founding figures like Public Enemy, De La Soul, and Digital Underground—while also featuring emerging artists such as audiovisual remixers Eclectic Method. It also provides an in-depth look at artists who have been sampled, such as Clyde Stubblefield  (James Brown's drummer and the world's most sampled musician), as well as commentary by another highly sampled musician, funk legend George Clinton.

Using first-person interviews with artists and music industry insiders, Copyright Criminals explains how some traditional musicians view sampling as a lazy creative technique that relied on pillaging the music of others. However, the practice of musical borrowing is by no means unique to hip-hop, and the film discusses what it means to make new compositions out of old melodies, lyrics, and sounds. “Sampling itself is an embodiment of this active process of engaging with history,” hip-hop insider Jeff Chang argues. Sampling artists drew on entire histories and biographies connected to certain sounds, 
whether they were referencing a specific figure like James Brown or evoking the sounds of a decade like the 1970s, more generally. “That’s what’s cool about sampling,” says Drew Daniel, of the sound collage group Matmos. “It transports the listener, if they’re willing, to move in that pathway, back to a specific moment in time.”

The art of sampling is examined through a collage of live performances, archival footage, and a soundtrack that reflects hip-hop’s collage aesthetic. The film traces the roots of sampling from New York City in the 1970s—when DJs began to scratch the sounds of one record atop a different song—to the 1980s, when hip-hop pioneered the use of digital technologies to create music. This led to the “Golden Age of Sampling” during the 1980s, but by the early 1990s this golden age came to an abrupt halt when outraged musicians and record labels filed several major lawsuits. These suits dramatically changed the hip-hop world and created new financial and bureaucratic institutions called “clearance houses.” This key moment in hip-hop’s evolution has implications far beyond this musical genre—especially now that virtually anyone can remix.

Copyright Criminals concludes by documenting why sampling remains a relevant and controversial issue today. “It came out of the professional recording studios,” says Coldcut’s Matt Black, “and into the bedrooms. That changed the music industry, and the reverberations are still being felt today.” Black’s assertion is demonstrated by the ear-popping example of the Grey Album, a homemade record created from samples of Jay-Z’s Black Album and the Beatles’ White Album, without permission. It gained wide distribution, despite remaining outside of the mainstream music industry. Danger Mouse is just the tip of the iceberg; tens of thousands of amateur creators are mashing up media, just for the fun of it. As Jeff Chang puts it, “We live in a remix culture now. Remix touches everything we do. You can’t escape that.”

The film concludes by showing how personal computers, Internet distribution, and remix culture is rapidly changing the way that people interact with media. Featured at the end of Copyright Criminals is Eclectic Method, a group of three pop culture VJs (the video-manipulating equivalent of a DJ) who helped pioneer the emerging art of audio-visual mixing back in 2002. Eclectic Method show us how they make their multimedia mixes live in their studio and in clubs, and they discuss from their first person perspective how the law hasn’t caught up with new creative practices that, nowadays, anyone can 
engage in.

This is a story still being written. Today and beyond, computers, mobile phones, and other interactive technologies are changing our relationship with media, blurring the line between producer and consumer, and radically changing what it means to be creative. Copyright Criminals challenges the audience to learn, listen, and join in on the debate. As artists find ever more inventive ways to insert old influences into new material, this documentary asks a critical question, on behalf of an entire creative community: Can you own a sound?

Cadillac People's Choice Award