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The 10 Most Controversial Samples In Hip-Hop History

The use of samples has influenced artists and DJs for decades. It's also been fodder for lawsuits and ire — read on for 10 of the biggest sampling controversies in hip-hop, from 2 Live Crew and the "Amen Brother" break, to Young Nudy.

GRAMMYs/Aug 10, 2023 - 02:44 pm

Hip-hop would not exist without sampling. Over its 50 years of existence, rappers, producers, and DJs have taken old music and made it new again, remixing and reinterpreting the creativity of previous generations and folding it into the culture of today. 

But not everyone is flattered when a rapper samples their song. The history of hip-hop is rife with legal battles over unauthorized samples — from the genre’s early wild west days to the modern era. Some of these controversies have had lasting implications for the entire industry. 

Below, we take a look at some of the most controversial samples in hip-hop.

Sugarhill Gang – "Rapper’s Delight" (1979)

Before "Rapper’s Delight," hip-hop was predominantly a live art form. Rappers rarely recorded and preferred to perform for a live audience, improvising freestyle raps over funk and soul records spun by DJs. The use of samplers and drum machines was not yet widespread. Nevertheless, Sylvia Robinson, a singer and studio owner who wanted to take advantage of the trend. She assembled rap group the Sugarhill Gang and invited some studio musicians to record a sound-alike version of the instrumental from Chic’s "Good Times" for them to rap over. 

The song hadn’t even reached the charts yet — though it would become the first hip-hop song to breach the Billboard Top 40 — before Nile Rodgers of Chic heard an early version at a club in Manhattan. Ironically, several members of the Sugarhill Gang as well as Fab Five Freddy had joined the band onstage at a show weeks earlier to freestyle during "Good Times." Rogers didn’t take kindly to the song being knocked off, and he and Chic bassist Bernard Edwards immediately threatened legal action, with a settlement leading to them being credited as co-writers. 

The song broke hip-hop into the mainstream, but it also set the stage for many similar cases of producers asking for forgiveness rather than permission and facing the consequences. 

Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force - "Planet Rock" (1982)

Another example of "sampling without sampling," "Planet Rock" wasn’t a straight re-recording of an earlier song like "Rapper’s Delight." After witnessing the popularity of songs by Kraftwerk in New York’s nightclubs, producer Arthur Baker and DJ Afrika Bambaataa decided to fuse the German group’s electronic music with hip-hop. 

"Planet Rock" fuses the beat from "Numbers" with the melody from "Trans-Europe Express," with Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force rapping above, but Baker recreated both with his own instruments. They never asked permission from Kraftwerk, however, and when the band reached out to Tommy Boy Records, the label decided to give them a dollar for every copy sold, raising prices to recoup the cost. 

The song birthed a genre, electro, and influenced everything from Detroit techno to Miami bass. Years later, Kraftwerk sued another musician over unauthorized sampling, a case that went all the way to Germany’s highest court in 2016. 

The "Amen" Break (recorded 1969)

When Washington, D.C.-based soul band the Winstons recorded "Amen, Brother," they couldn’t have predicted the seven-second drum break played by Gregory Coleman would go on to become one of the most iconic, oft-replicated sounds in music. 

And yet that’s exactly what happened: After being included in drum break compilations such as Ultimate Breaks and Beats designed for DJs to loop and sample, the "Amen Break" made its way into iconic hip-hop songs from N.W.A. ("Straight Outta Compton"), Mantronix ("King of the Beats,"), 2 Live Crew ("Feel Alright Y’all"), and eventually even the "Futurama" theme song. But the break really exploded in the UK, where British dance music producers, who needed faster tracks for the exploding rave movement, sped the break up. They chopped it until "Amen Brother" was barely recognizable, with other famous breaks like "Funky Drummer" and "Think" getting similar treatment. 

Jungle, and its splinter genres drum and bass, and breakcore, resulted, and the breakbeat revolution it unleashed now influences modern pop acts such as PinkPantheress and NewJeans. According to WhoSampled, "Amen, Brother" has been sampled in 6,174 songs, which may be a low estimate. 

As the saying goes, however, revolution eats its children. Gregory Coleman, the Winstons drummer who originated the break, never saw a cent of royalties from any of it. He was homeless at the time of his death in 2006, and according to Winstons bandleader Richard Lewis Spencer he had no idea the break had made such an impact. Spencer himself has run hot and cold on the break’s impact, sometimes calling its use plagiarism, but he at least was able to make some money from it: As the last living member of the Winstons, he received $37,000 from a 2015 GoFundMe campaign aimed at repaying some of the lost royalties before he died in 2020. 

Biz Markie - "Alone Again" (1991)

In the late '70s and throughout the 1980s, hip-hop flourished creatively as a result of creative sampling. Producers such as Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad created records filled with dozens of samples — a collage-like approach that would influence artists like DJ Shadow and the Avalanches. And yet in 1991, a lawsuit over an uncleared sample threatened to snuff out the entire art form. 

Biz Markie, famous for comedic songs such as "Just A Friend," had been dragged into federal court along with Warner Bros. Records for using a portion of "Alone Again (Naturally)," a nearly-forgotten pop song from the ‘70s by Gilbert O’Sullivan. The case was a disaster for Markie and for creativity in general. The court ruled that because the label had reached out to the sample copyright holders, who withheld permission to use the song, and then released it anyway, they were guilty of blatant and willful copyright infringement. 

The defense’s argument that unauthorized sampling was widespread in the music industry was rebuffed by Judge Kevin Duffy. In his ruling — which opens by quoting the biblical commandment "Thou Shalt Not Steal" — Duffy wrote that: "The defendants...would have this court believe that stealing is rampant in the music business and, for that reason, their conduct here should be excused."  

Markie was ordered to pay $250,000 in damages and referred to (but never charged by) a criminal court on grounds of theft, reeking of racist paternalism. Yet the primary upshot of the decision — that any unapproved sample constitutes copyright infringement — was even more damaging, creating a chilling effect across hip-hop that prevented artists from making full use of the practice’s creative potential. Warner Bros. took the song off Markie’s album, and the rapper famously titled his next record All Samples Cleared! 

2 Live Crew - "Pretty Woman" (1989)

Is Luther Campbell, the don dada of Miami bass maestros 2 Live Crew, smarter than the entire Warner Bros. legal team that bungled the "Alone Again" case? Judging by the fact that he managed to drag an uncleared sample case from a much more famous artist than Gilbert O’Sullivan all the way to the Supreme Court — and win — the answer is yes. 

Like Biz Markie, 2 Live Crew had asked permission to use a sample – in this case "Oh! Pretty Woman" by Roy Orbison – and was rejected. Perhaps this came as a result of their less-than-family-friendly reputation, as the group had been in and out of the headlines fighting obscenity charges over best-selling album As Nasty As They Wanna Be. Nevertheless, they released the song anyway, and when Orbison’s label eventually sued, Campbell came up with a clever defense: fair use. 

Campbell declared the 2 Live Crew song, "Pretty Woman," was a parody of Orbison’s original, and therefore the sample constituted a legal fair use. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which reversed an earlier appeals court ruling that said the song couldn’t have been a fair use because of its commercial nature. They also agreed with the initial federal district court ruling that said the 2 Live Crew song was not similar enough to Orbison’s to constitute wholesale infringement. 

Ironically, Campbell himself later sued 50 Cent for using "It’s Your Birthday" in his hit single "In Da Club," while 50 later sued Rick Ross for using that song’s beat on a freestyle. 

Jay-Z feat. UGK - "Big Pimpin" (2000)

Hov ended up regretting some of the sexist lyrics on this collab with Houston’s Bun B and Pimp C, but the reason he and Timbaland ended up in court over "Big Pimpin" was a contentious sample. The producer had already forked over $100,000 to sample "Khosara Khosara" by Egyptian composer Baligh Hamdi, but this wasn’t enough for Osama Ahmed Fahmy, Hamdi’s nephew. 

Citing the Egyptian legal concept of "moral rights," Fahmy claimed in a 2005 lawsuit that the song was unlicensed because Jay-Z and Timbaland had failed to ask permission from Hamdi’s heirs. The suit was left in legal limbo for years before a California judge finally let Fahmy proceed, by which point Linkin Park had also been pulled in due to a mashup of "Big Pimpin" with their single "Papercut." During his testimony four years later, Jay-Z declared he had been unaware that there was even a sample in the song, saying "Timbaland presented me with a track. I didn’t even think about there being a sample." 

The case was finally settled in 2018 when an appeals court upheld the original summary judgment in favor of Jay-Z, by which point the song was nearly 20 years old. 

Kanye West - "Blood On The Leaves" (2013)

Quite a few of the samples used on Yeezus, Kanye’s incendiary, famously-rushed 2013 album, ended up being unauthorized. West fielded lawsuits from Hungarian prog rock band Omega (sampled on "New Slaves") and the Ponderosa Twins Plus One (sampled on "Bound 2") for using their music without permission. But it was "Blood on the Leaves" which attracted the most attention for its brazen (and fully authorized) appropriation of Nina Simone’s cover of "Strange Fruit," originally made famous by Billie Holiday

That a famous anti-lynching anthem was used by a mega-famous rapper to decry the materialism and excess rife within hip-hop might have ruffled a few feathers — some conservative critics even argued it was an anti-abortion song — but the song received almost universal praise. 

Robin Thicke ft. T.I. and Pharrell - "Blurred Lines" (2013)

True, "Blurred Lines" is not exactly a hip-hop track, but it does feature two rappers, and while not exactly a sample, Robin Thicke and Pharrell’s much-too-liberal "borrowing" of Marvin Gaye’s "Got to Give it Up" changed the music industry irreparably. Certainly, the song was hugely controversial, opening up a pre-#MeToo discourse over its objectification of women and glorification of rape culture that ultimately led to bans. But it was the similarities to Gaye’s song, flaunted by Willams and Thicke in the press, as well as a preemptive legal action against the Marvin Gaye estate, that had a more lasting, damaging impact. 

Williams had argued in his initial complaint against the Gaye family that their claim was not based on specific musical elements, but on the face value similarity of the two songs. However, a jury ruled unanimously in favor of the family. The case essentially rewrote the legal precedents of musical copyright law overnight, broadening the scope by which a song might be considered infringement. Thanks to the "Blurred Lines" suit, a musician may live in fear of legal predation simply because their new song sounds vaguely similar to one from 30 or 40 years ago. 

Meanwhile, massive investments are being made into older music, partially to make up for this creative chilling effect.

Juice WRLD - "Lucid Dreams" (2017)

There’s nothing particularly incendiary about the plaintive guitar sample from Sting’s "Shape of My Heart" that forms the backbone of Juice WRLD’s emo rap hit. When producer Nick Mira revealed that Sting had taken 85 percent of the rights for the song, however, it became a demonstration of how sampling has become a way for established artists to exploit newer talent. 

It also attracted a lawsuit from pop-punk band Yellowcard, who cited similarities to their track "Holly Wood Died." Juice WRLD himself downplayed the situation, saying "There’s always more money to be made." The suit was later dropped after the 21-year-old rapper’s tragic early death in December 2019. 

Young Nudy feat. Playboi Carti - "Pissy Pamper" (aka "Kid Cudi") (2019)

One of the most successful unreleased songs in recent memory is also a cautionary tale for keeping leaks under control. The song originally entitled "Pissy Pamper" was a Pi’erre Bourne-produced track originally meant for Sli’merre, his collaborative mixtape with Young Nudy. 

With its prominent use of a loop from "Tasogare" by Japanese singer Mai Yamane (best known to anime fans for "Cowboy Bebop" ending theme), the track regretfully never made the record due to sample clearance issue. But somehow, a leaked file made its way onto Spotify, where its killer component, an evocative "baby voice" verse from Playboi Carti at the peak of pre-Whole Lotta Red hysteria. 

The rest is history: internet memes, reuploads with Nudy’s parts removed, and so on. Thanks to social media, the song is a generational touchstone that shouldn’t legally exist. 

Listen To GRAMMY.com's 50th Anniversary Of Hip-Hop Playlist: 50 Songs That Show The Genre's Evolution

Crowd dancing at GRAMMY Museum's Hip-Hop Block Party
Attendees dance on the Ray Charles Terrace at the GRAMMY Museum

Photo: Randy Shropshire

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7 Ways The GRAMMY Museum’s Hip-Hop Block Party Celebrated Culture & Community

On June 6, the GRAMMY Museum honored Black Music Month with a vibrant, museum-wide soirée featuring dancers, musicians, and a fashion show.

GRAMMYs/Jun 11, 2024 - 01:32 pm

Most days of the week, the GRAMMY Museum closes at 6 p.m. But on Thursday, June 6, its doors were open well into the night. As some people filtered through them, others clustered around two rollerskate-clad dancers who synchronized to Aaliyah’s "Try Again" on the sidewalk outside the museum at L.A. Live. 

This was Richard "Swoop" Whitebear, the professional who choreographed the mononymous singer’s "Try Again" music video, and Alicia Reason, a skate coach and performing artist operating at the intersection of professional dance and roller skating. Their fluid movements drew a crowd outside the GRAMMY Museum’s inaugural Hip-Hop Block Party. 

The after-hours soiree, which ran to 11:30 p.m., is one of the larger events that the five-story archive of GRAMMY Award history and winners has ever hosted. Although the Hip-Hop Block Party honored Black Music Month, observed each June, its concept can be traced back to October 2023, when the museum launched "Hip-Hop America: The Mixtape Exhibit" in celebration of the genre’s 50th anniversary. 

"The idea for [the party] came from the energy of the exhibit, which celebrates five decades of hip-hop. I was lucky to be a part of curating the exhibit and hosting its opening night, and that experience fueled my passion for continuing to share the story of hip-hop and its journey across cultures," says Schyler O’Neal, the Museum’s Manager of Education & Community Engagement. 

A grant from L.A.’s Department of Cultural Affairs enabled O’Neal and colleagues to coordinate the one-night-only affair, billed as an opportunity to "experience the pulse of hip-hop culture like never before." Across nine interdisciplinary art demos, activations, and pop-ups encompassing mediums ranging from photography to live music and dance, the GRAMMY Museum made good on this promise while providing a platform to compelling California-grown creatives. 

"Our goal was to shine a spotlight on local talent across the hip-hop spectrum: DJs, MCs, dancers, fashionistas, and photographers. We brought together an awesome lineup to represent the culture," O’Neal tells GRAMMY.com.  

Many spirited, community-building moments colored the evening. Read on for a snapshot of some of its most memorable.  

Uraelb Pays Homage To Hip-Hop’s Past, Celebrates Its Present & Embodies Its Future 

"I’m setting the tone at 8 pm," Uraelb proclaimed in an Instagram post ahead of the Hip-Hop Block Party. That’s precisely what the L.A. native did when he took the stage at the Clive Davis Theater for the evening’s first vocal performance. Flanked by a drummer, bassist, pianist and two supporting vocalists, UrealB opened with a performance of his original song, "Brace Face."  

He created a culture of artist participation by encouraging the crowd to smile and later, to sing along to his buttery-smooth rendition of OutKast’s "So Fresh, So Clean." From there, UraelB’s "homage to hip-hop" crossed coasts and generations, culminating in a pumped-up cover of Kendrick Lamar’s "King Kunta."  

"If I leave you with anything, I want to leave you with a deep appreciation for hip-hop," he said before closing with another one of his own productions, "Groovy." 

Uraelb first performed at the GRAMMY Museum as part of its educational program INDUSTRY SESSIONS. "[Uraelb] made such an impression during that class that we said, ‘we’ve gotta have him come perform at one of our events,’" O’Neal said just before the activation started.

Over the years, INDUSTRY SESSIONS — open to creatives 18 years and older — and the GRAMMY Museum’s other music education programs, have attracted a host of talent, including Giveon and Billie Eilish.  

Larry "Ruin" Combs Krumps to MJ’s "They Don’t Care About Us" 

To celebrate hip-hop’s history and culture is to appreciate dance’s inextricability from the music — and vice versa. On the Ray Charles Terrace, professional krumper Larry "Ruin" Combs nodded to South Central L.A., where krumping was born, in an impassioned performance to Michael Jackson’s "They Don’t Care About Us." 

A powerful medium of self-expression, krumping is a street dance that evolved from clowning, another style of dance with roots in African and Caribbean culture. Krumping is characterized by sharp, quick, and vigorous movements, like chest pops, stomps, and arm swings, used to convey emotion. Krumpers have historically turned to the art form to release negative or charged emotions and to navigate difficult experiences and circumstances.

Hence the title of the dance special that Combs is crafting, "The ‘e’ in ‘Krump’ is silent." 

"A lot of what Krump presents is very emotional; you see it, you don’t hear it," a nearly breathless Combs told the event co-host Leslie "Big Lez" Segar. "That’s what the format of the show is going to be like — various types of music that tug at your emotions, from good to bad."

While additional details about the forthcoming special are limited, those interested can follow Combs — who has notably performed on "America’s Got Talent" and the season finale of "So You Think You Can Dance." 

Cross Colours & Black Design Collective Dress For Success 

The GRAMMY Museum's attention to curating an event that celebrated the whole of hip-hop culture was especially apparent in the block party’s inclusion of a fashion show.

Cross Colours — a clothing brand launched in 1989 by Carl Jones, who studied fashion at the Otis Parson School of Design and Trade Technical College in L.A. — dressed local models from the Black Design Collective, a group of accomplished fashion industry professionals of color. The collective's goals include amplifying the influence of and creating opportunities for a global community of Black apparel, accessory and costume designers. 

Their partnership paved the way to a striking fashion show, during which more than five models circled the museum’s third floor, donning a variety of garments ranging from T-shirts with brightly-hued graphic designs to overalls.

NANA Shows Off His Lyrical Muscle — And A Different Strain Of Hip-Hop 

Crenshaw resident NANA contrasted the polished, funk-soul of Uraelb’s activation with a squeaky-clean spitting session. And while the storyteller’s quick tongue and lyrical muscle translated to a well-practiced performance that would have made anyone in attendance think he rehearsed for days pre-show, NANA had only 24 hours’ notice.  

As host O’Neal told it during a brief Q&A at the event, his request for NANA to take the stage at the block party ("I need your energy there!" he recalled telling NANA) came while the rapper was in the middle of a studio session. About a day later, NANA was holding a microphone in the Clive Davis Theater. 

NANA, who credited Nas, Jay-Z, Tupac, Kendrick Lamar, and Snoop Dogg among those on his "long list" of inspirations, is notably featured in the "Rap City Experience" section of the GRAMMY Museum’s "Hip-Hop America: The Mixtape Exhibit," to which he contributed freestyles. 

Five Decades Of Hip-Hop Are On Display  

What’s better than a birthday cake? Try a 5,000-square-foot exhibit that traces hip-hop from its humble beginnings in the Bronx and New York City to the GRAMMY stage. On Oct. 7, 2023, the GRAMMY Museum opened "Hip-Hop America: The Mixtape Exhibit," in honor of hip-hop’s 50th anniversary. Offering a focused, expansive (and tactile) look at the genre’s history and profound influence, the exhibit features a "sonic playground" complete with five interactive stations for DJing, rapping, and sampling.  

A retrospective educational journey, "Hip-Hop America" canvasses hip-hop scenes, sounds, and fashion across generations. Take, for example, the Notorious B.I.G.’s iconic red leather pea jacket, displayed in the same showcase as Migos’ embroidered blazers. The must-see exhibit exploring hip-hop’s long, rich, and still evolving history runs through Sept. 4. 

Learn more: Inside The GRAMMY Museum’s New Exhibit, "Hip-Hop America": From Dapper Dan To Tupac’s Notes

Hip-Hop Universal Provides A Formidable Finale 

Segar and Swoop, who worked with O’Neal to curate the evening’s dance performances, assembled what can only be described as a mic drop of a finale to the block party’s activations: Hip Hop Universal. The ensemble of five professional dancers and choreographers included Swoop, Robert "Rautu" Harris, Leon "No Realer" Spann, Marlyn Ortiz, and Ronnie "Futuristic Astaire" Willis.  

Some of their individual choreography and dance credits include an array of megastars, from Madonna, Taylor Swift, and Usher, to Britney Spears, Dr. Dre, and the Backstreet Boys. Over the course of their collaborative performance, which alternated between group dances and solos, Hip-Hop Universal made minutes feel like seconds — a testament to their rapturous synergy and individual expertise. 

Unity On The Dancefloor

At the heart of hip-hop — a genre in which artists pride themselves on representing their cities, perhaps more so than in any other genre of music — is community. That sense of community was apparent even through the schedule of programming. Activations occurred one at a time, in succession. This structure created a sense of togetherness; attendees collectively enjoyed a given activation and made their way to the next one together.  

The spirit of community imbued both the block party’s schedule and the content of its activations, but it was perhaps most visible on The Ray Charles Terrace. There, near the end of the evening, as the crowd awaited the final activation (and even afterwards), nearly all in attendance could be found dancing in the crisp, open air to beats spun by DJ R-Tistic. 

"This is our first time doing this, and I think we gotta keep doing this," O’Neal remarked on the mic. The crowd’s response — a resounding cacophony of affirmative cheers and applause — was answer enough.

"Everyone, from the talent to the staff to the hundreds of guests, [were] getting down together with the electric slide. That's what it was all about: bringing folks together for a good time," he concluded.

Inside The GRAMMY Museum’s New Exhibit, "Hip-Hop America": From Dapper Dan To Tupac’s Notes 

Rapper Warren G (Warren Griffin III) appears in a portrait taken on June 27, 1995 in Madison Square Park New York City.
Warren G

Photo: Al Pereira

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Warren G Revisits 'Regulate: The G-Funk Era': How The 1994 Album Paved The Way For West Coast Hip-Hop's Dominance

Long Beach's Warren G has consistently carried the flag of g-funk, from 1994 to present. The GRAMMY nominee revisits his classic album, which offered a different perspective on Southern California life.

GRAMMYs/Jun 7, 2024 - 02:03 pm

In the canon of West Coast hip-hop, Warren G’s debut album, Regulate: The G-Funk Era is considered one of the greatest.

Released on June 7, 1994, the album remains a perfect snapshot of the g-funk era, the popular subgenre of gangsta rap that was all the rage in the early- to mid '90s. "I created the genre, but I was introduced to it by Above the Law," Warren G tells GRAMMY.com. 

Headlining that album is of course, Warren G and Nate Dogg’s iconic track "Regulate," tapping that four-bar sample from Doobie Brother Michael McDonald’s "I Keep on Forgettin’." But the album features a number of other hits including "This D.J." and "So Many Ways," a remix version later appearing on the Bad Boys soundtrack.  

"Regulate" the single first arrived on the star-studded soundtrack for Above the Rim, released via Death Row Records in the spring of 1994, and sold over 2 million domestic copies in the year of its release. Then a few months later, Warren reintroduced "Regulate" on his inaugural album. The 12-track Regulate: The G-Funk Era provided a full vision of The Regulator's uber smooth brand of g-funk which rang out from the 213 all around the world.  

Thanks to pioneers like Above the Law, Dr. Dre, DJ Quik, and Warren G, g-funk (or gangsta funk) became the definitive sound of West Coast hip-hop. Regulate: The G-Funk Era was so impactful that it was even nominated for Best Rap Performance By A Duo Or Group at the 1995 GRAMMYs.

Like Dre's The Chronic, many continue to be drawn to Regulate’s depiction of Southern California life, replete with endless sunshine and maxed-out cars blasting pioneer speakers. Regulate is also the story of Warren G, a personal album which gives love to the community and people he came up with ("I played ball through the halls of CIS / With Snoop Dogg's big brother, call him Dirty Left," he raps on "This D.J.", referencing College Intermediate School in Long Beach ).

With Regulate, self-described "outlaw" Warren G made a platform for himself and some of his disciples. Album features the Twinz, an LBC duo consisting of twin brothers Deon and Dewayne Williams, and the Dove Shack, whose summer anthem "This is the Shack" (later reprised on the group’s own album with the same title a year later),  took the West Coast hip-hop world by storm. Though the great crooner Nate Dogg died more than a decade ago, 213, the Long Beach collective of Warren G, Snoop Dogg and Nate Dogg lives on. Warren and Snoop just released the single "Cali 2 Canada," in advance of an upcoming tour. 

Regulate was Warren G's first release after effectively being exiled from Death Row Records, where his halfbrother and mentor Dr. Dre, not to mention Long Beach pals Snoop Dogg and Nate Dogg thrived. Warren signed with Def Jam Records in 1994,  and his debut release helped save the label from serious debt: Regulate: The G-Funk Era sold 3 million copies in the U.S. and debuted at No. 2 on the U.S. Billboard Top 200 albums chart.  

As we look back on 30 years since Regulate the G-Funk Era, GRAMMY.com connected with Warren G himself to look back on five ways the album paved the way for west coast hip-hop today.  

It Solidified Long Beach As A Hip-Hop Mecca 

Warren G isn’t the first Long Beach rapper who made waves during this era. There’s Snoop, of course, as well as Missouri-born, Long-Beach raised Domino. But Regulate: The G-Funk  Era feels like a whole album about place, giving love to the LBC on every track with people and places like 21 and Lewis, King’s Park, the Voltron Crew, and Cal State Long Beach as Warren shouts them out on tracks like "Regulate" and "This D.J."

Warren acknowledges that there were the realities of the streets, but also plenty of fun to be had growing up, too, including listening to old records for hours together with his father. "Coming up in Long Beach was fun. We had a lot of sports. Lot of neighborhood activities as far as King’s Park," Warren G tells GRAMMY.com. "It was fun. It was dangerous. It was cool. It was my home."

Voltron Crew is Warren’s group of friends he used to sell candy with while having rap battles. Warren impressed the crew by rapping the lyrics to some of Dre's yet-to-be-released material, including "Cabbage Patch." "'Damn Warren, you’re harder than a motherf—a,'" he recalled his friends saying with a laugh.

And then there’s Warren’s beloved VIP Records on Pacific Coast Highway which Warren calls an LBC "landmark." He and his friends would walk down there after school to listen to music as one DJ after another queued up inside of the institution to spin. "It was just fun for us to be able to see that and listen to good music at the same time," Warren adds.

It Made Nate Dogg A Star 

The late great Nate Dogg was already on the rise on the West Coast with early vocals on Dre’s "Deeez Nuuuts," Mista Grimm ft. Warren G’s "Indo Smoke," and Snoop’s "Ain’t No Fun." But the titular track "Regulate" made him soar. While Nate is given a featured credit, he’s lockstep with Warren during the entire song, matching Warren’s lyricism with his own hybrid style of singing and rapping that had never been seen in hip-hop before and hasn’t been seen since. 

Back in those days, hip-hop often didn’t really promote its hookmen and women — much less feature them prominently in their music videos. (Consider Nate’s Bay Area contemporary Mike Marshall, who sings the hook on Luniz’s classic "I Got 5 On It," but unfortunately isn’t remembered beyond West Coast hip-hop diehards.) But Nate made himself seen and heard on "Regulate."

It’s no coincidence he went on to become the go-to hook singer in California and beyond, working with everyone from Tupac and Ludacris, to French hip-hop group Psy 4 de la Rime. Nate Dogg passed away in 2011 at age 41.

It Presented A Different Version Of West Coast Gangsta Rap 

When compared to some of his contemporaries, Regulate: The G-Funk Era focused less on hardcore themes in favor of keeping things light and smooth. Even "Regulate" itself — which is about Nate and Warren dealing with a carjacking on a cool and clear California night — the Mississippi-born crooner who grew up in a Gospel choir always had a way of keeping things mellow. 

Regulate: The G-Funk Era also speaks to the turbulent climate of ‘90s inner-city Los Angeles. While Dre’s The Chronic might be more overt about it, Warren goes there too on songs like on the album’s third single, "Do You See,"  whose beat mashes up Mtume’s "Juicy Fruit" and Junior’s "Mama Used to Say." Much of that song, Warren G says, is personal.

"I just talked about everything I was going through, ya know, Snoop being in jail," he recounts. "Mista Grimm is my dog. But he was doing things that just wasn’t cool…But I forgave him for all of that still. Even though I talked about it in the song. I forgave him 'cause that was my dog. He’s still my dog."  

"Do You See" speaks about realities beyond the LBC, too. It opens with a sample from Gil Scott-Heron’s 1976 fiery spoken word piece  "Bicentennial Blues": "The blues has always been totally American… as American as apple pie… the question is why?...Well, America provided the atmosphere."

"I had listened to that particular [song] and everything he said was what I was going through. It blew me away," Warren says. 

It Introduced Us The Dove Shack, Twinz & Jah Skillz 

After not being able to get footing in Death Row, Warren G struck out on his own. He built his own roster of lesser-known talent on G-Funk Music, under the parent label Def Jam Recordings, and brought in Dove Shack (C-Knight, Bo-Roc and 2Scoops), the Twinz, and Jah Skillz, part of the larger female group Da 5 Footaz —who all got the G-Child cosign. Each artist debuted on Regulate: The g-funk Era, with summertime anthem "This is The Shack," an album standout.

Many of Warren G's guest features went on to have their own careers. Dove Shack member C-Knight recently passed away and Bo-Roc, a crooner in his own right, went on to work with other West Coast legends like Richie Rich, Daz Dillinger, and Foesum. Twinz, meanwhile, turned bass-heavy feature "Recognize" into the full-fledged Conversation in 1995, a g-funk album that gave us one of Warren G’s greatest beats, "Journey Wit Me," featuring Bo-Roc. 

As for Jah Skillz, she’s front and center for the entirety of "Super Soul Sis," and wastes not a single word. Da 5 Footaz went on to appear on the Jason’s Lyric and Set It Off soundtracks. 

It Gave G-funk Its Timeless Credo 

A few people are credited for launching g-funk, but Warren G’s timeless credo: "g-funk, where rhythm is life and life is rhythm," in the waning moments of "Regulate" and "And Ya Don’t Stop"  remains a classic to this day.

On his 1997 sophomore album Take a Look Over Your Shoulder and 1999's I Want It All, Warren G always shouted out gangsta funk. He also stayed true to the sound that spread west coast hip-hop worldwide: By 2001, a couple of years after the g-funk era fully ended, Warren defiantly proclaimed that "g-funk is Here to Stay" on Return of the Regulator.  

In 2015, he even put out an EP, Regulate... G-Funk Era, Part II, featuring unreleased music with his longtime partner Nate. From 1994 through 2024, Warren has consistently carried the flag of g-funk, the original west coast sound that he helped cement with Regulate The g-funk Era, 30 years ago.

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2 Live Crew
DJ Mr. Mixx, Fresh Kid Ice, Brother Marquis, Luke Skyywalker of 2 Live Crew in 1989

Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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On This Day In Music: 2 Live Crew's 'As Nasty As They Wanna Be' Becomes First Album Declared Legally Obscene, Anticipates First Amendment Cases

Known for their raunchy take on hip-hop, 2 Live Crew made history when 'As Nasty As They Wanna Be' was declared legally obscene. Thirty-four years later, here's how they fought back and turned their battle into a landmark First Amendment case.

GRAMMYs/Jun 6, 2024 - 07:56 pm

When 2 Live Crew released their third studio album, they never imagined it would lead to a mammoth of legal entanglements. In 1989, the Miami-based hip-hop group dropped As Nasty As They Wanna Be, a title that held true throughout the ensuing legal battle.

In an effort to put their music on the map and distinguish themselves in the rap game, amidst one of hip-hops finest eras, the album featured sexually explicit themes and graphic content, leading to extreme popularity within pop culture. However, this widespread attention wasn’t all in a good light.

In Broward County, Florida, Sheriff Nick Navarro took a stand against the group, endeavoring to prevent local record store owners from selling the provocative album. In defiance of this censorship, 2 Live Crew filed a lawsuit in federal court, seeking legal recourse to halt the sheriff’s crackdown, prevent restrictions on album sales and legally defend their work as non-obscene.

Through the court's ruling, they deemed the work legally obscene and prohibited retailers from selling the album in Florida’s Broward, Dade, and Palm Beach counties.

Following the ruling, Florida record store owner Charles Freeman was arrested for selling As Nasty As They Wanna Be and three 2 Live Crew members were also arrested for performing their explicit music live at a nightclub in Hollywood, Florida. 

Challenging the initial ruling with tenacity, the group’s record label, Luke Records, founded by 2 Live Crew member Luther Campbell, brought the case in front of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

In this legal battle, the Eleventh Circuit Court applied the Miller Test, a benchmark for obscenity set by the United States Supreme Court’s test in the 1973 Miller v. California case. To meet the standards of the test, the work being challenged must appeal to a prurient, or shameful interest in sex, depict sexual materials in a patently offensive way, and lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. Luke Records called four experts in their fields to the stand, while Navarro failed to provide concrete evidence that the album met the standards outlined by the Miller Test.

In the Court of Appeals, it was found that the album did not meet the standards of obscenity that were set forth in the Miller Test. Since As Nasty As They Wanna Be was a creative work of music, the court ruled that the album had artistic value and thus did not meet all the standards to be deemed as obscene. 

"I’ve been listening to the album by 2 Live Crew. It’s not the best album that’s ever been made, but when I heard they banned it, I went out and bought it," said David Bowie during his 1990 tour in Philadelphia, stopping in the middle of his performance to defend the group. "Freedom of thought, freedom of speech — it’s one of the most important things we have."

Last week, 2 Live Crew member Brother Marquis passed away, prompting Campbell to take to Twitter and honor his friend and fellow member, stating, "We took on so many fights for the culture, made great music together, something I will never forget."

To this day, the case against 2 Live Crew serves as a legal standard for First Amendment Rights, upholding the boundaries between censorship and freedom of speech within music.

"They really set a legal precedent for hip-hop artists today to be able to create in the way that they choose to," says Kiana Fitzgerald in her book "Ode to Hip-Hop." In the book, she also cites contemporary examples of hip-hop artists who openly speak about sex in their discography, like Megan Thee Stallion, Cardi B, Lil Wayne, and others.

Through 2 Live Crew’s legal fight, they paved the way as trailblazers for hip-hop artists to be As Nasty As They Wanna Be — without facing speech-smothering legal repercussions.

50 Artists Who Changed Rap: Jay-Z, The Notorious B.I.G., Dr. Dre, Nicki Minaj, Kendrick Lamar, Eminem & More

Kid Cudi performs at Coachella 2024
Kid Cudi, whose music often discusses mental health, performs at Coachella 2024.

Photo: Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Coachella

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10 Times Hip-Hop Has Given A Voice To Mental Health: Eminem, J. Cole, Logic & More Speak Out

From the message of "The Message" to Joe Budden's vulnerable podcast and Jay-Z speaking about the importance of therapy, read on for moments in the history of hip-hop where mental health was at the forefront.

GRAMMYs/May 20, 2024 - 03:10 pm

In a world of braggadocio lyrics, where weakness is often looked down upon, hip-hop can often seem far from a safe place to discuss mental health. 

But underneath its rugged exterior, hip-hop culture and its artists have long been proponents of well-being and discussing the importance of taking care of one's mental health. Openness about these topics has grown in recent years, including a 2022 panel discussion around hip-hop and mental health, co-hosted by the GRAMMY Museum, the Recording Academy's Black Music Collective, and MusicCares in partnership with the Universal Hip-Hop Museum. 

"Artists are in a fight-or-flight mode when it comes to being in this game," said Eric Brooks, former VP of Marketing & Promotions at Priority Records who worked with NWA and Dr. Dre. "And there need to be strategies on how to deal with the inner battles that only happen in the mind and body."  

The panel only scratched the surface of the many times hip-hop culture has illuminated critical mental health issues that often remain hidden or under-discussed in the music industry. In recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month, read on for 10 times hip-hop has shone a light on mental health. 

J. Cole Apologized To Kendrick Lamar

A long-simmering beef between Drake and Kendrick Lamar was reignited in March 2024 when Metro Boomin' and Future released "Like That." The track featured a scathing verse from Kendrick, where he took aim at  Drake and J. Cole, and referenced the pair's collaborative song "First Person Shooter." 

The single begged for a response, and J. Cole, under what was presumably a significant amount of pressure, surprise-released his Might Delete Later. The album featured "7 Minute Drill," in which Cole calls Kendrick's To Pimp, A Butterfly boring. 

But the same week Cole's album came out, he apologized to Kendrick onstage at his Dreamville Fest, saying it didn't sit right with his spirit and that he "felt terrible" since it was released. Cole added that the song didn’t sit right with him spiritually and he was unable to sleep. Cole subsequently removed "7 Minute Drill" from streaming services. 

Strong debate followed about whether or not Cole should have removed the song. However, many heralded Cole’s maturity in the decision and said it was an important example of not doing things that don’t align with one's true emotions, and avoiding allowing others expectations of you weight down your own physical and mental health.

SiR Spoke Candidly About Depression & Sobriety

Although an R&B artist, TDE singer SiR is hip-hop adjacent, having collaborated with former labelmate Kendrick Lamar on tracks like "D'Evils" and "Hair Down." SiR recently spoke with GRAMMY.com about the troubles that followed him after the release of his 2019 album Chasing Summer.

"I was a full-blown addict, and it started from a string of depression [and] relationship issues and issues at home that I wasn't dealing with," SiR says. After the Los Angeles-based singer had hit rock bottom, he found the spark he needed to do something about it. His initial rehab stint was the first step on the road to change.  

"I was there for 21 days [in 2021]. [The] second time, I was there for two months and the third time wasn't technically rehab…I did personal therapy, and, man, [that] did wonders," he recalls. 

SiR also tackled the stigma many Black communities place on therapy and seeking help for mental health issues. "I would've never done something like that if I was in any other position, so I'm thankful for my issues because they led me to a lot of self-reflection and forgiveness," SiR says.

Big Sean Educated His Audience About Anxiety & Depression 

One of the biggest challenges in addressing anxiety and depression is the feeling that those issues must be kept under wraps.  In 2021, Big Sean and his mother released a series of videos in conjunction with Mental Health Awareness Month, in which the GRAMMY nominee opened up about his battles with depression and anxiety. 

In one of those videos, Sean and his mother discussed  the importance of sleep and circadian rhythms when managing depression and mental health issues. In an industry that prioritizes the grind, the hip-hop community often overlooks sleep — much to its detriment.

"Sleep is the most overlooked, disrespected aspect of our well-being," said Myra Anderson, Executive Director & President of the Sean Anderson Foundation and Big Sean's mother. "Even one day without good sleep can mess up your hormones severely." 

As a busy recording artist, Sean concurs that, for him, a lack of sleep contributes to challenges with anxiety. “If I’m not in the right mindset, I don’t get the right sleep,” says Sean in the mental health video series. “Then that anxiety rides high, and my thoughts are racing. I’m somebody that lives in my head.”

G.Herbo's "PTSD" Addressed The Impact Of Street Violence

Eastside Chicago's G. Herbo is an artist vital to the city's drill music scene. On "PTSD," the title track of his 2020 album, Herbo raps about his struggles coping with violence and loss. 

"I can't sleep 'cause it's a war zone in my head / My killers good, they know I'm hands-on with the bread / A million dollars ahead, I'm still angry and seeing red / How the f*ck I'm 'posed to have fun? All my n— dead."  

The lyrics echoed the realities of what G. Herbo grew up seeing in O-Block, considered by many to be one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Chicago. But it wasn't just a song title; G. Herbo was diagnosed with PTSD in 2019 and began therapy to manage it, showing that even rap's most hardened have opened themselves up to professional help. 

"I'm so glad that I did go to therapy," G. Herbo told GRAMMY.com in July 2020. "I'm glad that I did take that leap of faith to just go talk to somebody about my situation and just my thoughts and get 'em to a person with an unbiased opinion." 

Joe Budden Opens Up About His Darkest Times 

In 2017, on the "Grass Routes Podcast," rapper-turned-podcaster Joe Budden opened up about multiple suicide attempts and his lifelong battle with depression. 

"For me, there have been times where I've actually attempted suicide," Budden shared. "As open as I've been when it comes to mental health, it wasn't until retirement from rapping that I was able to dive into some of the things the fans have seen." 

Never one to shy away from rapping about his mental health struggles, Budden songs like "Whatever It Takes" peel back the layers on an artist fighting his demons: "See, I'm depressed lately, but nobody understands / That I'm depressed lately, I'm sorta feelin repressed lately." 

Budden continued to be a champion for mental health that year, including on his former Complex show "Everyday Struggle," where Budden broke down while discussing the suicide death of fellow rapper Styles P's daughter. 

In recent years, Budden has uses his wildly popular "The Joe Budden Podcast" as a tool to discuss his own struggles and raise awareness of mental health issues. 

Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five Broadcast A Serious "Message"

Hip-hop culture has long used rap as a tool to highlight mental health and the everyday struggles of its community. Released in 1982, Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five's "The Message" is an early, effective example of vulnerability in hip-hop.

"The Message" described the mental health impacts of poverty and inner-city struggle, describing desperate feelings and calling for support in underserved communities: "I can't take the smell, can't take the noise / Got no money to move out, I guess I got no choice." Perhaps the most recognizable lyric comes from Melle Mel, who raps, "Don't push me cause I'm close to the edge/I'm trying not to lose my head." 

Eminem Got Honest About Depression While In Rehab

On "Reaching Out," Queen and Paul Rodgers sing "Lately I've been hard to reach / I've been too long on my own / everybody has a private world where they can be alone." These lyrics were sampled on the intro to Eminem's 2009 single "Beautiful," a raw tale of the rapper's struggles with depression. Half of the song was written while Eminem was in rehab, including lyrics like "I'm just so f—king depressed/I just can't seem to get out this slump." 

The lyrics pierced the core of Eminem's audience, who were able to see the parallels between the struggles of a rap superstar and their own issues. The song reached the Top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100 and was nominated for a Best Rap Solo Performance GRAMMY Award. In an interview with MTV about the song, Eminem said it was an important outlet for him at a challenging time. 

But it was far from the first time Eminem has discussed mental health. One of the earliest examples was in his song "Stan," where Eminem rapped from the perspective of an obsessed fan who ended up killing himself and his wife after Eminem failed to respond to his fan mail. In a 2000 interview, Eminem told MTV that he wrote the song to warn fans not to take his lyrics literally. 

Logic Sparked Change With A Number

One of the most impactful moments hip-hop has seen regarding mental health and sparking change was when Logic released his song "1-800-273-8255" in 2017. The record, named after the real National Suicide Lifeline Prevention phone number, which is now 988, hit the top three on the US Billboard Hot 100.

Following the song's release, the British Medical Journal released a study sharing data that showed the song contributed to a 27 percent increase in calls to the prevention hotline that year and may have even contributed to an actual reduction in deaths by suicide. 

Logic's single further proved that rap music's impact extends well beyond charts and sales. "1-800-273-8255" highlighted the connection artists have with their fans, as well as the ways music can be a tool to cope with challenges like mental health and suicidal thoughts. 

Kid Cudi Opened Up About Suicidal Urges 

Cleveland's own Kid Cudi has never shied away from putting his emotions on record, rapping vividly throughout his career about his struggles with mental health. Cudi records, like the hit single "Pursuit of Happiness," are brutally honest about trying to find happiness in a world filled with trials and tribulations. 

In a 2022 interview with Esquire, Cudi recalled checking himself into rehab in 2016 for depression and suicidal urges. He had been using drugs to manage the weight of his stardom and even suffered a stroke while in rehab. "Everything was f—ed," Cudi said. 

Cudi took a break to develop stability, returning to the spotlight with the 2018 project Kids See Ghosts in collaboration with Kanye West.. Today, Cudi and his music remain pillars of strength for those facing similar challenges.   

Jay-Z Detailed The Importance Of Therapy & Getting Out Of "Survival Mode"

In 2017, Jay-Z released his critically acclaimed thirteenth studio album. 4:44 was packed with lessons on family, mental health, and personal growth.

An interview with the New York Times, Jay-Z discussed how helpful therapy had been to him. Therapy helped the rap superstar in his interactions with other people — something that had been hardened growing up as a black man in Marcy Projects. "I grew so much from the experience," he told the Times.

"I think the most important thing I got is that everything is connected. Every emotion is connected, and it comes from somewhere. I understand that, instead of reacting to that with anger, I can provide a softer landing and maybe, 'Aw, man, is you O.K.? You're in this space where you're hurting, and you think I see you, so you don't want me to look at you. And you don't want me to see you,'" he said. "You don't want me to see your pain."

The album also unpacked Jay-Z's infidelity. "I'll f— up a good thing if you let me," he raps on "Family Feud." In the same interview, Jay-Z shared that growing up in the hood put him into "survival mode," impacting his abilities to be a good partner and husband earlier in life. 

"You shut down all emotions. So even with women, you gonna shut down emotionally, so you can't connect," he reflected. "In my case, like it's, it's deep. And then all the things happen from there: infidelity." 

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