Finish That Riff: A History of Musical Borrowing in Three Quarter Notes

Casey Donahue

Tap your feet to the tempo of a brisk walk—about 110 beats-per-minute, depending on your gait. Now count out measures of four. Next, imagine the warm staccato thud of a bass guitar punctuating the first three quarter notes of each measure. If you loop that beat in your head, you may start to hear something familiar. What you hear is not a test, but rather the opening notes of the late-20th century’s two most iconic bass-driven songs: “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang and “Another One Bites the Dust” by Queen.

The Sugarhill Gang and Queen, respectively, sampled and drew inspiration from Bernard Edwards’s bassline in CHIC’s 1979 classic “Good Times.” While the Sugarhill Gang’s interpolation of CHIC’s work resulted in legal action that shaped the future of musical sampling standards, Queen’s modified version of the riff used only the opening three bass notes. Queen set the pace for future pop and rock artists who would borrow, but not technically steal, from Edwards’s motif. If we follow those three bass notes up to the present, we uncover a unique story of musical ownership, innovation, appropriation, and legacy.

“Rapping to the Beat”

The origin story of “Rapper’s Delight” is disputed, but a few facts stand out. We know that its success put hip-hop music on the mainstream American map. We also know that while recording the song, The Sugarhill Gang and producer Sylvia Robinson deliberately copied the bass and guitar lines from “Good Times,” which came out three months earlier. And we know that, to the initial chagrin of “Good Times” writers Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers, Sugarhill did not credit CHIC.

The Sugarhill Gang, however, was not some coterie of sonic thieves trying to make out with the fruits of CHIC’s creative labor. “Rapper’s Delight” built on a creative tradition specific to hip-hop—a genre that grew partly out of a New York scene, where DJ’s (notably, DJ Kool Herc of the Bronx) used dual turntables to loop the breakbeats of popular songs. Breakbeats are segments in the middle of funk, disco, and soul tracks that isolate the rhythm section and allow space for freestyle rappers and “break-dancers” to do their thing over the groove.

By incorporating “Good Times” into their breakout hit, The Sugarhill Gang was using a form of sampling called interpolation. Sampling refers to the insertion of someone else’s recording into your own song (see the use of “Try a Little Tenderness” in Kanye West and Jay-Z’s “Otis”); interpolation involves the re-recording of someone else’s melody onto a new composition (see the use of “Pastime Paradise” in Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise”). These forms of artistic re-purposing remain foundational elements of the genre.

When Nile Rodgers first heard “Rapper’s Delight”—allegedly at a New York nightclub—he may have been upset, but not wholly surprised. CHIC and The Sugarhill Gang had already crossed paths, and Rodgers had witnessed the use of the “Good Times” breakbeat in New York hip-hop circles. In a 2007 interview, Rodgers recalled that at some point during the three-month interim between the releases of “Good Times” and “Rapper’s Delight,” members of the Sugarhill Gang joined CHIC onstage at Bond’s disco in Times Square to freestyle over the “Good Times” breakbeat. The Edwards bassline had become its own new thing—a canvas for rappers. The fact that Rodgers eventually forgave the Sugarhill Gang’s musical transgression suggests an understanding that while credit was due, “Rapper’s Delight” marked a new era of inspiration and borrowing in the Western musical world.

“Rapper’s Delight” is often apocryphally labelled the “first rap song.” What it actually represents is more interesting: it was the first of its genre to breach the Billboard Top 40 and receive national airplay. It convinced labels, radio stations, and other music industry gatekeepers that this new mode of Black artistic expression could draw profit. Importantly, “Rapper’s Delight” did not signal the birth of a genre—only the beginning of hip-hop awareness across broader, whiter sects of the US public. With this new exposure came the hard realization that there was virtually no industry precedent for how emcees credit the artists they sampled.

Today, sampling occupies an odd position in US copyright law. Under certain (confusing) standards, the use of a sample without the original artist’s permission can result in serious penalties—as in the case of Biz Markie’s 1991 album I Need a Haircut, which was temporarily pulled from shelves because of its unapproved use of a Gilbert O’Sullivan sample. Some have argued that these restrictions are inherently discriminatory against an art form that thrives on innovation atop existing works. How can an aspiring beatmaker, who lacks the resources and access to gain permission from the estates of music legends, build off the themes of those who came before? Is every new creation a legal risk?

None of this is to suggest that the writers of sampled songs don’t deserve proper recognition. I’ll never be certain of why Robinson and the Sugarhill Gang forewent a byline for Rodgers and Edwards when they first released “Rapper’s Delight.” But giving credit and gaining permission are separate things. Sampling continues to spark debate about the fuzzy lines between theft and homage, as well as the power dynamics inherent in the music industry. And that debate began with a single sturdy bass note, plucked three times.

“These Dumb Disco Guys”

CHIC and The Sugarhill Gang settled their legal issues outside of court with an undisclosed amount of money and a new byline for Rodgers and Edwards on all future releases of “Rapper’s Delight.” Rodgers has since praised the song, calling it his favorite use of the “Good Times” beat. But that’s not where the story ends for those three opening quarter notes.

In August 1980, the rock gods of Queen took a break from making operatic anthems to drop a disco crossover hit about a mass shooter named Steve. “Another One Bites the Dust” ropes us in with three authoritative thumps that are inescapably reminiscent of the “Good Times” bassline. While John Deacon, Queen’s bass player and the song’s author, never characterized his riff as a deliberate copy, he was a noted fan of CHIC. In later interviews, Edwards and Rodgers revealed that Deacon was in the studio with them during the writing and recording of “Good Times.”

“Another One Bites the Dust” was a testament to the staying power of CHIC’s disco style, even as disco’s popularity died out. On the one hand, the track is deeply original, bearing the hallmarks of a Queen song—equal parts quirky, theatrical, and menacing. Even the bassline—after those first three stolen quarter notes—moves with a curtness that subverts the optimism of the CHIC and Sugarhill grooves.

On the other hand, the influence of the Edwards bassline is undeniable. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s been at a party when the DJ launches into one of the three above-mentioned songs. For a split second, after those first three thumps, the dance floor is ecstatically unsure if it’s listening to a disco standard, an early hip-hop anthem, or a classic rock favorite.

Queen lifted elements of the “Good Times” riff, but skirted the possibility of a plagiarism lawsuit. Music copyright laws in the US are subjective, convoluted, weird. To successfully accuse an artist of plagiarism, you must prove  1) “access” (has the accused has been exposed to the song they ripped off?), and 2) “substantial similarities” (could an “ordinary listener” identify unique elements from one song that seemed copied by another?). This was an easy task for CHIC when they threatened legal action against The Sugarhill Gang, given the groups’ shared history. But how do you sue over three straight-played quarter notes?

Western music listeners are conditioned to hear melody—as opposed to timbre or rhythm or instrumentation—as the central component of an original composition. Since the US Copyright Act of 1976, the bulk of major cases have hinged on melody: The Chiffons sued George Harrison; Tom Petty went after Sam Smith; and Donna Weiss and Bruce Roberts sued Madonna, all over melody-based similarities. Chord progressions, grooves, and vibes can contextualize melodies and strengthen a plagiarism case. But as the band Spirit learned in their drawn-out lawsuit against Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” these elements alone typically don’t cut it. In fact, the Marvin Gaye Estate’s lawsuit against Pharrell and Robin Thicke, for their culturally disastrous “Blurred Lines,” represents one of the only high-profile plagiarism cases where a plaintiff successfully sued for the copying of an overall musical style or feel, not a melody line.

Litigation is not a particularly rock-and-roll course of action. Dispatching lawyers to nitpick sonic ownership does not feel very punk, or metal, or hip, or cool. But it is actually about as rock-and-roll as it gets; and that is a partial response to pop music’s long history of cultural shoplifting. Through malice, ignorance, privilege, and homage, chart-topping artists have long cherry-picked elements of traditionally Black musical styles without bothering or understanding how to give proper credit.

When recounting the influence that CHIC had on Queen’s new number one single, Bernard Edwards touched on the ways in which the insults of musical appropriation often happen outside of the courtroom, and independent of the borrowing artist’s intentions: “That’s ok [that Deacon borrowed our style],” said Edwards. “What isn’t ok is that the press… started saying that we had ripped them off… ‘Good Times’ came out more than a year before, but it was inconceivable to these people that Black musicians could possibly be innovative like that. It was just these dumb disco guys ripping off this rock-and-roll song.” 

In this light, it is unfortunate that the 2018 biopic Bohemian Rhapsody made no acknowledgment CHIC’s role in “Another One Bites the Dust.” The bassline is not a product of Deacon’s relationship with Edwards and Rodgers. It is a plot device, introduced by Deacon to break up a fight between drummer Roger Taylor and a drugged-up Freddie Mercury.

The Beats Go On

John Deacon and Queen created a template for appropriating a tiny but influential element of a predominately Black musical style into predominately white forms of rock, punk, and pop. Bootsy Collins, the bass legend of James Brown and Parliament-Funkadelic fame, has long extolled the virtues of “playing on the one.” For funk bass players, this means hitting the downbeat of the first quarter note in any measure, while retaining the freedom to do whatever feels natural for the rest of the measure. The “Good Times” riff is an extended application of this rule: in every odd measure, the bass plays only the first three or four downbeats; then it variates during the even measures. This was the formula adopted by The Clash in their 1981 hit “This is Radio Clash.” In 1983, David Bowie used it for his smash album’s eponymous single, “Let’s Dance.” INXS’s 1987 breakout song “Need You Tonight” substitutes the bass for a slashing guitar, but stays true to this formula.

Those quarter notes are now stitched into the fabric of popular music. They constitute the opening salvo of a song you know you’ll have to dance to—like a judge banging a gavel three times to announce the commencement of the funk. I may be pushing my argument here, but I believe there’s a reason DJ Casper waits three straight quarter notes in the first verse of “Cha Cha Slide” before demanding that we all move “to the left!”

It’s unlikely that these artists were all thinking of CHIC when they wrote their new riffs. And to be clear, Nile Rodgers went on to proudly list the works of Queen, The Clash, Blondie, Daft Punk, and INXS as offshoots of his genius. But the story of these three little quarter notes should complicate our understanding of the different ways that artists stand on each other’s shoulders.

I wonder if Rodgers and Edwards could cite a specific musician or song that inspired them to write the “Good Times” riff. Perhaps then we could follow the thread of those quarter notes back even further. For now, I enjoy walking into rooms, singing those opening notes (Thump-thump-thump) and seeing how my friends finish the riff. There are many right answers.

Image: From Left: Master Gee, Big Bank Hank and Wonder Mike of the Sugarhill Gang (photo from Russel Mondy, modified by Casey Donahue); Nile Rodgers at his Le Crib studio (photo from IAmMisterD123, modified by Casey Donahue); Roger Taylor, Freddie Mercury, John Deacon, Brian May of Queen during the 1985 Tokyo Tour (photo from Koh Hasebe, modified by Casey Donahue)

Casey is a dual Masters candidate in History and Foreign Service. He studies peace processes and sociopolitical movements in the Irish and Middle Eastern spaces. Casey is a former classroom teacher and political risk analyst. He currently works as an elementary school tutor.

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