On Monday, the New York Times managed to wring yet another drop of link bait out of Baauer’s “Harlem Shake” when they ran an article about the lack of sample clearances in the song. As a fellow writer said to me, “This is what happens when Jon Caramanica goes on vacation”; Caramanica covers music full-time and had already written a thoughtful and fair piece on the song. The article from Monday, by James McKinley, is poorly researched hot garbage.
The first place McKinley fucked up is in printing that the “Con los terroristas” sample was from Hector El Father’s track “Maldades.” It’s not. Dude doesn’t say “terroristas” once in the entire song. This is pretty easy to figure out because “Maldades” is easy to find. So is a transcription of its lyrics. This was apparently too much work for McKinley, who just took Hector El Father’s manager’s word for it and never bothered to check it for himself. If you were writing an article on uncleared samples (for the fucking New York Times!), wouldn’t you want to listen to the sample sources yourself and put the pieces together? I guess not! Journalism!
McKinley’s other problem is the lack of background on Mad Decent and Diplo’s relationship with Plastic Little, who were sampled saying, “Do the Harlem Shake.” The article makes it fairly clear that they didn’t feel as violated as Hector El Father did about being sampled. That’s probably because they’ve been friends for over a decade; the first time I saw Diplo (at Hollertronix in like 2003?), Plastic Little performed too. I guess an uncleared sample is an uncleared sample, but by downplaying (or, more likely, just not knowing) the history there McKinley put his narrative ahead of the truth.
This story is, I guess, about the shocking revelation that sometimes people don’t clear samples. But if he really wanted to get into it, the relationship between Plastic Little and the label they are negotiating with would be a great way to bring the vague nature of indie music into the conversation, and how business and legal issues take a back seat. Sample clearance issues are still relatively new, but handshake agreements and arguments over who wrote which song are not. Maybe instead of interviewing a talking head for the National Music Publishers Association for the story, McKinley could have reached out to any of the zillion artists and lawyers who have either cleared samples or had their music sampled. I’m sure they would have been happy to bring some perspective into the conversation. After all this is for the fucking New York Times. Flex a little bit, dude!
For the record, I’m a really small footnote in the “Harlem Shake” story (you can google that shit if you are curious). It’s so tangential that when McKinley hit me I ignored him because I neither want nor deserve to be a part of the coverage. The sample situation is between Hector El Father and Mad Decent and I’m sure they will work it out; I have no horse in the race and nothing to gain here. I just can’t believe dude couldn’t be bothered to verify his facts.
But then again, we shouldn’t expect much from a guy who refers to Diplo as, “The disc jockey Thomas Pentz.” Fuck outta here!
Skinny Friedman is a writer and DJ living in New York. He's on Twitter - @skinny412