Public enemies

Music industry greed is stifling the technology that drives hip-hop

It is 2020. A young man reaches to pull down his hoodie and unplug his headphones as he enters a windswept examination hall at the EMI Special Academy for Hip-Hop and the Associated Arts. He is here to take a test, one remarkably similar to those taken decades ago by young civil service hopefuls.

Although our young man will have some space to show off his knowledge, much time is spent on auditing his personality. The test's final section - a contract assigning rights in any future work to the Academy - requires just a signature. He will leave the exam hall one of two things: an accredited and licensed hip-hop pioneer, with sampling access to the world's cultural heritage, or, as he entered it, a consumer of musical content.

Hip-hop, more than any other form of music, has its origins in cultural appropriation. The break beats that characterise it were spliced together in the Seventies by turntablists cutting quickly between old funk records. In the Eighties, DJs such as Tony Touch popularised the B-boy movement by selling bootleg mix tapes on the streets of New York. But in 1991, when the US courts ruled that a sample lifted from a Gilbert O'Sullivan song by the rapper Biz Markie had infringed copyright, the story changed.

In a 2004 interview with Wired, the Beastie Boys' Mike D explained how: "We can't just go crazy and sample everything and anything like we did on Paul's Boutique [their 1989 album] . . . If we're going to grab a two-bar section of something now, we're going to have to think about how much we really need it."

While established acts such as Missy Elliott are seemingly happy to draw up the ladder by supporting industry campaigns against copyright infringement, it's unclear just where this leaves new talent. "Two turntables and a microphone" - the pioneer's essential kit, as identified in 1985 by Mantronix - can now be aped using a standard laptop computer. But just as the technical barriers to mixing samples of music and speech are coming down, the legal ones are rising.

Last month, the mix-tape aficionado DJ Drama was arrested at his Atlanta studio by police working in collaboration with the Recording Industry Association of America. He was charged with racketeering; his discs, equipment, and even his car were confiscated, simply because, as is standard practice in this fast-paced world of exclusives and new releases, he hadn't cleared the rights on the music he was distributing. It doesn't matter that DJ Drama's Gangsta Grillz compilations are a recognised Southern rap brand, or that featuring on one is enough to revive an ailing career in rap.

Can hip-hop survive, now that copyright law has cut it off so violently at the root? Perhaps the New York rapper Nas was right to title his most recent album Hip-Hop is Dead. It's hard to imagine that by 2020 much fresh talent will be attracted to a form so limited by the unthinking greed of the industry to which it gave birth.

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She was formerly the technology director of award-winning current affairs website, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.