Here’s How De La Soul Cleared The Samples For Their Classic Catalog’s Streaming Debut
De La Soul faced a daunting task. Fortunately, the group had sample clearance expert Deborah Mannis-Gardner to help them out.
Ever since the invention of the MP3, hip-hop fans have had one question: where’s my De La Soul? The iconic Long Island rap group’s first half-dozen albums have never been available digitally. As the days of CDs moved further into the rearview mirror and streaming became ubiquitous, the absence of genre-defining albums like Three Feet High and Rising and De La Soul Is Dead was felt more and more acutely by fans of the genre.
The reasons for the albums’ omissions from digital music stores and streaming services were somewhat muddled, but no small part of the legacy was the fact that many of the records, especially their debut Three Feet High…, were riddled with samples. The group got permission for most of them for the initial release (though not all, which led to a now-infamous 1989 lawsuit against the group), but music business decision-makers believed that those samples needed a new round of OKs for digital release. That task seemed so daunting that it sat undone for years.
Finally, in January of this year, fans got the long-awaited news. De La Soul’s records were finally going to be available for streaming, starting on March 3. As that date approaches, Okayplayer spoke with the person responsible for making sure all those samples were OK to use — Deborah Mannis-Gardner.
Mannis-Gardner heads up DMG Clearances (“sample clearance” is the term for the process of getting the necessary permissions to use a sample). She’s been in the music business since 1990, when getting a sign-off on a sample was as simple as passing out a t-shirt.
Over the past 30-plus years, Mannis-Gardner has worked with everybody; Drake, Eminem, Beyoncé, and Rihanna have used her company to make sure everything’s on the up and up. In addition to sample clearance, she has a long history dealing with music for film, television, and even Broadway shows.
During our nearly hour-long phone call, Mannis-Gardner traced the long history of the De La streaming struggle — including why some changes to the original albums were necessary (“I know some of the fans are disappointed,” she admitted), as well as why she thinks sampling shouldn’t just be legal no matter what, the problems with WhoSampled, her favorite lost ODB record, and the most upsetting liquor commercial she ever saw.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Okayplayer: I’m sure you’ve done this a hundred thousand times, but can you break down what it means to clear a sample?
Deborah Mannis-Gardner: There are what’s called samples, and then there’s what’s called interpolations. A sample is when you have lifted a portion of a recording and you’ve incorporated it into a new song. If it’s a sample, we need to get permission from the publishers for the publishing side of the use, and from the record company.
This does not mean that we go to the writers, and this does not mean that we go to the recording artist or the artist’s manager. We have to go to the people who have the rights and administer on behalf of the writers, meaning the publishers, and the record label who own the master rights. If it’s an interpolation — and that term means, if the sample has been re-sung or replayed — then we’re just going to the publishers to get permission.
Your work with De La Soul has had fits and starts over at least a decade. Tell me about those other efforts to get their music cleared for digital release. Why didn’t they work, and what was different this time?
[De La Soul’s then-label] Tommy Boy Records and De La were clients of mine way back in the beginning, but Tommy Boy opted to do a lot of clearances in-house. Then, it came back around…I’d have to look up what year it was, but it was when De La was still with Tommy Boy. Tommy Boy brought DMG Clearances on board to try to clean up all these albums, because they determined that they did not have the right for digital releases.
When we went to start approaching the publishers and labels, there was some press that the members of De La Soul had issues with Tommy Boy Records. So a lot of the copyright holders, when we approached them, weren’t keen on getting in the middle of this battle. They wanted back payment from Tommy Boy. It was just stalling out. It wasn’t successful at all.
When the catalog was sold to Reservoir [Media] — and Reservoir was so wonderful to give it back to the guys — I reached out saying I would love to help to make sure that this historical album gets out there properly, because there’s generations that haven’t had the opportunity to hear De La Soul. You wanna talk about the history of hip-hop and rap, and we’ve got the 50th anniversary — this is it. De La Soul is the shining example of what it was all about. I am honored that I got to work on this. I am thrilled that the copyright holders that we approached were so amiable to work with us and the guys to help make this happen.
What was your role specifically? Did you clear selected songs from all the albums? Just the first one?
This go-round, De La was lucky enough to have Reservoir assisting them. They actually had a team of people go through every contract, every piece of paper, organize everything.
You know, it’s amazing how everyone always refers to WhoSampled as being the place that has proper information. Even De La Soul’s like, “Yeah, that’s not accurate. That’s not what we used. We used something else.” This was exciting because the guys knew what they used. I didn’t come on board until they were completely organized.
By the time you joined the process for Three Feet High and Rising, what percentage of samples was left to clear?
You know what? I wouldn’t know what that percentage is. I did not want to see the stuff that I did not clean up, because it’s overwhelming. I mean, when you’re clearing samples, there’s so much information. You’ve got the title of the new song, the title of the sampled song, the sampled artists, the sampled writers, the sampled publishers, splits, what share might be left over if there were other samples that were already cleared. I did not want all that information. All I asked for was what I needed to put my energy on to finish the clearances, to get it over the finish line.
How long did this process take?
It actually took one year. We got on board in January of 2022.
Unfortunately, not 100% of your efforts were successful. Someone involved in the process confirmed to me there were at least a few replays. Can you talk to me about that?
In some of the handful of songs where they replayed the uses, the conversation we had was: “Hey guys, this is a copyright holder who may not be understanding; or it might financially drain you; or you have so many samples, and a sampled master holder takes a percentage of artists’ net or gross receipts for third party licensing, and you want to leave a piece for yourself.”
I know maybe some of the fans are disappointed if something was replayed, but the cost of samples are a lot different now. Back in that day, we used to be able to get James Brown for a $500 buyout. We used to get these things at a much lower cost.
Sometimes you have to replay, sometimes you have to interpolate. These were creative decisions that I had nothing to do with. My job was to give guidance and advice and let them know if I had any concerns or thoughts. Then they knew what to do.
There are groups who were contemporaries of De La Soul like Public Enemy and the Beastie Boys who made albums that were equally as sample heavy and have been available for digital purchase and streaming. Why was Paul’s Boutique OK and not Three Feet High and Rising?
I used to ask the same question, and when I did, I was advised that the different copyright holders of the De La recording — whether it was Tommy Boy or Rhino/Warner — took the position that there were uncleared samples, but they also took the position that they didn’t have the streaming rights, and they didn’t want to take a chance. Capital/Universal and Beastie Boys did take a chance.
Maybe there’s stuff I’m not privy to as to why Tommy Boy took their position, and why other labels took their position. Because you’re right — we know that there’s uncleared Led Zeppelin samples by Beastie Boys. We know that.
How was the process with De La similar to getting a J. Cole or Nicki Minaj mixtape ready for streaming [which DMG has also done], and in what ways was it different?
The similarities are, they’re all something that was previously released that had uncleared samples. So, it was our job to make sure that this product could become commercially available and available for streaming with the revenue being generated from it, so that everyone ate from the pie — the new artists as well as the sampled artists. That’s the similarity.
The difference is that it’s De La Soul, and these are historical albums that defined the movement and the music of that era. It’s so important that this music is commercially available for generations to come.
In a recent interview for Okayplayer, Dilla Time author Dan Charnas said that sampling is an art form, so there should be compulsory licenses for it, similar to how cover songs work. Have you heard that idea before? How does that strike you?
I don’t think that would work. When you’re clearing a sample, let’s talk about what we initially said — there are writers that require consent. There’s the question of, what if there’s lyrical content that’s really offensive? Let’s say it’s about drinking and drugs, and the sampled copyright holder is recovered and doesn’t want their copyright used in there. This is an emotional business that we’re in, and music clearance is emotional. You’re going to someone and asking permission to use their song, whether it’s sync for film or TV or podcast or a sample, you’re using a portion of a song and incorporating it. It’s a business, but you’re going to the person who created a song and you’re asking them to use it differently than what they might have had in mind.
So no, I don’t think it should be automatic. I don’t think it should be a compulsory license. There are emotions involved and you need to respect that. You’re trying to juggle making money and exploiting copyright to secure further income, without offending anyone at the same time.
There are plenty of myths about your business. What’s the most common misconception you’ve come across?
I think needle drops [the idea that extremely short uses of samples are legal without clearing or are defensible via the Fair Use doctrine]. That’s an urban legend. Those are the kind of questions that we talk about with clients.
Then, there’s gotta be respect when someone re-says a line — maybe it’s three or four words — that came from a specific song, because that affected them. There’s a reason they used it. My response usually is, well, if you chose those words for a reason and you know what song it came from, then why shouldn’t it be copyrightable?
When we worked on Hamilton with Lin-Manuel [Miranda], some of those uses [of lines from rap songs] were just a couple of words. But he was influenced, he was affected by these songs. He was listening to this music as he was writing Hamilton, and he was tipping his hat to them, and he wanted to show them the respect that they deserve. That’s why he cleared that music. It’s an homage to that song, so you should pay for it and respect it and clear it.
So, to use a Hamilton-related example, the writers of “Ten Crack Commandments” might end up with a small piece of one of the Hamilton songs.
Exactly. We cleared “Ten Crack Commandments.”
Because of your work, you’ve gotten to hear plenty of songs that ultimately never got released. What’s a memorable one?
Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Macy Gray were drunk in the studio and did their own rendition of “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” I got it approved and cleared, and then he passed away and that whole album got shelved. I don’t know what anyone ended up doing with it. I know that I can go onto YouTube and I can hear it. I don’t know if anyone ended up doing something with it or if that’s just a leak, but that was a hilarious thing that I worked on.
I talked to former Bad Boy producer Ron Lawrence some years ago, and he told me that David Bowie took all of the publishing for Mase’s “Been Around the World” [which samples Bowie’s “Fame.”] You worked on that song. Is his story true?
I thought there were two samples in that song, if I remember correctly. I’m gonna actually look that one up.
I think the one that was more upsetting was when Lou Reed took a hundred percent of the A Tribe Called Quest song [“Can I Kick It,” which sampled Reed’s 1972 hit “Walk on the Wild Side”]. Then, I ended up seeing a commercial — I think it was for alcohol — and they used [the song]. It might have even been a rerecord. I knew Tribe wasn’t going to get any of the publishing because Lou Reed took a hundred percent.
I actually just found “Been Around the World.” Let me get my notes: “Originally called ‘Goodfellas,’ now entitled ‘Been Around the World,’ which contains excerpts from ‘Let’s Dance,’ written and performed by David Bowie.” I found it. They took 60% but then there was a second sample in there that took the other 40. There was Bowie, but then there was also Lisa Stansfield [Stansfield’s “All Around the World” was interpolated for the song’s hook]. So Bowie took 60 and Lisa Stansfield took 40, and that’s why it equaled a hundred.
Is there anything you want people to know about sample clearance that we didn’t cover?
If you sample, you need to clear it. Nothing is free. If you incorporate someone else’s copyright, you need to get permission and you need to pay them.
Shawn Setaro is a writer, reporter, and podcaster. He is the author of the book Dummy Boy: Tekashi 6ix9ine and the Nine Trey Gangsta Bloods (Kingston Imperial), and he reported and wrote the podcasts Infamous and Complex Subject: Pop Smoke. He is the former Editor-in-Chief of Genius and his byline has appeared in Complex, Forbes, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, GQ, and The Sondheim Review, among others. He can be found on Twitter @SameOldShawn.