The Purdie Shuffle, Sampling, and the Artist as “Individual”

Bernard Purdie, right, with saxophonist Tyrone Smith. Source:
Bernard Purdie, right, with saxophonist Tyrone Smith. Source:

I’ve been thinking recently about a talk I heard a while back by the famous soul and funk drummer Bernard Purdie. Purdie played on some of the most important  recordings of the latter half of the 20th century; he played on tracks by James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Albert Ayler, King Curtis, Steely Dan, and many others. In fact, he claims that he is the most recorded drummer ever, appearing on more than 4,000 records. Moreover, his work has been sampled by many hip hop artists, greatly multiplying his presence and influence through the world of popular music. It is no exaggeration to suggest that Purdie—and his famous “Purdie Shuffle”—have been among the most influential forces in contemporary popular music.

So when Purdie visited Columbia College Chicago last year to speak to a group of undergraduate performance students, I was eager to see what kind of advice he had for these aspiring musicians. What bits of wisdom and insight would such a successful performer and recording artist offer to young musicians trying to follow in his giant footsteps?

Purdie’s advice can be encapsulated in a single word: ownership. He spoke of his experiences as a drummer whose recorded performances have been repeatedly sampled, and he cautioned the class to be vigilant about owning their own recordings. This sounds fairly unremarkable—an experienced musician, who has extensive knowledge of the business of music, warns young musicians to guard against others profiting from their labor. But what I found interesting—and what might be potentially damaging to the music industry—was the way in which Purdie understood the concept of “ownership.”

Purdie pointed out that his work has been sampled repeatedly and prominently. This is hardly surprising, since he played on some of the definitive soul and funk records of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. Yet as a sideman or session player, Purdie is not entitled to payment when a DJ licenses a track that on which he played. You almost certainly have heard his work, through sampling if not the tracks he actually recorded. For example, his drum part to Melvin Bliss’s “Synthetic Substitution” is one of the most sampled drum breaks around: “Bring Da Ruckus” by Wu-Tang Clan, “O.P.P.” by Naughty by Nature, “Don’t Believe the Hype” by Public Enemy… According to (not necessarily an entirely credible source, but still a good gauge), Purdie’s shuffle from this one record has been sampled 521 times.

So it is certainly understandable that he feels cheated when he watches hip hop artists profit from the breaks that he created during a long career in the music industry. Purdie suggested that perhaps he, as the drummer on tracks like “Synthetic Substitution,” ought to be compensated by anyone who samples his drum part. The implication, of course, is that Purdie should have some sort of ownership stake in every track on which he played.

And here’s where the problem lies with Purdie’s view of music and ownership. First of all, is it even possible to break every recording down into ownership for the individual musical contributions made by musicians? Well, it might be, but that doesn’t mean that we should. Doing so might solve a compensation problem for session players like Purdie, but it would create substantial philosophical and (more importantly) pragmatic and legal problems down the line. Is a music recording really nothing more than the sum of its parts (as seems to be implied by this atomistic view of ownership)? Again, it’s a possibility, albeit a rather pessimistic one. But how can we even assess those parts independent of each other? Musicians in and out of the studio respond musically to each other. A drum figure can rarely be understood independent of the bass line that is syncs with; horn parts are always unified in particular (and often pre-planned) ways. Should a saxophone player on a track own the right to his own particular horn part, separate from (say) the two other saxophonists that he played alongside? And what is the saxophonist’s contribution, anyway? Very often someone else will have written the arrangement, so maybe the saxophonist owns not the particular notes and rhythms, but just the timbre of his instrument.

To me (and I hope to others), this all sounds patently insane. Yet I recognize that Purdie is responding to a real and pressing problem in the music industry—the lack of proper compensation for the industry’s laborers (the musicians who play for session fees), while record companies and a handful of stars grow wealthy on the backs of their labor. This is a problem that demands resolution if the recording industry is to continue to thrive, but the solution is not asserting micro-ownership of individual elements of tracks—or, more generally, any solution that would pit musicians against each other, fighting for some small crumbs while the administrators continue to grow fat.

One thing that the industry needs, in fact, is an end to the ridiculous idea that samples have to be licensed at all. When I talk with my students about some of the monuments of early hip hop—records like Public Enemy’s Nation of Millions and Tribe’s People’s Instinctive Travels—I often describe these times as the “wild west” of sampling—in other words, that brief and wonderful moment of creative lawlessness before record labels realized there was money to be made from charging artists to sample from their catalogs. It was never clear–and it remains unclear—why sampling should not be understood as a case of fair use. Artists who sample others’ recordings do so in a way that is transformative and that bolsters creativity for all artists by providing them with new sources of inspiration and material for their work. These are the core principles of fair use, as it has always been understood.

But large record companies are not in the business of defending the principles of artistic freedom and creativity. Rather, they are risk-averse entities that seek to minimize outlay while maximizing revenue—in other words, to make large profits. And regardless of the legality of sampling, record companies did not want to invest in defending their artists from the copyright claims of other record companies, so they simply began refusing to release any record on which all samples had not been cleared. Effectively, this meant that almost overnight sampling went from common practice among hip hop artists to a creative form reserved for a privileged few (i.e., those who were likely to seek enough records to justify paying the licensing fees for their samples).

All of this history has been well documented, and there are much better accounts than mine of how and why the practice of licensing samples developed as it did. But what has been less discussed is the long-term impact that the record industry’s flight from sampling has had on musical creativity and the ways that artists view themselves. Even among people who readily recognize the avariciousness of the big record companies, many will concede that artists can’t just take someone else’s creative work for nothing. It’s a commercial industry, after all, and artists should be paid for their individual work.

And therein lies the fundamental problem: the logic advanced by the record companies was one of individualism and fair pay for one’s own work. They portrayed artists as individuals in a very fundamental sense—musicians whose creativity is a product of isolated internal processes, rather than the product of ever-shifting collaborations and complex chains of influence and imitation. And once you can convince people that they work as individuals, you can easily persuade them that they should be paid as individuals, and that they ought to defend their own individual share against others who might infringe upon it.

In short, then, the logic of the record companies with regard to sampling (and a much wider set of practices, too) is one that guarantees the continued subservience of artists (indie labels notwithstanding, because they are substantially smaller and, even today, hold a relatively minor share of the record industry). Artists of all stripes are encouraged to see each other as their competition, rather than the record companies. But think about this for a minute: what if the record industry worked on a model where all sampling was free, but where artists held a stake in their own work that was proportional to the labor they put into it? What if artists received more than a pittance as a royalty from record sales (and a pittance that is used to pay back label “investment” in the artist)? If artists were compensated fairly to begin with—and compensated by the large companies that profit from their work—then the question of sampling would likely seem much less significant than it has been portrayed. The power structure of the industry would be radically different. Creative paths that have long been closed to artists (want to sample the Beatles? better know how to hide!) would open up, and it wouldn’t be at the expense of any artist anywhere.

Yes, this may be a pipe dream, and it might actually be more practical to just tear down the whole industry and see what happens. But I’d like to think that there’s a way that Bernard Purdie can be fairly paid for his remarkable body of work and that artists can build upon the tremendous legacy that he has created.

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