Gilbert O'Sullivan's 'Alone Again (Naturally),' The Song That Changed Hip Hop
Gilbert O'Sullivan's 1972 hit, “Alone Again (Naturally),” is a mellow and depressing masterpiece. But it's hardly fodder for a rap or hip hop track -- no funky drumming or bassline, or even a hook. Yet when this quiet little song was sampled by rapper Biz Markie, all hell broke loose in the hip hop world, and the industry was never the same.
This is the story of a quirky old hit that met a runaway trend. When Gilbert O'Sullivan recorded "Alone Again (Naturally)," the technique of sampling didn't even exist, and when rap DJs became voracious samplers, they tended to raid the soul and funk tracks, not a mournful mid-tempo piano ballad. The players really have no business interacting with each other, but it happened, first in a recording studio and then in a court of law.
Gilbert O'Sullivan wasn't always a Gilbert
Born Raymond Edward O'Sullivan, the young singer songwriter was born in Ireland but spent much of his early life moving around England with his family. From Cork, Ireland, the family moved to London, and from there they moved to Swindon. With a fairly happy childhood, O’Sullivan fell in love with music as a way to tell stories and bring people together.
Before finding success as a singer-songwriter, O’Sullivan played drums in a band with Rick Davies from Supertramp, and worked as a songwriter for an in-house publishing company that belonged to CBS where he penned tracks for the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.
Sullivan wasn’t intent on being just a songwriter, and after compiling a series of minor hits for CBS the label signed him to a deal. Unfortunately he didn’t do much for the label, but after a move to MAM Records things turned around for the young O’Sullivan.
He worked steadily through the early '70s
After he signed a contract with MAM Records in the early ‘70s O’Sullivan started going by the name “Gilbert” rather than Raymond as a way to make a play on “Gilbert and Sullivan.” He cut his hair into a bowl cut and started wearing short pants as way to stand out from the rest of the musicians of the era. This sort of worked, but he inevitably just started wearing normal clothes.
Chart success in the Netherlands followed, but he found international acclaim in 1972 with “Alone Again (Naturally),” a song about a young man coming to terms with immense loss after life hits him with a series of painful blows - a breakup with his fiancé and the death of his parents. Only 25 at the time that he wrote the song, there’s a depth to the lyrics that you don’t find in many songs written by people that age.
The most depressing song ever written
“Alone Again (Naturally)” has been described as one of the most depressing songs ever written, but regardless of that bummer of thought, the song went to the top of the charts across the world, peaking at number one in America, Canada, and France, and hitting number two in Ireland, New Zealand, Australia. Listeners couldn’t get away from this song.
Even though the song feels like it’s coming from this intense life experience, the truth of the matter is that O’Sullivan was just at the top of his game at this point his career. He wasn’t left at the alter and his parents hadn’t passed away at that point in his life, but he was able to draw on the experiences of people around him to make a piece of art that’s sadly beautiful.
O’Sullivan doesn’t apply any kind of artistic magic to the process. Instead, he simply says that he was in the groove as a writer at this point in his life and that it just came out. He explained:
When Gordon Mills managed me… he allowed me to quit my job and move into a bungalow that he owned where I could write every day. So, therefore, I was in a writing mode, and ‘Alone Again’ was just one of the songs I’d written. I was really pleased with it, happy with it, but I didn’t see it as being any more special than other songs.
Sampling and hip hop go hand and hand, O'Sullivan not so much
Let’s side track for a moment to provide some context for the mess that comes next. In the late 1970s hip hop grew out of low income areas of New York City. Based on rapping and singing over pre-existing funk tracks, the genre grew exponentially as artists began using samples in their recordings.
To put it as simply as possible, sampling is the process of taking a piece of of pre-recorded music and looping it in a way that the melody or sound becomes its own arrangement. Most hip hop songs of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s used multiple samples from a variety of sources in order to recontextualize the sounds and build an entirely new composition.
Artists like Public Enemy, De La Soul, and Biz Markee used hundreds of samples at a time to make an album, all without clearance.
O’Sullivan sued Biz Markie for sampling the song in 1991
Today, if you hear a sample in a song, be it in “Blood on the Leaves” by Kanye West or “Idioteque” by Radiohead, that sample has been cleared. Which means that the original artist gave the go ahead to the sampler to use their song, and the original artist receives royalty payments. That wasn’t the case in the 1980s. Artists sampled tracks however they wanted and for the most case no one noticed, but when Biz Markie released “Alone Again” on his 1991 album “I Need A Haircut,” Sullivan didn’t take it well.
Rather than build a series samples, Markie uses a loop of the main melodic section from O’Sullivan’s song and raps about his life in New York City as an well known rapper but one who’s not famous enough to not be hassled by people he meets at the club. It’s an interesting slice of life but not one that O’Sullivan thought was worthy of using his song. He sued Markie and Warner Bros. for using his song without clearance specifically because he didn’t like that Markie had a sense of humor. He said:
We discovered that he was a comic rapper. And the one thing I am very guarded about is protecting songs and in particular I’ll go to my grave in defending the song to make sure it is never used in the comic scenario which is offensive to those people who bought it for the right reasons. And so therefore we refused. But being the kind of people that they were, they decided to use it anyway so we had to go to court.
O'Sullivan won the case but it made Biz Markie into a star
The case against Biz and Warner Bros. wasn’t as cut and dried in spite of what O’Sullivan claimed. The record company insists that they attempted to retain a copyright claim from O’Sullivan prior to the release of the album but found that O’Sullivan and his publishing company didn’t hold a claim to the track.
Even so, the judge in the case found that because Warner Bros. reached out to O’Sullivan to clear the rights to the sample that they knew they were using the sample without clearance. Judge Duffy went onto refer the defense for criminal prosecution, although that never came to fruition. In 2004, a joint project of UCLA Law and Columbia Law found that the judge had “an iffy understanding… of the facts and issues before him in this case."
The ruling changed hip hop forever
Aside from completely upending the world of hip hop and sample based music, the ruling against Biz Markie altered the way that hip hop was made. Producers like Dr. Dre and the RZA shifted away from compiling massive samples and started basing songs around one or two samples that they could easily clear, Dre was fond of using P-Funk because of their close association with hip hop, and building their own instrumentation around it.
Dre’s use of one or two samples in a track influenced the way sample heavy artists like Kanye West, N.E.R.D. and even Missy Elliot produced, and created a new sound with sped up or slowed down funk and R&B tracks. Even if he didn’t care for the music, there’s now a straight line from Gilbert O’Sullivan and “Nuthin’ But a G Thang,” and even “The Next Episode.”