Sometimes In Rap, Imitation Isn't Flattery -- It's Thievery

Copying is nothing new in the arts, but among rappers, it's a growing problem that forces artists into secrecy.

It might seem paranoid, but Junkie XL mastermind Tom Holkenborg won't even discuss the genre of music his electronica band will be sampling on its in-process sophomore album.

"I just don't want to talk about it right now," Holkenborg said from his Amsterdam, Netherlands, home, where he's working on the follow-up to this year's critically acclaimed Saturday Teenage Kick (RealAudio excerpt of title track).

"We did some interviews in Holland last month about what we wanted to do on the next album and all of a sudden, some local producers were using those elements that we know they weren't into before."

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but for producers, rockers and especially rap artists, having other acts steal their thunder -- a practice referred to as "biting" in the rap world -- is a real and growing concern.

In Holkenborg's case, he felt burned because he said his ideas were stolen before he even had a chance to implement them. "Even if you use a pre-set [a setting which produces a certain sound] on a keyboard, if someone else knows which one it is, they can go and buy that pre-set and release their single earlier than I do," Holkenborg said.

One problem, according to longtime rap-publicist Phyllis Pollack (N.W.A, Geto Boys) is that because many rap songs are based on samples (how many songs have used Zapp's "More Bounce To the Ounce?"), an artist cannot copyright an already copyrighted piece of music.

"It's sad, but the result is that there's a lot of mistrust out there among artists," Pollack said. "It's not just paranoia, though, hell no."

Pollack said she's seen many of the hip-hop artists she's worked with constantly fret about their new album's release date, worried about rumors that someone else has sampled the same song and that it might affect their sales.

Earlier this year, when discussing his upcoming album, Soul Survivor (Nov. 10), rapper Pete Rock (born Peter Phillips) said he couldn't reveal the sample used in the song "Da Two" -- his reunion with partner C.L. Smooth -- because he was afraid of two things: "First off, it hasn't been cleared yet," Rock said. "Mostly, though, it's because someone will steal it and by the time my album comes out it will seem like I stole it from them when they really stole it from me in the first place."

Rock said that kind of thing happens all the time in the rap game.

But biting isn't just an MC's worry. It's a constant and age-old problem in the world of creative arts or anywhere there's competition for public attention.

Take the case of the L.A.-based Orgy, the first group signed to thrash-metal band Korn's Elementree Records. In January, guitarist Amir Derakh wouldn't even reveal what instruments his band was using to record its debut, Candyass.

"There are just things we're doing that we want to do before anyone else does it," Derakh said of what turned out to be the band's vintage-synth sounds and retro new-wave look.

But biting is especially common in the rap industry. "In the rap world, there are serious concerns about their music getting out on the street in advance," said one record-company executive, who requested anonymity. When it comes to something in production, silence is golden, he said, "because success in rap is all about fresh ideas, fresh beats."

"It's been known to happen that people pinch a fresh idea in advance after they've heard something in the studio or an artist's house," he continued. "It's a real concern."

While promoting her recently released live album, The Tour, R&B diva Mary J. Blige wouldn't reveal the barest of facts about her upcoming solo album for fear her legions of imitators would beat her to the punch.

"I don't think it's really smart for me to talk about that right now," Blige said, noting she wouldn't even divulge song titles. "There are artists out there working my style, which is actually really flattering. I feel honored by it. The last thing I need, though, is someone biting my song titles before the album is even done."

One artist who claims to have viewed the problem up-close is Cypress Hill's DJ Muggs (born Lawrence Muggerud).

In one of the legendary beefs in hip-hop, members of the weed-loving Cypress Hill accused former N.W.A rapper Ice Cube of borrowing the group's idea for a song entitled "Throw Your Set In The Air" (RealAudio excerpt), which Cypress Hill released on their 1995 album Cypress Hill III (Temple of Boom).

"Sometimes this sh-- is subconscious," Muggs said. "Motherf---ers won't even realize they heard something and they'll think it's original. We've played people stuff, like Cube, where we played a song for his movie [1995's 'Friday'], and he liked it, but took another song [for the soundtrack] and pretty soon he had his own song with that same hook in his sh--."

That alleged bite, in Cube's "Friday," led to a rap war, in which Cypress Hill attacked Cube in the Temple of Boom song "No Rest For the Wicked" with lines such as "Let me figure out the name/ Jack 'cause you be stealing other niggas' game!" "Jack" refers to Cube's given name, O'Shea Jackson.

Cube shot back with the song "King of the Hill", from his 1996 Bow Down album with the rap-collective Westside Connection: "And I don't know one nigga bumping your shit/ Coming with a voice pitched/ The B in B-Real must stand for bitch." He was referring to Cypress Hill member B-Real.

After several more exchanges, Muggs said, the beef with Cube was quashed. But along the same lines, Muggs claimed the 1992 smash hit "Jump Around," which he produced for Irish rappers House of Pain, was similarly bitten, on an album that beat House of Pain's into stores.

"I just don't play my sh-- for nobody, especially producers and rappers," Muggs said. "Ideas rub off, it's natural, even if it's not intentional. But we just always keep our sh-- close to the last minute. We just turn in the whole album at the last possible moment."

As rap producer Unknown (Ice-T, Compton's Most Wanted) -- who would not give his real name -- said, it's a tough call when you use work that was already created by someone else and try to make it your own.

"Fact is, let's say you're working in the studio and maybe your album comes out next year," he said. "If you're sampling something, it's not yours and you can say to someone who beats you, 'You bit us,' but what are you going to do? Whip their ass?"