Was Timbaland’s Skillful Sampling a Cultural Crime?

A close reading of the producer’s autobiography reveals surprising sources for his talent and his sound

The next time you think about how your boss is unqualified to do his job, remember this: Timbaland, superstar producer and former architect-in-chief of American pop and R&B, can’t read sheet music.

That may sound like a potshot, but it’s actually praise. It’s clear at this point that Timbaland, aka Timothy “Tim” Mosley, has a grasp of not simply music, but raw wavelengths and peaks and trebles, that most non-canine listeners do not possess. Over the years his many unconventional choices in samples — birds chirping, babies cooing, and beatboxed imitations of turntable scratches, all chopped and looped so as to punctuate the rhythm — made his beats at once era-defining and ahead-of-their-time. I opened up Timbaland’s autobiography, The Emperor of Sound, thinking of rational ways to explain these gifts: a background in classical music or church gospel, or some sort of savant-ism whose obsessive tendencies center around audio frequencies. To my surprise, the answer I got was none of the above, but was, in fact, love.

Tim’s bio

“My mother encouraged me to beat on pots, drum on the table, stomp around the house,” recalls Timbaland in the book’s first chapter. He’s not bashful in describing his “prodigious ability to collect and catalog sounds,” but credits everything to his mother, shelter administrator Latrice Mosley:

“…my mother — worn out and tired from a long day’s work — gave me the space I needed to flex that gift, to play with it, to toss it around and watch it grow.”

Fueled on maternal tenderness, spare cash from dishwashing gigs, and a reluctant father’s gift of a Technics turntable set, Timbaland truly did build an unlikely empire, one based not in entrepreneurship or ego but in sheer talent, work ethic, and an unmatchable intimacy with sound.

Lately, though, Tim’s been quiet, shying away from the media and — God forbid — Twitter. He is instead focusing on parenting his own wunderkinder and, up until this year, has been serving as lead composer for another Empire, this one featuring Taraji P. Henson as head of state. Curiously, though, despite two decades of digital fiddle-work, Tim’s Rome has not yet burned to the ground.

There was a time, however, when all of this wealth was threatened. A time not too long ago at that, a legacy which dogged the producer for more than a decade until his most recent court engagement was dismissed last year on a technicality. The decadence of this emperor, strangely enough, was neither vice nor vodka nor voluptuous women, but a crime of much higher stakes: uncredited sampling.

Here’s a throwback for your listening pleasure, with text-based guest verses from the big man himself.

Among all of Tim’s honorifics, being a personal pick of President Obama’s is up there. Whereas gulag cats like Vladimir Putin use mob slang to get their points across, Obama turned to hip-hop culture, biting Jay Z’s dance move by brushing the dirt off his shoulder on national TV.

“When reporters asked his aides if Obama was specifically referencing our song,” Tim notes on page 161, “the campaign replied and said, ‘Well, he does have some Jay Z on his iPod.’ Epic moment!” Epic moment indeed, Tim. Especially considering “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” was Tim’s sole contribution to The Black Album, produced at a time when Timbaland was undergoing a depressive emotional and creative slump following the death of mononymic protégé Aaliyah. He describes the vibe of the song:

“When I crafted that beat, I was trying to capture the energy of a high school marching band, all outfitted with electronic instruments.” (pg 157)

Tim’s marching band period, corresponding to late 2002 and most of 2003, produced some real bops for the listening public. Compare the percussion on “Dirt,” for example, to the bucket-banging on “Cop That Shit” (later duplicated by colleague Justin Timberlake on Beyoncé’s “Yoncé/Partition”); the cheerleader whistle samples and hand-claps on Missy Elliott’s “Pass That Dutch”; and the iconic pep rally horns on Lil’ Kim’s “The Jump Off”. At the time, Tim was his own personal step team in the studioproducer and dancer and hype man in one singular chubby body.

One song from this era stands out, though it didn’t make waves when it first dropped. That song is “Indian Flute,” a collaboration with longtime partner Magoo and Carnatic fusion singstress Raje Shwari. The lyrics and music video are part orgy, part Orientalist fantasy, with imagery of snake charmers and bellydancers amidst Tim’s goofy visage behind mirrored shades. The eponymous flute riff carries the song, a tension string around which the beat oscillates.

There’s only one problem: the flute isn’t Indian. In fact, It’s not even from the same continent as Raje Shwari’s Gujarati origins. The sample is actually a direct lift off Afro-Colombian group Toto la Momposina’s “Curura.” This is hardly a secret; it’s listed on Wikipedia of all places. The only grievance is that none of Toto’s members are credited on the album and, presumably, none of them were paid for the sample.

But South Asia was hot at the time in hip-hop, maybe. This was, after all, around the same time that Jay Z reworked Panjabi MC’s bhangra banger “Mundian To Bach Ke” into one of the most recognizable beats and flows of the decade, “Beware of the Boys.” But stealing from South Asia was equally popular. Pop’s equivalent to “Beware,” Britney Spears’s “Toxic,” used an unlicensed sample of a song from 1981 Bollywood film Tere Mere Beech Mein. This was in the compositional current of British producer Guy Sigsworth, who had made the “underwater tabla” his go-to motif, including in a remix of future Timbaland collaborator Björk’s 1999 single “All Is Full Of Love.”

Now, while there’s historical precedent for a British person stealing from South Asia, incriminating Timbaland for theft from the Colombian highlands is trickier.

If only Tim had just stuck to Colombia.

Timbaland was Kanye before Kanye was a self-proclaimed god, before Kanye supported Trump, before Kanye made five beats a day for three summers. In just eight short years, Timbaland had gone from being a big fish in a Tidewater pond to producing Ginuwine’s monster smash hit “Pony,” working with industry legends like Janet Jackson on 1998’s “Go Deep,” and helping launch Missy Elliott and Aaliyah’s entire careers while reinventing R&B in one swift motion. Everything Timbo touched turned into gold, diamond, or platinum before long. Hell, half of his verse on Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody?” — probably the most iconic R&B song of the entire decade — is devoted to self-praise.

He wasn’t even close to his peak when he produced the now-infamous “Big Pimpin’” for Jay-Z in 1999.

“Big Pimpin’” has a different sound to it compared to Timbaland’s previous records. Much of his production for Missy Elliot’s first album Supa Dupa Fly, for example, is futuristic yet clean hip-hop: the title track throws sound effects and and synth blips over an old Ann Peebles song; “Friendly Skies” is a sultry slow jam lubricated by vocoders; and “Hit ’Em Wit Da Hee” pairs a low bassline and a phased guitar riff loop to create a spacey effect. In fact, those very same guitar riffs could have been Timbaland’s calling card during that era, judging by “Are You That Somebody?” and his production on Destiny’s Child’s forgotten 1998 soundtrack single “Get on the Bus.”

Honestly, the same could be said for beat-boxing; Tim’s breathy blips can be heard briefly on both the tracks mentioned above, and reached their peak on Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River” a few years later. Up until 1999, Timbaland was making purely fresh beats, crisp and innovative in their own right compared to the compressor carnage being wrought in the pop market during that time.

What made “Big Pimpin’” was the sample. Even Tim admits it in Emperor:

“As usual, I had this one beat that I just couldn’t get a grip on. I’d been playing with a sample called “Khosara Khosara,” a beautiful Egyptian melody performed by a famous singer named Abdel Halim Hafez, who was like the Frank Sinatra of Arab music. I couldn’t find the right flow to match what was going on in the song. I had flutes whistling a melody and I was ratcheting that against a bounce bass line. But it was hard to wrangle.” (pg 126)

The composer of “Khosara,” Baligh Hamdi, never got to hear his tune take over the airwaves anew decades after its composition. But his nephew, Egyptian national Osama Fahmy, sure did, and took Tim to court. Now, despite owning up to the sample, Tim never mentions the court case in the book. Why would he, after all? He’s too cool for that drama in print. On a hot mic, however, Tim lets the truth pour out, his face a cast-iron kettle:

“At the end of the day, I know I ain’t do nothin’ wrong and truth prevailed, you know? Yeah, I mean, sometimes you gotta fight for what you believe in.”

Co-conspirator Jay Z believes in a similar story: in open court, he testified that Tim “is not known for using samples” in his works.

“I won’t say anything about the sample if you don’t say anything about this lemonade I’m drinking…”

A few others in the industry aside from plaintiff Fahmy beg to differ. Take Aaliyah’s “More Than a Woman,” built off of Mayada El Hennawy’s “Alouli Ansa.” Or the orchestral Warda sample which serves as the foundation to another Aaliyah classic, “Don’t Know What to Tell Ya.” Or the strings in Petey Pablo’s “Raise Up”, taken from Hossam Ramzy’s rendition of “Enta Omri”. (Fun fact: This song can be found on the same belly-dancing compilation as a recording of “Khosara.”) Or, fresh off one of Tim’s rock shows in Japan, the string and vocal sample driving Utada Hikaru’s “Exodus ’04,” originally from Eidha Al Menhali’s “Meshkeltek.”

All in all, it was the Middle East which underpinned all of these songs, and the labor of Levantine and Arab musicians of years past which helped line Timbaland’s pockets. From the moment Tim cracked open the crystal case of that belly-dancing compact disc, these samples have been the plaster wall and stud boards upon which Timbaland’s gold records could be hung. By the time Timbaland was first accused of plagiarism for Nelly Furtado’s “Do It” in 2006, uncredited sampling was already one of his go-to pro tools.

The case around “Do It” was pretty clear-cut. Timbaland was first called out digitally for sampling from a remix of Finnish artist Tempest’s composition entitled “Acidjazzed Evening,” and the case was later brought to court by copyright holder Kernel Records of Finland. There was no argument to be made for this incident: the buzzy blips from Tempest’s track formed the entirety of the rhythm section, and more than 3 seconds of material had been used. Tim had little to say about it in interviews aside from notable nonchalance:

“That’s how you attack a king? You attack moi?”

Between “Do It” and the seemingly-cleared Chrono Trigger sample from Omarion’s “Ice Box,” 2006 truly marked Tim’s transition in sampling ethics: no more Levantine, just video game machine. This came in tandem with comparisons between 2007’s “Ayo Technology” and Crystal Castles’s “Courtship Dating,” which leave little room for the imagination. Not that occasional traces of his past didn’t crop up. 2007’s “Make Me Better” for Ne-Yo included a Sherine sample which had previously appeared on a Raekwon deep cut from 1995, and another track from Furtado’s Loose, “Wait for You,” plucks a guitar riff from Turkish musician Muhlis Akarsu’s “Allah Allah Desem Gelsem.”

Not even Middle East-adjacent nations were spared: there’s a case to make that Sebastian and Timbaland’s “Take It Off” borrows from Greek chanteuse Rita Sakellariou’s “This Man.” What strikes me about this group of samples in comparison to the earlier group is how lazy they are in comparison to the source material: simple loops with no particular finesse in the final production. On this front, Tim seems to contradict himself:

“A lot of these kids don’t know about yesterday. They sample a classic and they think they stumbled on it. But it’s not enough to just flip an old sound and make it new. You’ve got to feel the music in your bones for the whole world to feel it too.” (pg 211)

By the end of 2007, however, Tim’s sampling had reached a saturation point. His hits during and after the Shock Value era are all solidly pop production-wise. It’s not that he didn’t shy away from sampling, he just drew from less obscure sources — the intro track to Shock Value, “Oh Timbaland,” refashions the break from Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” into yet another statement of self-praise, and radio hit “The Way I Are” interpolated the iconic synth line from Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It” for very little reason at all aside from a vehicle for labelmate Keri Hilson. Tim’s signature beatboxing was a mainstay on several tracks. More recently, his contributions to Beyoncé’s 2013 self-titled album were mostly organic… save for the alleged sample on “Drunk in Love,” this time from Hungary’s Mitsou. (Personally, I don’t hear this one, but that’s not to rule anything out.)

When all is said and done, however, Tim has prevailed legally. The case in regards to “Big Pimpin’,” Fahmy v. Jay Z et al., was dismissed on the grounds that the plaintiff Osama Fahmy did not have domain over the original sample. His prior case Mosley v. Kernel was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount, and both plaintiff Kernel Records and the composers of the work, Janne Suni (Tempest) and remixer Glenn Rune Gallefoss, are mum on the subject. At this point, trying to bring further cases against Teflon Tim are seemingly futile.

Has Tim retired from his old tricks? Debatable. His production contribution to Bryson Tiller’s debut album T R A P S O U L, “Sorry Not Sorry,” has a sample from a Street Fighter video game, ideally sampled legally. There’s been no lawsuit, that’s all we can say for now. But with another album on the horizon, musical soundtrack and swan song entitled Opera Noir, the denizens of YouTube’s sampling community will inevitably uncover more sonic secrets within Timbaland’s tracklist.

You may ask, what’s the point? Did Timbaland commit some sort of cultural crime in lifting these sounds? Should I, as a conscious music listener, abstain from Timbaland, or any producer who samples illegally for that matter? And does it even matter when countries like the United States are materially exploiting (not to mention bombing) the same Arab nations which produce these sounds?

photo: Kevork S. Djansezian / Getty

One word we’re not going to use is “appropriation.” That word is hereby relegated to white girls wearing headdresses at Coachella and claiming they have fatter asses than black women on Instagram. The word we are looking for is exploitation. In its purest form exploitation is unpaid labor of workers which generates a profit. And exploitation in this manner runs rampant in a music industry which is hungry for profit.

When Selena Gomez uses Indian sounds and iconography in her music video, she isn’t appropriating the look for fashion so much as she is exploiting the aesthetic in order to make a profit. When Drake uses Caribbean sounds to sell an album but cuts Popcaan’s verse off of a commercial track, that is exploitation. When Timbaland uses the labor of Arab musicians to build a musical empire that, too, is exploitation.

Appropriation is also an insufficient term to describe the relation between a once-poor, self-made African-American musician making money off of deceased Arab musicians of a generation prior. Somewhere, there’s a guy on Twitter with an ankh for an avatar who will say that because both Timbaland and the composer of “Khosara” are both ultimately African, appropriation is a dull charge: you can’t appropriate what historically is yours to keep, he might argue. (Especially considering Arab peoples’ participation in the black slave trade and the Arabization of black and indigenous communities across North Africa, but we don’t even have to go there.)

The counterpoint to make is that by 1999 Timbaland was a wealthy man, even if hood rich. He could’ve taken a pay cut and licensed the samples. He didn’t. Cue Timbaland taking the stand in his own defense and beatboxing in the court room. (Yes, this actually happened.) And let’s be real, Tim is too busy to worry about these allegations, and he sure as hell ain’t checking for some nerd on the internet with the receipts — even if that nerd was practically weaned on Tim’s magic formula instead of watered-down Similac.

None of this means that Timbaland is any less of an innovator, but instead it’s simply a testament to the fact that innovation is rarely 100% born of originality. In fact, theft and innovation go hand and hand. Many of hip-hop’s progenitors built their first sets on equipment stolen from retailers during the 1977 New York blackout, after all. But the greater point is that it’s beyond us to find a producer that hasn’t profited off of someone else’s labor in one way or another.

And let’s not turn this into a “black people are thieves” narrative either — it is white America that created both the corporate structures which enable mass exploitation of the American working class (white, black, and otherwise) and the material conditions of poverty for the African-American communities which produced and continue to produce hip hop, gangsta rap, contemporary R&B, trap, drill, et cetera.

To sum up: until we invent more robust listening devices or new audio frequencies altogether, innovation in music will never be wholly original on anyone’s part. The related effort to confine our consumption patterns into products or producers that are universally “cruelty-free” or “unproblematic” is ultimately a farce given the insidious nature of late capitalism into all forms of production. So listen to what makes you happy or what makes your brain stem tingle. Tim himself will cosign that notion:

“Anyone who has argued with someone they love knows the limits of language: twenty-six letters in the alphabet and you can only rearrange them in so many ways. But sound is infinite… there is a direct line between the acoustic universe and our hearts, a line that bypasses the brain and transmits truth, wisdom, and meaning.” (pg 4–5)