RZA, who with Wu-Tang coined the indelible phrase "C.R.E.A.M. (Cash Rules Everything Around Me),” called for a 50 percent hard limit to how much a copyright holder can legally be paid if their original content is used in a new work.
“Art is something that’s made to inspire the future. If you utilize somebody’s artistic expression blatantly, to [the point] where it’s an identifiable thing, then there should be some sort of compensation to the person who inspires you,” RZA declared this week in Austin.
Pharrell and singer Robin Thicke lost a pricey and controversial lawsuit this month to the estate of Marvin Gaye when a federal jury found that their Grammy-nominated 2013 earworm “Blurred Lines” stole from Gaye’s 1977 song “Got To Give It Up.”
RZA’s take on the “Blurred Lines” verdict? “In that particular case, that song does sound pretty, pretty close to the original, yo. And in a case like that, the best thing to do is give compensation to the original copyright holder,” he said.
The Wu-Tang founder known for crafting unexpected beats from esoteric samples should know. He’s borrowed everything from Gladys Knight songs to Roald Dahl rhymes to 1970s Shaw Bros. kung fu movie lines over the course of his hip-hop career. RZA also added film director to his resume with the 2012 martial arts mash-up The Man With The Iron Fists, which either paid homage to or blatantly cribbed from classics of the genre, depending on how you see it.
RZA was in Austin to give a SXSW keynote speech on creativity in film and music, but only went deep on the “Blurred Lines” verdict during an intimate Alamo Drafthouse Q&A for the 1978 martial arts classic Five Deadly Venoms—a frequent Wu-Tang reference. He spit an example on the spot.
“There should be a statute of limitations, because if I sample [Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas”] going, “I-I-I-I’m dream-dream-dream-dream-dream-ing / I-I-I’m dream-dream-dream-dream-dream-ing – Yo but she’s so fine, I keep dreaming about her/can’t go another day of living without her”—my song’s context and movement is totally different than what his song is about,” he theorized.
“Even though I use his portion as an instrument—because the sampler is an instrument—he should not be able to come in and take 100 percent of my song. The most he should get is 50 percent. There should be a cut off. Fifty percent is the most.”
RZA has battled copyright infringement claims before, hitting back most recently in a 2013 countersuit over claims he stole a piano riff from a song in the 1970s Japanese exploitation flick Wandering Ginza Butterfly.
“I’ve been in situations where I’ve sampled something and the original copyright holder took 90 percent,” he said. “That means they ignored all the programming, drumming, keyboard playing I played on top of it, they ignored every lyric, every hook, everything that we built to make it a song. And we wound up selling more copies than the sample version—but yet they took 90 percent of the song.”
Breaking his silence after this month’s verdict, Pharrell warned of the chilling effect the “Blurred Lines” outcome will have on artists. “The verdict handicaps any creator out there who is making something that might be inspired by something else,” he told the Financial Times. “This applies to fashion, music, design . . . anything. If we lose our freedom to be inspired we’re going to look up one day and the entertainment industry as we know it will be frozen in litigation. This is about protecting the intellectual rights of people who have ideas.”
RZA echoed that sentiment after waxing nostalgic on how the Wu-Tang Clan was founded on the aesthetics and philosophies of martial arts films like The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. A voracious student of the Quentin Tarantino school of film, he revealed he’s been poring over Woody Allen and Robert Altman lately and just watched Yentl three times this month.
“The Greeks could come sue everybody because one generation teaches the other,” argued RZA. “When you hear an A chord to the D to the E, there are over one million songs with that same progression. And each one of their songs is identified as their own. The point being that art will continue to inspire the next generation, and we will find duplication.”
“In the old days, not that long ago, it took 20 people to make a record. You had to get a bass player, keyboard player, drummer, sax, strings—all those it took to make good songs,” he said, citing guitarist-pal John Frusciante’s efforts to legitimize sampling in music. “Now, that material is inside your sampler, inside your laptop. So now the power has been given to the individual, and the individual should be allowed to express that power.”
“So if I was in a situation of political power, I would be like, ‘Look—there’s a 50 percent statutory maximum, and then we work our way down from that based on the context of the song and based on its usage.’ Bong.”