Drummer Vs. Machine: The Value Of A Beat

A recent news item caught my eye and raised my blood pressure. Apparently, rapper Rick Rich is suing Lil Wayne’s production team, The Drummer Boyz, for using a beat on Wayne’s single “How To Love,” which Rich claims to have purchased years before.

Intrigued, I logged onto YouTube, searched for the video, and listened to the track. My first impression was that it was a nice, hummable tune with a simple, repetitive chord progression and AutoTuned melody sung (rather than rapped) in Wayne’s pinched, adolescent voice. However, I found nothing remarkable about the beat. Take a look at the notated example below for proof.

Barring the fact that the backbeat is relegated to handclaps instead of a snare drum, the kick resonates like a cardboard box, and the eighth-note triplet fills echo like watery clicks, this beat has been performed thousands of times in countless variations by generations of drummers.

Now, I don’t doubt that Rick Rich has a compelling argument. If he really did “buy the beat,” then the producers should pay damages for using it without permission. The thing that irks me is that drummers have recorded beats for decades without being able to own the copyright to their creative output. Why can a beat be traded like a commodity and inspire lawsuits when it’s programmed on a drum machine, but be considered little more than disposable window-dressing when played by an actual drummer?

Admittedly, there are rare exceptions – very rare – such as Clyde Stubblefield’s ongoing fight to be paid for his innumerably sampled drum break on James Brown’s 1970 single “Funky Drummer.” But his efforts to chase down royalties have hardly been fruitful, and it still isn’t clear whether Stubblefield legally owns the copyright to the “Funky Drummer” drum break, or Brown, who was the songwriter.

Don’t get me wrong – I didn’t write this column to demean the effort The Drummer Boyz put into programming the beat that lies at the center of the controversy. In order for that loop to sound as it does, the producers made creative choices about the rhythms, fills, and sounds used, which make it an artistic work in my book.

But that’s what every drummer does when recording tracks for public consumption. Did Mitch Mitchell receive royalty checks for the signature drum fills he played during the breaks of Hendrix’s classic “Little Wing?” Can you hear a metal drummer pump a double bass shuffle without thinking of Alex Van Halen on “Hot For Teacher?”

In both cases, drummers composed parts that stood the test of time. Their musical ideas became hooks that lodged in our memories as firmly as any melody or chord progression ever could. As far as I’m concerned, they have as much right to demand royalty payments for their creative work as Rick Rich feels he has.

But, of course, I would say that; I’m a drummer.