The musical output of George Clinton hinges on an unimpeachable run from 1970 to 1982. During that time, Clinton slapped together doped-up, proto-disco like "Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker)" and "Flash Light" with Parliament. He grinded out grimy, soulful stoner rock via Funkadelic. He delivered Richard Wagner-meets-Robert Crumb live spectacles and indulged an elaborate mythos that combined rock 'n' roll deification, space spirituality and pop-art insanity into a closed-circuit collective called "P-Funk."
P-Funk never really ended (and, as Clinton has said, will never die), but its output slowed in the mid '80s. But Clinton's legacy has not suffered, because of his supportive relationship with hip-hop—as inspirational figure, as spiritual guide and, most important, as a sample source for many rap tracks. In fact, in this era of online beat makers playing fast and loose with copyright strictures, Clinton is experiencing a comeback.
In 1992, everyone, it seemed, was listening to The Chronic, the Dr. Dre classic and the first aggressive rap record to truly make its way out into the suburbs and initiate rap's knotty transition to pop. In turn, the suburbs were listening to Dre's warped, widescreen take on the George Clinton universe: The slow-rolling hook of "Let Me Ride" comes from a live version of Parliament's "Mothership Connection." "Fuck Wit' Dre Day" takes hold of Clinton's "Atomic Dog," Funkadelic's "Not Just Knee Deep" and three different Parliament songs to render a body-rattling ride-out hit.
Dre's stitched-together, steroidal style had been percolating by way of other West Coast Clinton-sampling artists such as Above the Law and Too $hort since the late '80s. The style was even called "G-funk," a nod to P-Funk. Plenty of other hip-hop songs had sampled Clinton. Digital Underground's "Humpty Dance," from 1990, grabs a mid-song shard of Parliament's "Let's Play House," while De La Soul's 1989 hit "Me, Myself & I" also grabbed Funkadelic's "Not Just Knee Deep." But P-Funk and G-Funk were inextricably tied, and Clinton became a pioneer of and participant in hip-hop culture.
Clinton not only liked his new role, but he embraced it, too. He encouraged sampling, working closely with rappers who saw him as an influence and eventually appearing on songs with OutKast, Snoop Dogg and others. In 1993, one year after The Chronic, Clinton released the first in a trilogy of compilations, titled Sample Some of Disc, Sample Some of DAT. The three volumes consisted of isolated drum fills, bass lines and synthesizer squeaks from Clinton's original late-'70s recordings. He was helping youngsters muck with his catalog—exploiting their music to exploit his even more. Clinton became the example of how a veteran musician should interact with his predecessors.
But not everyone proved so open to the idea: In 1991, Gilbert O'Sullivan sued Biz Markie for sampling his "Alone Again (Naturally)," and a judge cited "thou shalt not steal" in a pro-O'Sullivan decision. Sampling has since been marred by constantly changing legal red tape. For a sample to be legally on the up-and-up, it must be cleared by the owner of the master recording (usually a record company or someone who bought the catalog from the record company) and the owner of the publishing rights (usually the songwriter).
That is a flawed system, of course: What recourse do those who played on the record have? They were working for hire at the time, but if they like the idea of their work living on through a rapper spitting over it decades later and turning it into another hit, shouldn't they be allowed their say? The legalities of sampling are a mess, and the current system often doesn't compensate all parties involved.
As a result of hip-hop's legal scares and the exorbitant fees often involved in "clearing" samples, beat making has increasingly shied away from such sources. But in the past half-decade, the Internet has introduced a new cadre of producers liberating samples once again.
Fueled by an online distribution system, rappers—both obscure and very famous—often introduce their work on "mixtapes," album-like collections of music offered up for free download. Because the music isn't being sold, there's no direct profit involved for the artist. Such songs exist in a legal grey area, the same region where sampling culture has been resurrected.
As these producers and rappers aren't worried about being sued by their sources, they've also resurrected the anything-goes approach of the '80s, when rap songs could be rooted in everything from stalwart break-beat sources like James Brown's "Funky Drummer" to an oddity that just sounded good, such as "Looking Out My Window" by Welsh cheeseball Tom Jones. Internet-brewed rap superstar Kendrick Lamar bugs out over a sample of indie daydreamers Beach House on "Money Trees" on last year's good kid, m.A.A.d city. "Adderall Admiral," a cut from online sensation Danny Brown's 2011 mixtape XXX, combined samples of space-proggers Hawkwind and post-punk weirdos This Heat into wonderful WTF rap. Meanwhile, Action Bronson and producer Party Supplies based last year's mixtape Blue Chips around samples assembled from YouTube, giving the beats a hazy and compressed vibe—the digital equivalent of vinyl crackle.
But even profit-free Internet rap sampling is being challenged in court. Last year, producer Lord Finesse sued rapper Mac Miller for using Finesse's 1995 instrumental for "Hip 2 Da Game" on his breakout song, "Kool Aid & Frozen Pizza." Miller didn't sell the song, per se, offering it instead as a free download. But the YouTube video for the song had more than 20 million views, which translates into an ostensible heap of advertising money. Miller earned cash indirectly through the sample because the song helped make his name, and he played it nightly on tour.
This situation epitomizes the complexity and absurdity of right and wrong in these sampling cases. Finesse's own tune sampled Oscar Peterson's "Dream of You." Did Peterson get paid back in 1995? "Hip 2 Da Game" was even used in an AT&T commercial at the time. Did that phone company cash trickle down to whoever owns "Dream of You"? And even if it did, at what point do the court cases and the payouts stop? Who gets sued and who gets away with it seem to be dominated by who has the most money and the biggest bullying lawyers.
George Clinton doesn't like that. He has been sampled hundreds of time and doesn't always see or even seek compensation. He's continually beseeched his fellow sample sources to have a more reasonable conversation about the old tune being turned into new music. "We never mind them sampling or covering a song," Clinton said in an interview with the Red Bull Music Academy earlier this year. "There's a small amount that you're supposed to pay, but you're not supposed to get sued all over the place for doing it. We'd rather be doing it together."
Turns out, that's one way to ensure that P-Funk never dies.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Tear the roof off the song."