Give The Drummer Some

by Thomas Brett

In the histories of hip hop and electronic dance music, the creative uses of sampling are much discussed, especially musicians’ taking drum and percussion “breaks” from old R&B and soul records and using them as the basis of new tracks.  With samplers, MPC workstations, and computer software, musicians and DJs since the late 1980s have foraged far and wide through the dustbins of used record shops in search of the good instrumental bits to sample and loop.  (You can read a related post of mine on Secondhand Sureshots here.)  With the push of a button, the creative labor of acoustic musicians is captured as digital grist for the electronic music mill.

It is perhaps no surprise that amid the enthusiastic talk about sampling and sampers, scant attention has been paid to the artists whose work has been lifted.  For example, James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” is perhaps the most sampled piece of music (certainly in hip hop), thanks to drummer Clyde Stubblefield’s very groovy drum break.  Below is a YouTube clip of the original song.  If you are curious about the drum break, it starts at 5:16:

But while Brown eventually got paid by samplers of his songs, it turns out that drum breaks–unlike lyrics and melodies– aren’t protectable intellectual property.  This means that Mr. Stubblefield, now 67 years old, never made a cent off of the countless songs that have sampled his drum breaks.  Today, Mr. Stubblefield lives in Madison, Wisconsin, playing gigs with a local band.  Meanwhile, his grooves live on countless tracks.

You can read more about this story in the New York Times here.  Also, the debates over musical sampling as well Mr. Stubblefield’s work are the basis of a new documentary DVD, Copyright Criminals.