Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Biz Markie -- "Alone Again" (1991)

It took me an hour, to get where I was goin'
And to top it all off, it had to start snowin'
My sneakers was old, and my coat was thin
But my determination kept me goin' within
I had nobody to help me as you can SEE!
I'm alone again, naturally
Alone again, naturally

Like Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie was a member of the Juice Crew, a Queens-based hip hop collective founded by producer Marley Marl.  Unlike Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie was a terrible rapper.

The reason the "Hip Hop 101" syllabus includes his "Alone Again" is that it resulted in a federal court case -- Grand Upright Records, Ltd. v. Warner Bros. Records, Inc. -- that turned the rap music world upside down and inside out.

Gilbert O'Sullivan
"Alone Again" -- the next-to-last track on Biz Markie's third studio album, I Need A Haircut (1991) -- sampled "Alone Again (Naturally)," which was a huge hit in 1972 for Irish singer-songwriter Gilbert O'Sullivan (real name: Raymond Edward O'Sullivan).  

The record company that had purchased the copyright to O'Sullivan's song sued Biz Markie and his record company for copyright infringement.  There was no doubt that Biz Markie had lifted a 10-second instrumental snippet from O'Sullivan's record and "looped" it (that is, repeated it over and over) as the background for his lyrics.

There has been more written about this case and other rap-related copyright cases than you can imagine.  Here's a link to just one of the law review articles that discusses the Grand Upright Records decision and digital sampling law generally.  But in today's "Hip Hop 101" lecture, we're going to keep the legal mumbo-jumbo to a minimum.

The federal Copyright Act of 1976 provides that a musical recording has two copyrightable elements.  You can copyright the composition itself and you can copyright a recorded performance of the composition.  Unauthorized sampling infringes both the composition and the recording copyrights.  

Biz Markie
The judge in the "Alone Again" case saw it as a black-and-white matter.  He found that Biz Markie had essentially stolen the sample from O'Sullivan -- in fact, the first line of his decision was "Thou shalt not steal."  His decision didn't leave room for rappers to argue that a short or altered sample was "fair use."  If you used a sample and the sample was recognizable (which was usually the point of using the sample), you had infringed the copyright.

This decision revolutionized rap music.  Before 1991, many rappers not only sampled from other performers' records, but sampled from dozens -- perhaps even hundreds -- of other performers' records on a single album.  After the Grand Upright Records  decision, hip hop artists who wanted to use samples had to obtain licenses for each and every one of them.  The cost of doing that was often prohibitive.  

Here's another complicating factor.  If you simply cover a song, the law provides for a compulsory license at a fixed fee -- you don't have to get permission or negotiate the royalty.  (The artist who records a cover version of a song currently must pay 9.1 cents per CD or download sold, or 1.75 cents per minute if less than the whole song is used.)

But there's no compulsory license or fee schedule for samples of a recording -- any artist who wants to use a sample must get the permission of the holder of the copyright on the recording and negotiate a license fee.

Sampling is as old as hip hop music.  DJs didn't bring guitars and drums to a gig, they brought a couple of turntables, a mixer, and a box full of records.  By mixing short excerpts from those records, those DJs could keep the party going as long as they needed to.  Soon enough, the MCs got into the act, chanting rhymes over those recorded beats.

In most cases, the unauthorized use of samples by DJs probably didn't cost the original recording artist any money.  When De La Soul sampled Steely Dan's "Peg" in its "Eye Know," its doubtful that a single person bought the De La Soul song instead of the Steely Dan song.

But think about that grumpy old man in your neighborhood who always yelled at you when you cut across his yard on your walk home from school.  You weren't damaging his grass a bit, but it was private property -- so if he didn't want you or any other young whippersnapper walking on it, that was his right.

Don't underestimate one other factor.  There are a lot of lawyers out there trying to justify their existence to their clients.  You can best believe that every time some wannabe rapper sampled a tiny piece of a Beatles song in a homemade mix tape and gave a copy to his girlfriend, a couple of dozen lawyers were running to Paul McCartney (or Michael Jackson or whomever owned the Beatles' catalog at the time) and yelling that the sky was falling and the only way to stop the world from going to hell in a handbasket was to sue the little bastard who was stealing their music.

There are reasonable arguments on both sides of the sampling debate.  But thanks in large part to the Grand Upright Records decision, the record companies have won the battle and the war.  So if you want to sample even a lame old song like "Alone Again (Naturally)," you'll have to pay for the privilege.

Here's "Alone Again (Naturally)":

And here's "Alone Again":

Since "Alone Again" was pulled after the lawsuit, you can't buy it from Amazon.  But you can buy "Alone Again (Naturally)":


  1. 1. Clearly not that lame since it was sampled.

    2. In any case not nearly as lame as the track it was sampled for which is poor to say the least.

    3. It may be a short sample but it's looped to produce almost the entire sound bed for the track.

    4. His grass - but no harm done? The case was taken on the basis of damage to the reputation of the song and the impact that would have on its profitability. I'd say that constitutes protecting against hard done.

    5. At the end of the day it's another artists work that is being ripped off - he didn't want that to happen - he should have the right to say no, and now he does.

    6. shall I go on? Ok - 6. You suggest it plays into the hands of greedy record companies - but wasn't it a greedy record company that released I Need A Haircut despite not having a key sample signed off - yes it was - so it's not actually to do with record companies being victor or not - this is about protecting artists - of which creative people should be supportive.

    that is all.

  2. Gilbert song SUX!!! Biz Markie version of the song is better. FUCK Gilbert!!! Biz Markie RULEZ