‘Harlem Shake’ Controversy: Artists Behind Unlicensed Samples Seek Money from Hit Song

Two artists say their voices were sampled on the hit dance track without their permissions

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Tim Mosenfelder / Getty Images

Baauer performs during the Snowglobe Music Festival at Lake Tahoe Community College on Dec, 29, 2012 in South Lake Tahoe, Calif.

The time to make “Harlem Shake” meme videos may have peaked, with Google searches for the phrase beginning to taper off in mid-February, but the hit dance track by the producer known as Baauer is still making headlines. Not that every headline is welcome: while the song remains on top of Billboard‘s Hot 100 chart for the third week, it’s also the subject of a new controversy over what two artists claim are music samples used without permission.

(MOREThe Harlem Shake Is Dead; Long Live the Harlem Shake)

As the New York Times reports, the former reggaetón artist Hector Delgado and the rapper Jayson Musson were both told by friends, after the fact, that their voices appeared on Baauer’s “Harlem Shake.” Both are heard at crucial points in the song, with the former saying “con los terroristas” and latter voicing the phrase “Do the Harlem Shake!” Both say their work was sampled without permission and both are now negotiating to get a cut of the payday from the song’s overwhelming viral success. As the Times makes clear, royalties and licenses are a must for music samples of any length—but younger or smaller companies (like Baauer’s label Mad Decent Records) may, because they lack their own stable of contract and licensing pros, depend on their artists to do their own homework over whether the samples they use are truly up for grabs.

(MOREHow Your Harlem Shake Videos Make Money for the Original Artist)

As a 1991 TIME article on the music sampling boom explains, copyright law predates the ability to sample easily—a technological fact that has only become more and more true—and means that not getting artists’ approvals can be a million-dollar mistake:

Vanilla Ice ran into the problem when he was accused of lifting part of the 1981 song “Under Pressure,” written by David Bowie and Queen, for his No. 1 hit “Ice Ice Baby.” When Bowie and Queen threatened a lawsuit, the rapper eventually added them to the composer credits. Two years ago, the rap group De La Soul was slapped with a $1.7 million suit by the ’60s group the Turtles for using an uncredited bite of their 1969 song “You Showed Me.” M.C. Hammer avoided such problems by sharing credit with Rick James, who wrote “Super Freak,” before sampling the song for his platinum single, “U Can’t Touch This.”

The growing ease of sampling has coincided with growing difficulty tracing samples: as Baauer told the Daily Beast in February, he got the line now identified as the voice of Delgado “somewhere off the Internet, I don’t even know where.” Although Mad Decent and Baauer appear to be cooperating in negotiations with Delgado and Musson, the increasing power of the Internet—and YouTube specifically—in the music world may mean that “Harlem Shake” won’t be the last example of a hit song sourcing unlicensed samples from, well, somewhere.

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