It’s Tricky: Burgeoning Versioning

November 10th, 2013 | Category: Essays

More mornings than not, either my fiancée or I will wake up with a song securely stuck in one of our heads. Yesterday morning in hers was “The Pursuit of Happiness” by Kid Cudi (2009). Once she found and played the song, I noticed something a bit off about it. I wondered if it had originally be sung by a woman and if he’d just jacked the chorus for the hook. I distinctly remembered the vocals being sung by a woman but also that they were mechanically looped, sampled, or manipulated in some way.

Upon further investigation I found that the song was indeed originally Kid Cudi’s, but that singer/songwriter Lissie had done a cover version of it. Her version is featured in the Girl/Chocolate skateboard video Pretty Sweet (2012), which I have watched many times (Peace to Guy Mariano). Even further digging found the true cause of my confusion: A sample of the Lissie version forms the hook of ScHoolboy Q’s song with A$AP Rocky, “Hands on the Wheel.” This last amalgam of allusions was the version I had in my head [runtime: 3:26]:

So yeah, I sampled your voice. You was usin’ it wrong.
You made it a hot line. I made it a hot song.
— Jay-Z, “Takeover,” 2001

Citing Serge Lacasse, Justin Williams (2013) makes the distinction between the sampled and nonsampled quotation illustrated above. The former being the straight appropriation of previously recorded material, and the latter being like the variations on a theme found in jazz or covers like the Lissie version above: A song or part of a song performed not cut-and-pasted. Building on Gérard Gennette’s work in literature, Lacasse (2000) calls these two types of quotation autosonic (sampled) and allosonic (performed). Of course the live DJ, blending and scratching previously recorded material, conflates these two types of quotation (Katz, 2010), and when we bring copyright law into the mix, things get even more confusing.

Run-DMC: Raising Hell (1986)For instance, the song “It’s Tricky” by Run-DMC (1986) is primarily constructed from two previous songs. The musical track samples the guitars from “My Sharona” by The Knack, and the hook is an interpolation of the chorus from the hit “Mickey” by Toni Basil (1981). Explaining the old-school origins of the song, DMC told Kembrew McLeod and Peter DiCola, “I just changed the chorus around and talked about how this rap business can be tricky to a brother” (quoted in McLeod & DiCola, 2011, p. 32). Tricky indeed: Twenty years after the song was released, Berton Averre and Doug Fieger of The Knack sued Run-DMC for unauthorized use of their song. “That sound is not only the essence of ‘My Sharona’, it is one of the most recognizable sounds in rock ‘n’ roll,” says Fieger, The Knack’s lead singer. As true as that is, it’s not the most recognizable element of Run-DMC’s “It’s Tricky.”

Ice-T‘s track “Rhyme Pays” (1987) samples a guitar riff from Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” (1970). I remember the first time I heard Faith No More‘s 1989 cover version of the Black Sabbath song and wondering why in the world they’d be imitating an Ice-T song.

I guess I owe Kid Cudi an apology.


Carter, Sean. (2001). Takeover [Recorded by Jay-Z]. On The Blueprint [LP]. New York: Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam.

Katz, Mark. (2010). Capturing Sound: How Technology has Changed Music. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Lacasse, Serge. (2000). Intertextuality and Hypertextuality in Recorded Popular Music. In Michael Talbot (Ed.), The Musical Work: Reality or Invention? Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, pp. 35-58.

McLeod, Kembrew & DiCola, Peter. (2011). Creative License: The Law and Culture of Digital Sampling. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Williams, Justin A. (2013). Rhymin’ and Stealin’: Musical Borrowing in Hip-hop. Ann Arbor: MI: University of Michigan Press.

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