Robin Thicke and the Art of Jacking for Beats

"Blurred Lines" took everything that makes "Got to Give It Up" a classic track. But was it theft?

Robin Thicke (Rob Kim/Getty Images); Marvin Gaye (Wikimedia Commons)
Robin Thicke (Rob Kim/Getty Images); Marvin Gaye (Wikimedia Commons)

(The Root) — “Gimme dem beats fool/It’s a full-time jack move.” –Ice Cube, “Jackin’ for Beats” (Kill at Will)

In their 40 years of creating classic beats and rhymes, rap- and hip-hop-influenced R&B producers have always found inspiration from soul, funk and rock-and-roll musicians. Whether it is Ice Cube’s sampling of James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” on “Jackin’ for Beats” or the Beastie Boys’ mix of Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” with “Sweet Leaf” by Black Sabbath for “Rhymin & Stealin,” it remains common practice for producers of the hip-hop generation to sample from music’s legends.

So it probably didn’t raise too many eyebrows when super-producer Pharrell Williams manipulated just about every element of Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” to create this summer’s mega-hit, “Blurred Lines.” After all, Williams does what all the modern greats do: He brilliantly reimagines the drums, bass line, cow bells and background party voices that are signature to the 1977 hit. He even re-creates the song’s feel, thus landing Robin Thicke and guest rapper Clifford “T.I.” Harris Jr. a hit that is currently in its 10th week at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 — the longest Hot 100 reign of 2013.  

Indeed, Thicke, Williams and Harris reinvented everything that makes “Got to Give It Up” the funky sound that it is.

But then something unusual happened. Concerned about a potential suit for the song’s apparent usage of the classic soul track, Thicke and the “Blurred Lines” team launched a lawsuit against Nona Gaye, Marvin Gaye III, Christian Gaye and Bridgeport Music Inc. asking the judge to protect “Blurred Lines” from any copyright infringement on Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” or “Funkadelic’s Sexy Ways.” And it had me wondering: Was this a case of a guilty conscience on the part of the producers or a brilliant legal move?

“Blurred Lines” is a real groovy tune. I loved it upon hearing it because it was reminiscent of that Marvin Gaye soul funk that’s hard to ignore. But it may also be the first time a sampling artist has sued the original artist in the 40 years of hip-hop sampling cases. And this has me feeling some type of way, as Rich Homie Quan raps. Is there a way of lifting actual elements of a song — the bars, the riffs, the hooks, the drum patterns and the “feeling” of a song — that might be interpretive but not exact? And if so, what is the difference?

Puzzled and needing to make sense of Thicke’s startling move — a move I initially thought was borderline cray-cray — I called on three industry professionals for a quick-and-dirty lesson on the ethics of sampling. I spoke to Isaac Hayes III, songwriter, producer and manager of Isaac Hayes Enterprises (see Wu-Tang’s “C.R.E.A.M.” and Outkast’s “Crumblin ‘Erb”); Aldrin Davis (aka Toomp), a DJ and producer for Kanye West’s “Good Life” and Jay Z’s “Say Hello”; and Vincent Phillips, an entertainment attorney based in Atlanta who has helped clear samples for Jonathon “Lil Jon” Smith.

“In copyright infringement [involving music],” Hayes explained, “you have to consider three things: cadence, melody and lyrics, and you have to take two of the three in order for it to be infringement.” If neither is used in their identical form, then the producer isn’t required to cut a check to the publisher of the original version. “In the case of “Blurred Lines,” he continued, “they take none of the three.”