A documentary created by two Iowans about music sampling will air this week on P.B.S. TV stations nationwide. “Copyright Criminals” is part of the “Independent Lens” series, and will debut tonight. Kembrew McLeod , the documentary’s executive producer and writer, says the technique of music sampling has been evolving for decades — even centuries.
“Musical borrowing has been around forever,” McLeod says. “It’s been a deep part of folk music, jazz music, blues. All these artists have always borrowed from each other. Digital sampling, aided by technology, didn’t really come around until the mid to late 80s. These technologies were used by hip-hop artists.” The documentary examines the creative and commercial value of music sampling, including the ongoing debates about artistic expression, copyright law and money.
“At the time, the music industry just thought they were a passing fad and they were, more or less, left alone to do whatever they wanted,” McLeod says. “They ended up making, in the late 80s, during the golden age of sampling, a lot of really interesting sound collages. But then the lawyers came along around 1990-91 and the lawsuits started flying and things changed very quickly.” The film showcases many of hip-hop’s founding figures like Public Enemy, De La Soul and Digital Underground.
McLeod says sampling was stifled by the law only temporarily and in the past two decades, has grown exponentially along with emerging technology. McLeod says an eastern Iowa native is riding a new wave of popularity with his sampling. “The #1 video this month on YouTube is by a young man named DJ Earworm,” McLeod says. “What he did was, over the course of five minutes, he mashed up the top 25 Billboard singles of 2009 and re-combined bits and pieces of them into a flowing five-minute conversation.”
The video has been viewed nearly seven-million times. McLeod says DJ Earworm is based in San Francisco and grew up in Iowa City. He’s touring the country, performing his music mixes. So if the sampling of someone else’s music is illegal, why is it so prolific? McLeod says: “You know that carnival game Whack-A-Mole where you try and whack down the moles and more pop up? It’s kind of like the digital version of Whack-A-Mole. There’s just no way they can police all the different people, whether it’s DJ Earworm from Iowa, or a 13-year-old or whoever, there’s just no way they can keep these supposed infringements down.”
McLeod is a professor of communication studies at the University of Iowa. His partner on the project is Benjamin Franzen, who directed, produced and edited the documentary. Franzen, a Dubuque native, is a University of Iowa graduate, now based in Atlanta. While the documentary will debut Tuesday night on P-B-S stations nationwide, it will *not* air on Iowa Public TV until Sunday, January 24th.
Here is the video: DJ Earworm’s Pop 2009 Mashup