City Research Online

‘Do the Right Thing ’ or ‘ Fight the Power ? ’ : Hip-Hop Music, Sampling and Copyright Law

Lee, J. & Mimler, M. ORCID: 0000-0002-9457-2506 (2023). ‘Do the Right Thing ’ or ‘ Fight the Power ? ’ : Hip-Hop Music, Sampling and Copyright Law. In: Bonadio, E. & Zhu, C. W. (Eds.), Music Borrowing and Copyright. 127. (pp. 127-144). London, UK: Bloomsbury.


Hip-hop music has become one of the most popular music genres. In 2018, hip-hop and rap music topped the league of total music consumption in the USA, at 21.7 per cent. This number reflects hip-hop’s influence not only on a wide audience, but also on other genres of music. Hip-hop music is now a global phenomenon and is performed worldwide in various languages in addition to English, such as French, German, Chinese, Spanish and Turkish. To some extent, defining hip-hop as only a genre of music would be a mistake. Rather, it encompasses a much wider array of cultural practices, with diverse forms of expressions. As such, hip-hop has become a certain lifestyle that an increasing number of people around the world embrace.

The focus of this chapter is the tension between copyright law and sampling, a core element of hip-hop music creation. The drama surrounding The Sugar Hill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’ embodies the apotheosis of such tension. First released in 1980, ‘Rapper’s Delight’ was one of the very first commercially successful hip-hop tracks. The success, however, came with the threat of copyright infringement lawsuit by the members of Chic. The members of Chic argued that the bassline of their song ‘Good Times’ distinctively featured in ‘Rapper’s Delight’ by the Sugar Hill Gang. It should be noted that Rapper’s Delight did not sample the recording of ‘Good Times’, but used a replay of the notorious bassline. After hearing the track, Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic threatened the Sugar Hill Gang with legal action based on copyright infringement. Ultimately, they settled; it was agreed that Rodgers and Edwards would also be credited as songwriters of ‘Rapper’s Delight’.

Before delving into the tension between copyright law and sampling, this chapter will provide context to sampling, the most essential practice of hip-hop musicians in developing their tracks. For that purpose, the chapter will lay out the evolution of hip-hop music from its inception in the 1970s in New York City’s Bronx to its current status as one of the most commercially successful genres of music. The chapter will then look at the pertinent copyright issues surrounding hip-hop music. On this particular point, the chapter will analyse this issue in relation to law of the USA and the EU, as they provide a good amount of case law and serve as a good comparative set.

Publication Type: Book Section
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HN Social history and conditions. Social problems. Social reform
K Law
M Music and Books on Music
Departments: The City Law School
The City Law School > Academic Programmes
SWORD Depositor:
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