Hip-hop revolutionized pop culture 50 years ago, and now it looks like it’s in for its own disruption. It was built on preexisting material – rappers would rap over vinyl records with the same breaks looped over and over. And now A.I.’s generating songs based off unauthorized reproductions of famous artists’ voices and styles. To Ice Cube, the Compton-born rapper who helped launch modern hip-hop, this is “demonic.” He doesn’t want to hear that these two are comparable.
The rise of creative artificial intelligence is starting to threaten musicians and artists, who are finding themselves in the crossfire of machines capable of generating text, sound, and images. Drake and The Weeknd are just some of the artists who have had to listen to uncanny replicants of their voice generated by A.I., and even if computers haven’t produced a viral fake of his voice yet, Ice Cube already has a verdict on the age of A.I. in rap.
“I think A.I. is demonic,” he said on the Full Send podcast in an interview published last week. “I think there’s gonna be a backlash because of A.I. I think people are gonna want things organic and not artificial.”
A.I. has become all the rage over the past six months, and scammers are taking full advantage. Synthesizing someone else’s voice used to be a difficult technological hurdle, but modern A.I. systems only need a few audio samples to create voice clones of anybody, even celebrities. It gave rise to a spate of musical deepfakes, where even famous artists like Rihanna could find their vocals being used in a song they never recorded.
It sounds a lot like the common practice of sampling in hip-hop’s golden age in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. Sampling is a common practice in the music industry, when one artist completes their work with a digital piece of another sound recording, or a sample, which can be produced by a different artist.
Sampling was foundational to hip-hop in particular, as it allowed artists who maybe didn’t know how to play an instrument but had an ear for a good beat to generate a hit song. Early hip-hop artists created the genre by pulling together samples from jazz, rock, and funk songs. New York City’s Beastie Boys, working with the master samplers the Dust Brothers, released their second album in 1989, Paul’s Boutique, an enduring cult classic that is 95% samples, according to Rolling Stone. The album would likely cost millions under today’s sampling rules, and the flurry of lawsuits it generated turned other artists off wide uses of sampling.
Ice Cube ain’t no rookie when it comes to sampling – his hip-hop group N.W.A famously sampled plenty of oldie funk and soul songs on their debut album Straight Outta Compton. But since then, sampling rules have gotten a lot stricter due to all the lawsuits over copyright infringement. The Beastie Boys were even targeted by the Beatles for unauthorized use of samples in their work! And in the ’90s, Ice Cube was up against none other than Mr. Rogers in a legal battle over his solo album – he was accused of using a sample from the opening of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood on his song A Gangsta’s Fairytale without permission.
Sampling, A.I., and their intersection with the law are a live issue. A Supreme Court decision this month ruled that artist Andy Warhol infringed on copyright laws when he reworked a photograph of the late musician Prince, a precedent experts say will make it more difficult for artists to borrow others’ work in the future.
But many samplings are still acquired with permission from copyright holders, while even several instances where short samples were taken without permission have been deemed acceptable under fair use laws. In his podcast interview, Ice Cube perhaps surprisingly revealed himself to be a supporter of litigation over unauthorized sampling, and applied this to A.I.
“It’s like a sample. I mean, someone can’t take your original voice and manipulate it without having to pay,” he said. “If I don’t pay for it, that is stealing.”
Ice Cube said he’d sue whoever programmed and used his voice in an A.I. replicant, no hesitation. Other artists are okay with A.I.-generated content featuring their voices, so long as they get paid for it. Last month Grimes tweeted she’s down with “killing copyright” and giving A.I. permission to use her voice – with the condition of getting 50% royalties on any successful A.I.-generated song using her voice.
But even a royalty windfall might not be enough to get Ice Cube on board with the technologizing music industry, as he set aside time in his interview to criticize artists increasingly resorting to digital crutches in their work.
He was saying the artists are getting lost in Autotune and now that they have A.I., people don’t want a computerized rapper anymore. They want to hear their voice. He ain’t heard any rappers by their own voice recently.