Mon May 6, 2013
20 Years Ago Biz Markie Got The Last Laugh
Originally published on Thu July 18, 2013 8:56 pm
In the late 1980s, no clique in New York seemed more dominant than the Juice Crew. Assembled by producer Marley Marl, the group's core included the larger-than-life spectacle that was Big Daddy Kane, the slippery tongued Masta Ace, the profanely prickly Roxanne Shante and the clown prince, Biz Markie. By 1993 though, the Crew's ascendency was on the wane, with Kane and Shante both in mid-career slumps and Ace off building a new family around him, The I.N.C. As for Biz, he was content to be surviving, especially after two years of legal hell.
His 1993 album, All Samples Cleared!, was neither his most successful nor most critically acclaimed, but its mere existence was a triumph of sorts, with Biz waggling his famous tongue in celebration. To understand all this, we need to go back a couple years, to his 1991 album I Need a Haircut, and, more specifically, the song "Alone Again."
Thematically, "Alone Again," is like other Biz songs where he sets himself up as a "lovable loser," the kind of guy whose friends ditch him to hang out with girls or who rocks a show only to have to walk home by himself after. Musically, "Alone Again," samples several bars of the familiar piano riff from Gilbert O'Sullivan's 1972 hit, "Alone Again (Naturally)" and Biz sings part of O'Sullivan's hook for his own chorus (off-key, naturally). On the surface, "Alone Again," seemed to follow a very similar template to Markie's biggest hit, 1989's "Just a Friend" which also riffed off a piano loop and song hook borrowed from Freddie Scott. Behind the scenes though, a storm began to brew.
When sampling technology and practices became hip-hop's musical blueprint in the late 1980s, the business and legal rules were a thoroughly gray area. Since the techniques created digital copies of source material, copyright holders could argue that unauthorized sampling violated their intellectual property. Those doing the sampling could argue they were repurposing fragments of recorded music to create something entirely new. Up until 1991, disputes around whose argument carried more weight tended to be settled outside of court. This is where Biz comes back in.
In 1991, O'Sullivan sued Markie over the "Alone Again" sample. This case came hot on the heels of a $1.7 million settlement between members of '60s rock group The Turtles and the rap group De La Soul all stemming from a few seconds of a Turtles' song sampled by De La. With the O'Sullivan/Markie case, one complication was that Markie and his label did initially try to clear the sample through O'Sullivan but when the singer-songwriter declined to do so, the label released the song anyway. This set up the eventual legal showdown which, unlike the previous cases, didn't get settled out-of-court but instead, ended up being decided by judge Kevin Duffy in a far-reaching decision for future sampling practices.
Duffy found Biz Markie guilty of infringing on O'Sullivan's copyright, ordered the rapper to pay $250,000 in damages, barred Markie's label (Warner Brothers) from continuing to sell either the single or album and, most astoundingly, referred the matter to criminal court, on the grounds that Markie was liable for theft. (The rapper was never charged.) Duffy's decision permanently altered the landscape for sampling, not so much curtailing it — sampling is still popular after all — but changing the creative and business practices around it.
Those changes took on any number of different forms. Major labels were forced to dedicate additional staff and resources toward scouring releases to make sure all samples had proper clearance. In fact, there's an entire shadow catalog of rap songs that went unreleased specifically because they couldn't get that clearance. Artists, especially underground producers, more frequently altered recognizable lifts or sought out obscure samples in attempts to avoid detection. Either way, the "anything goes" era of sampling had essentially come to an end.
For Biz Markie, his response to all this drama came two years later with All Samples Cleared! If the album's title wasn't tongue-in-cheek enough, the cover art finds Markie playing both judge and defendant, restaging the Duffy courtroom with a smirk. On the LP version of the album, the samples are prominently, properly included on the back cover liner notes. Yet, despite these visual gestures, Markie never explicitly addresses the lawsuit or its aftermath on the album's dozen songs. There are no sideways shots at Duffy or O'Sullivan, no referencing of the case at all. On the scale of "f--- you" albums, it doesn't quite rise to the level of Marvin Gaye's Here, My Dear even though the title and art obviously nod at the O'Sullivan suit.
There is one sample-related curiosity though. Five of the songs — almost half the album — use samples based on five different versions of Allen Toussaint's "Get Out Of My Life Woman." The first track, "I'm The Biz Markie" for example, uses The Mad Lads' cover. The next song, "I'm a Ugly Nigga (So What?)" samples from Lee Dorsey's cover. And so forth.
Sonically, there's no way for a listener to miss this repeated use even if each version has its small, subtle differences (Joe Williams' cover, used on Markie's "Funk Is Back" has a unique piano trill, for example). Other albums use the same drum sounds repeatedly but this may be the only case where an artist went to such deliberate lengths to take the same base composition and then flip samples from so many different versions of it.
Was this some kind of additional riff on the lawsuit, a "watch me as I sample the same song five ways because I can" gesture? Was it a cost-saving measure, since it would have been less expensive to pay multiple clearances on the same song? Or was it merely Biz, a consummate record nerd, showing off the depth of his collection? Either way, All Samples Cleared! let the ever-comedic rapper have the last laugh.