In late May, Beyoncé’s “America Has a Problem” remix with Kendrick Lamar did what every Beyoncé song does: blew up. The track, which built off the original version from Beyoncé’s 2022 album, instantly rose to No. 6 on Spotify’s “Hot Hits” and amassed more than 50m streams in the next couple months.
Hardcore hip-hop fans recognized the beat of “America Has a Problem” as containing elements of a 1990 song by Kilo Ali, a pioneering Atlanta rapper. But that wasn’t the only homage to retro hip-hop.
Every few seconds in “America Has a Problem,” a DJ scratch ties the rhythm together and inches it forward. And it’s not just any scratch. Contributors at the sampling database website WhoSampled recognized it as an iconic sound: the “Ahh” scratch.
Along with its equally famous sister scratch, “Fresh,” the sound comes from the closing seconds of the artist Beside’s 1982 song “Change The Beat.” They’ve been an unheralded ingredient in 2.6k+ other songs, according to WhoSampled, connecting artists, eras, and genres across decades, from Eric B. and Rakim to the Beastie Boys to Missy Elliott to Bad Bunny.
Basically, any time you hear a scratch on a rap song there’s a decent chance you’re listening to a DJ or producer manipulate the word “Ahh” or “Fresh.”
“Every DJ has some point where they were using that sample to add to a song,” DJ Babu, a producer and member of the rap group Dilated Peoples, told The Hustle. “So it’s sonically just part of our history.”
But outside the rap industry the details of the sample’s origin have largely gone unexplained. How did a couple of random words from an obscure rap song weave their way into hundreds of new tracks?
“Change the Beat” is a story that stretches on for decades, an eclectic tale about the first attempt to bring hip-hop overseas, the muddled economics of sampling, and the unfortunate music trope of not being fairly compensated for your work.
A record exec’s catch phrase
The story begins in 1982 when Roger Trilling paid a visit to the president of Elektra Records, Bruce Lundvall, to gauge his interest in signing the band Material, which Trilling managed, to an Elektra sub-label.
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Inside his Manhattan office, Lundvall popped on a pair of oversized headphones and leaned back in his swivel chair.
“I can’t tell you how unusual that was for the record business — a record exec actually listening to music,” Trilling told The Hustle.
Lundvall had an odd catch phrase for when he liked something. As the music pulsed through Lundvall’s headphones, Trilling waited for it. And then Lundvall, a silver-haired New England patrician with no concept of 1980s slang, said the magic words in a formal tone:
This stuff is really fresh.
In other words, he loved it. Lundvall said he would sign Material.
A few miles away in Brooklyn, Material band members Bill Laswell and Michael Beinhorn were at OAO Studios, housed in an old industry building near the Gowanus Canal. Somehow they’d gotten roped into producing a French rap song.
Laswell knew little about rap music, which had reached downtown Manhattan’s mostly white club scene after developing for years in the Black communities of New York’s outer boroughs. But he did know Bernard Zekri, a French journalist who wanted to promote hip-hop in France.
And Zekri, who lived a couple blocks from the Manhattan clubs and routinely hosted musicians at his house, knew many up-and-coming hip-hop artists from the South Bronx.
Zekri formulated a plan to introduce hip-hop to Europe:
- Celluloid Records would release five 12-inch single records (similar to EPs) by artists Fab 5 Freddy, GrandMixer DXT (known at the time as Grandmixer D.ST), Futura 2000, Phase II, and The Smurfs. Laswell and Beinhorn would produce the records.
- Coinciding with their release, a collective of rappers, DJs, dancers, and graffiti artists would embark on a European tour.
Fab 5 Freddy with members of EPMD in 1989. (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
The day Trilling met with Lundvall, Laswell and Beinhorn were recording Fab 5 Freddy’s single. Trilling went to the studio to tell them Elektra wanted to sign Material, noting that Lundvall had even dropped his hilarious “this stuff is really fresh” signature.
“Everyone was kind of on a high,” Trilling recalled.
But Laswell says Fab 5 Freddy, a far more experienced visual artist than rapper (and the future host of “Yo! MTV Raps”), struggled through his song, which contained French and English lyrics. The session went into the night, and they needed somebody else to rap on the record’s B-side. The group asked Ann Marie Boyle, an art student.
She’d been teaching French to Fab 5 Freddy and knew most of the lyrics, which were written by Zekri. Because she was appearing on the b-side of the record, DXT gave her the performing name “Beside.” (She later went by B-Side on an album titled Cairo Nights.)
The cover for “Change The Beat.” (Discogs)
What followed is one of the most eclectic songs you’ll ever hear: Beside raps in French as though she’s Fab 5 Freddy, referencing Adidas and graffiti and a club called The Roxy, and the producers distort her vocals and punch in sound effects ranging from spaceships to Japanese dialogue from Godzilla.
All they needed was a catchy outro.
Somebody suggested that Trilling “do the Bruce thing,” i.e. say Bruce Lundvall’s signature slogan of praise. Although Fab 5 Freddy, who couldn’t be reached for comment, has claimed ownership for what happened next, Zekri, Laswell, and Beside believe it was Trilling who uttered what would become a legendary phrase: “Ahh, this stuff is really fresh.”
“Nobody…thought anything of that,” Laswell said. “Roger just did it and everybody’s response was, ‘that’s Roger being stupid again.’”
They ran the recording through a vocoder, so it sounded staticky, like a voice infused with white noise, and put it at the end of the song. Then they went home.
A French flop at the Grammys
It didn’t take long to dash Zekri’s high hopes for “Change the Beat.”
The French radio station Europe 1, which broadcast music throughout the country, selected the track as record of the week for its debut ahead of the November 1982 European tour. But there were significant translation issues. Beside’s English chorus of “change the beat, change the beat” led to listeners doing a double-take.
“Beat [bitte] in French means dick,” Zekri said. “So when they play the song the first week, people call the radio and say, ‘this is scandalous. Take this record off the air.’”
The New York Daily News followed The New York City Rap Tour in Europe, describing its impact as melting down borders “in the heat of the soul-sonic blast.” (New York Daily News via Newspapers.com)
But “Change the Beat” found some success in the New York City hip-hop clubs, where GrandMixer DXT gave a small portion of the song a second life.
DXT, among the first DJs to “scratch” records, played around with various sounds from the five Celluloid hip-hop records, seeking something that would really stand out. He found that Trilling’s “Fresh” and “Ahh,” distorted by the vocoder, had an ideal texture for scratching.
“It was just the right sound,” DXT once said. “It became like my bow. I refer to the turntable as a turn-fiddle, so my bow was the ‘Change the Beat’ record.”
In the Manhattan clubs, he scratched to “Fresh” and “Ahh,” mixing it with soul and funk records to create a danceable rhythm. When Material produced a 1983 album for jazz star Herbie Hancock, Laswell asked DXT to perform scratching on the track “Rockit.”
The song reached No. 1 on Billboard’s dance charts, and Hancock and DXT performed at the 26th Grammys in 1984, a watershed moment for hip-hop.
GrandMixer DXT, right, performs at Camden Palace in London in 1983. (David Corio/Getty Images)
Suddenly, every musically-inclined kid with hip-hop dreams was inspired by DXT’s scratches, and “Ahh” and “Fresh” proliferated on records stocked with scratch-ready sound effects. Rap producers were enthralled, too.
In the early ‘80s, many producers, who were often DJs, made beats by looping percussive drum machine sounds, notes from earlier songs, and recordings of live instruments, and cutting them with scratches. The unmistakable “Ahh” and “Fresh” of “Change The Beat” ended up on a number of classic hip-hop songs.
- J.J. Fad: “Supersonic,” 1985
- Slick Rick: “The Show,” 1985 and “Hey Young World,” 1988
- Eric B and Rakim: “Paid In Full,” 1987
- Beastie Boys: “Sure Shot,” 1994
It all meant that Trilling, Zekri, and others started hearing their work all over the place. But it didn’t mean they’d get credit.
The time before sampling
Anytime somebody takes a melody or lyrics from an existing song and repurposes it into something new, it’s called a sample. Anytime somebody takes a melody or lyrics from an existing song and re-sings or re-records the same notes or words directly into something new, it’s called an interpolation.
These techniques had been used before rap existed, but the genre has been entwined with sampling and interpolation since its inception at South Bronx house parties in 1973, when rappers dropped verses over isolated “breaks.”
In the ‘80s and early ‘90s, producers took sampling to another level, layering several samples on top of each other. There were few concerns about copyrights because:
- Hip-hop’s communal culture prided itself on borrowing and sharing and experimenting. (“Sample snitching” was frowned upon.)
- Sampling involved pulling small bits of art to create new art, leading to the belief that “fair use” extended to sampling.
- Labels, usually the greediest parties, were primarily independents in the genre’s early days. Some figured being picky about samples would lead to mutually assured destruction by lawsuit.
But, as rap music rose in popularity, prolific samplers De La Soul were eventually sued for $1m+ by The Turtles in the late ‘80s, settling out of court. In 1991, Biz Markie lost a landmark case to musician Gilbert O’Sullivan, setting a precedent for producers and labels to seek clearance from rights holders for basically any sample, no matter how small or obscure.
Sampling is now “big business,” said Deborah Mannis-Gardner, president/owner of DMG Clearances and a renowned sampling expert. Publishing rights holders, who are typically the songwriters, reap a ~$2.5k fee each plus royalties when they give permission to sample their songs.
- The share of royalties can be anywhere from 5%–50%, depending on factors like the extent of the sample’s use. Sting once said his royalties from Puff Daddy’s sample in “I’ll Be Missing You” were enough to “put a couple of my kids through college.”
- Labels get paid for the master rights, Mannis-Gardner said, typically with a recoupable advance of a few thousand dollars against a cut of royalties.
But this infrastructure — or even the idea that big money could be made in hip-hop — didn’t exist in 1982 and wasn’t on anyone’s mind involved with “Change the Beat.” The artists and writers were young and inexperienced or, in the case of Beinhorn and Laswell, occupied with other projects.
“It was like the record of everybody and nobody at the same time,” Zekri told The Hustle.
As Zekri recalls, the French sponsor of the tour and the albums offered him ~$40k to develop the albums, and he had Jean Karakos, the head of Celluloid Records, set everything up financially. Those involved with “Change The Beat” say Karakos, whose nickname was “Grandmaster Cash,” made upfront payments but that there was a lack of clarity over the rights to the song.
“Karakos is this guy that things wouldn’t get done if he wasn’t around,” Zekri said. “And then it gets done, but it doesn’t get done the right way.”
Bernard Zekri, at an event in Paris in 2014, worked as a journalist after producing rap music in the ‘80s. (Foc Can/Getty Images)
Beside doesn’t remember if she signed a contract. (“It was really loosey goosey,” she said.) Because Trilling just happened to be at the recording studio when the record was produced, he didn’t get paid — not for his contribution in 1982, and not for anything since.
“Would Karakos have paid me for that?” Trilling said. “Fuck no.”
An elemental sound of hip-hop
Laswell, who doesn’t have ill feelings toward Karakos, says the former Celluloid Records boss is the only person who might’ve made something off samples from “Change The Beat.” But it appears even Karakos, who died in 2017, didn’t cash in.
- Known for financial problems, he claimed to have sold Celluloid to the mafia for a dollar in 1989 to pay back his debts.
- The label’s catalog was later licensed to Charly Records from 1995 until June 2023, and, according to Karakos’ son, Adam Karakos, a US company got control of Karakos’ share of the publishing rights to “Change the Beat” from 1987 to 2008 in a settlement.
Since regaining control of the publishing rights in 2008, Adam Karakos said Celluloid has only received one sample clearance request for “Change the Beat.” It was from last June regarding an uncleared use of the sample from ~30 years ago.
“To the best of our knowledge,” Adam Karakos said over email, “we didn’t make any royalties from the use of the sample.”
Laswell and other musicians believe many people saw the use of “Ahh” and “Fresh” as part of turntablism and didn’t need to clear it, even when the industry started clearing samples. Plus, the rampant proliferation of “Ahh” and “Fresh” on break records separated them from their original source and put them into the hands of thousands of DJs.
The Hustle reached out to several artists and representatives for artists who appear to have used “Ahh” and “Fresh” from the 80s onward, including Beyoncé, to see if they cleared the sample. We didn’t hear back. But many of those artists don’t credit “Change the Beat” in their album liner notes, where artists often list samples.
DJ Babu considers “Ahh” to be less a sample than an elemental sound of hip-hop, with DJs and producers using it the way a guitarist would use a particular string on an acoustic guitar.
“It sounds like hip-hop,” he said.
With stronger copyright protection, that sound might be missing from the genre.
In the end, that’s one reason why Zekri is OK not profiting off the sample’s widespread prevalence. Throughout a decorated career as a producer and music journalist, people still ask him about “Change the Beat.”
“We didn’t do this thing right,” Zekri said. “But I think, also, that’s what’s nice about it.”
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