ESG vs. Girl Talk

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Creative appropriation or flat-out theft? It doesn't matter to Renee Scroggins, singer-guitarist for proto-punk-funk combo ESG–one of the most widely sampled bands in history–and unintentional advocate for artists' copyrights. Everyone from Public Enemy to jazz pioneer Miles Davis has used a bit of their music to further their own, and despite recovering a considerable amount of lost royalties, she's still mad as hell when it comes to unlawful sample use. Gregg Gillis, known to underground music hounds as Girl Talk, views samples–big or small–as tools that bring his art to life. Top 40 artists unknowingly provide the bulk of his source material, however pulverized and warped they may end up on his PowerBook, and his label, Illegal Art, has thumbed its nose at the copyright cops for years. We bring Gillis and Scroggins together, head-to-head, for this lively symposium on sampling.

XLR8R: What did you have to do to get the royalties from people who sampled ESG's music in the past?

Renee Scroggins: We had to wait for a lot of sample laws to pass before we could go after these people and get our dues...I hired a sample company and they go after [the offending parties]. And once everything was settled we got our financial payment...They made list of [incidents in which we were sampled] and sent me a list of the samples, and from there they go about clearing them with the [offending] record companies.

Gregg Gillis: Renee, how successful were you at getting back money from particular artists?

RS: I would say about 90 percent of them have paid up.

I read this great quote from you, Renee, years back in the Guardian UK that said, "To people who clear it with us, thank you. To people who don't, you're a pain in the ass and I'm gonna come after you." Do you still stand by that?

RS: [laughs] Yeah. Absolutely!

Gregg, your work consists almost entirely of samples...

GG: Well, technically...the big difference between me and ESG–one of the main things–is that I'm sampling artists a lot larger than me, whereas a lot of times, mainstream rap artists were producing singles from ESG tracks. I spend all my time just sampling different artists, making beats, taking hooks and just cataloguing them, and putting them together and trying to mix and match...and see what I think sounds good together.

Renee, do you see any difference when it comes to, say, "stealing from the rich" (i.e. sampling from Top 40 artists)?

RS: No way! Because as an artist you're creating something that's yours. You own it intellectually, and nobody has the right to go and take it or chop it up or do anything to it. It's yours!

GG: See, the way I feel about it is, it's nice to get permission, but in the case of making music like I'm making, I just had an album come out that's 90 percent Top 40 artists; that album would not be possible if I actually went out and tried to get permission from all the artists. And I'm making very little money, you know? I've been doing this for six years; it's obviously not some financial [boon]. [I] just pretty much have an underground fan base. I'm making it just for my interest in music, obviously. I–or the label that backs me–obviously don't have the finances to go out and get rights for every single sample that we use.

Okay, if you could afford it, would you do it, or is the thievery central to the aesthetic?

GG: I should make this clear: [my music] is not politically driven at all. I'm really not trying to make a point about sampling. I happen to do it because I like to do it and I like the music I make. I'm never trying to make the point that sampling can be a sound art, even though I do believe that...If I could actually afford it and I could correspond with the artists''d love to have every single person I sample hear the record and give me the go-ahead or not; that'd be amazing, but it's just not really possible.

I know that the use of samples isn't always political, but it can definitely get political. Renee, did you ever feel that some ESG samples were used in negative ways?

RS: Sure! I find that a lot of rap artists have used them very negatively. ESG is music [made] by women, and rap artists that are using these samples are pretty much calling women bitch, dog, and everything possible! I take great offense to this!

GG: Have you heard any music that's sampled ESG that you enjoyed–simply outside of financial or anything like that–just on a musical level?

RS: Absolutely not.

That's interesting because I, growing up as a hip-hop fan, know tons of music that's sampled ESG and I've enjoyed a lot of it; Gregg, maybe you're the same way, too?

GG: I grew up just hearing sampling as an instrument, without even understanding it. I understand [Renee is] recording notes on a guitar and that someone is [stealing] them, but on the same level, you didn't invent that guitar sound. Like, you're not paying royalties to people who invented that guitar. And whenever you play guitar and put it on a record, you're cashing in on that familiar sound of the guitar. It's familiar to people and they recognize it as a guitar, just as one can take bits and pieces from another song and put it into a new context and actually be playing those samples and playing on the fact that it's a familiar sound...

RS: Okay, first of all, I'd have to disagree with you because one of the reasons people sample that ESG guitar sound is because it sounds like nothing else out there.

GG: I agree...The track that's sampled the most, "UFO," is an amazing song and I actually really like a lot of the music that samples it. But even though you don't like the music that you've been sampled on, do you think that the mainstream sampling of your music had helped at all in exposing your band? 'Cause the first time I heard ESG was in a Big Daddy Kane track, and it was only years later when I found out who actually did it that I eventually looked into it. I can only imagine that there's a lot of people who first heard you in some other form.

RS: Well, whether that's true or not, one of the funniest things that ever happened [was] when we were performing "UFO" live' had somebody say, "Hey, you're copying so and so!" and it pissed me off. I'm copying a rap artist? I think not!

GG: Whenever "UFO" is sampled, [artists] usually only sample the initial siren-y guitar sound [then] people add their own drums, bassline, and vocals over top of that and even change the pitch or the speed of it. Can you see that in terms of the way I'm seeing it, as playing an instrument? Just like on one of your songs you might be playing similar notes to someone else but you're playing them in a different style and changing the context of it...putting it into a whole new piece of music?

RS: That's the whole thing. I would have no problem if they were playing it originally; they're taking it off my record and manipulating it. Technically, they're manipulating me...they're manipulating my art, and I have a problem with that.

GG: I've obviously never been sampled, and I can understand your attitude that you're feeling ripped off, but simultaneously do you ever take it as a compliment?

RS: No. I'm a girl from the Bronx [laughs] and we grew up on the streets, and you don't take people's stuff! That's an insult. You don't do that, understand? [laughs]