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)

But what did they take? Surely, I wasn’t the only one scratching her head trying to understand the legal and ethical precedence set when their lawsuit was filed.

Toomp weighed in, saying that Williams sampled the “vibe” of “Got to Give it Up.” While laughing, he insisted, “You can’t tell me no one in the studio during the time of production didn’t listen and say, ‘Y’all flipped that Marvin Gaye’. You can’t hide that sound,” Toomp claimed. “When we produced ‘Good Life,’ we time-stretched the melody so that it [the original ‘PYT’] fit with the key of the song, and we then put the music on top of it. We sampled all three elements,” he admitted. “And we had to pay Michael Jackson for it.”

All three agree that “Blurred Lines” is not copyright infringement. It’s not a sample, and it isn’t an interpolation. Rather, it is a genius re-creation of a vibe that is careful not to infringe upon the song’s original master. From the Williams-Thicke perspective, the song evokes an era, and an era isn’t copyrightable. So why shoot first?

“Bridgeport is known for being aggressive. Sometimes too aggressive,” Phillips surmised. “To the extent of the potential lawsuit coming from Gaye and Bridgeport is based on theme, feeling or vibe, I think it is smart to make a pre-emptive strike against that. Ultimately a musicologist will decide. However,” Phillips explained, “if Bridgeport is right, then potentially all the artists who produce thematic records and albums will be vulnerable to lawsuits.”

The story of hip-hop is the story of the sample. Yet after 40 years, hip-hop sampling remains a contested area, both celebrated and criticized at the same time. In the case of “Blurred Lines,” precedence has been set for protection of the sampler from the owner — especially when “evoking an era” and regardless of how similar the songs sound. How will the industry change if the judge rules for the Gaye family and Bridgeport? Will Bruno Mars have to pay publishing for his sampling of The Police’s “feel” on “Locked Out of Heaven”? And then would that lead to them both having to cut a check to the entire reggae genre that inspired Police songs like “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” and “Can’t Stand Losing You”? Looks like a judge will decide.

Regardless of how the case ends, “Blurred Lines” raises the question of whether or not there’s such a thing as musical originality. If so, how is it measured? It also highlights the level at which original ideas and compositions created by one generation of artists can influence the ideas and compositions of the next, without anyone suing or getting sued.

Joycelyn A. Wilson is an assistant professor at Virginia Tech and Hip-Hop Archive Alumnus Fellow at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University. Follow her on Twitter.