Soul singer Johnnie Taylor recorded a disco hit in 1976 called “Disco Lady.” Another artist of the era liked the song so much that he felt compelled to compose his own version. It was constructed as an answer, so to speak, to Taylor’s smash hit. And the other artist’s rendition also had listeners crooning about a sexy lady getting down on the dance floor.
The artist? Marvin Gaye.
Now, “Got to Give It Up” didn’t sound anything like “Disco Lady,” so Gaye didn’t need any legal clearance from Taylor to make his classic. But it’s an important story to tell because it shows that all artists—even the late, great Marvin Gaye—were, and continue to be, inspired by other musicians.
Nearly 40 years later, “Got to Give It Up” has been sampled and interpolated and has birthed countless other renditions. There’s Aaliyah’s cover version on her sophomore album One in a Million; Jamie Foxx’s “I Don’t Need It”; Gerald Levert’s “Won’t Get Up”; and the song played during a fun dance scene in the 2002 comedy Barbershop. Fast-forward through several years and several other approved renditions and we have Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams and T.I.’s 2013 hit “Blurred Lines.”
The trio’s song drew the ire of Gaye’s estate, spearheaded by his three children, who argued that “Blurred Lines” was inspired by their dad’s smash hit. A jury agreed and awarded Gaye’s estate more than $7 million last week—giving Williams and Thicke a hefty slap on the wrist for copyright infringement.
And you’d be hard-pressed to find a musician to argue that “Blurred Lines” wasn’t heavily inspired by “Got to Give It Up.” But the song’s composition is different. And as a musician, I’d argue that that’s an important distinction to make, and a point that needs underscoring for those who say that Williams and Thicke tried to get one over on the Gaye clan.
For starters, the cliché “Nothing is new under the sun” holds true in music. Just about everything is borrowed or inspired by something else, whether it’s the chord progression, lyrics, drum pattern or groove. Plus, I cringe whenever I hear pundits, writers and bloggers say that Williams and Thicke “sampled” “Got to Give It Up,” because it’s simply not true. “Blurred Lines” did not make use of any samples.
Next, the three largest elements of “Blurred Lines” and “Got to Give It Up” are the electric piano, the bass line and the use of a cowbell. I’d argue that all three components had a substantive-enough change from how they sounded in “Got to Give It Up” that Williams and Thicke had reason to think they were in the clear and didn’t need to sample Gaye’s hit. The bass line in “Got to Give It Up” is more intricate, the syncopated cowbell in “Blurred Lines” plays mostly 16th notes (quarter and eighth notes were used in “Got to Give It Up”) and the melodies for the two songs are different.
But what really got me as I read reactions to the verdict is when Nona Gaye—Marvin Gaye’s daughter—said that “her family is free from the chains of Robin Thicke and Pharrell.”
It reads a bit dramatic, given that the Gaye estate has cleared quite a few samples for Thicke and therefore, presumably, has been cut enough of Thicke’s checks that the blue-eyed soul singer probably has their account and routing numbers memorized.
Take a look at the liner notes of Thicke’s album Sex Therapy, and you can see that “Million Dolla Baby” and “Make U Love Me” both contain elements of Marvin Gaye’s music. And here’s a WhoSampled link listing songs where Thicke borrowed, along with the names of the original songs themselves.
Word on the street is that it’s nothing for Gaye’s estate to charge artists tens of thousands of dollars to clear their dad’s tunes for sampling.
It just seems, to me at least, that the Gaye estate succeeded in shaming Thicke and Williams during this entire ordeal, as if both men haven’t been completely forthcoming in the past about asking for clearance from the Gaye estate when necessary. At best, this was a disagreement about how much Williams, the writer, was inspired by Gaye’s record. Yet it seems as if the Gaye estate opted to bite the hand that’s been regularly feeding it.
Chad Milner is a New York-based writer who founded the blog SingleDadventures, where he pens his (mis)adventures with his daughter, Cydney. He regularly contributes to various websites, giving insight on parenting, dating, relationships and music from the perspective of a young, single black father. Follow him on Twitter.