October 5, 2021 Musicology 10 Comments

Bad Bunny is being sued by BM Records, which controls the rights to a bunch of mixtapes from the 1990’s by DJ Playero. BM Records and DJ Playero get a lot of credit for the development of reggaeton. (Thanks a lot for that, by the way.) And they claim Bad Bunny’s hit Safaera contains material found in Playero 37 and “Playero Street Mix Vol. 2.” And specifically, the works “Besa Tu Cuerpo” and “Chocha Con Bicho,” and “Sigan Bailando.”

These are the recordings that “Safaera” supposedly “samples,” kinda, depending upon which part of the complaint you’re reading. (All this “not having your terminology straight” business drives me disproportionately nuts. It’s my own issue, I realize this.)

Know Bad Bunny’s “Safaera?” Because if not, I’d really recommend leaving it that way. But if you feel compelled for some reason, here you go…

I hear samples in there alright. If you listened to the whole thing you probably heard at least one. But my piping hot take here: In fact, let’s call it “just a bit better than a guess” since I’m not very familiar with DJ Playero, and have no desire to get familiar…

No, he didn’t sample Playero.

I looked at it and can say this about Bad Bunny’s “Safaera” with regard to the Playero material: There are a LOT of lyrics in common. I don’t speak Spanish, and I’m not (clears throat) a “poetry” expert, but I think it strains the imagination that it’s coincidental. Both mention the Chacón sisters (famous dancers) in precisely the same context, just one conspicuous similarity of which there are many. Several lines at a time from Playero’s lyrics appear in Safaera. And if the transcriptions in the complaint’s exhibits are accurate, as I think that they are, then Bad Bunny might more appropriately be accused of interpolating the Playero material.

An “interpolation” takes material from one work and performs it in another work. It’s like an intentional musical quotation. If you sing, “Took my chevy to the levy but the levy was dry,” in the middle of your song, nobody imagines you’re unaware you’ve copped Don McLean, we all know you did it on purpose. It’s not a “sample” however, unless you took the audio from McLean’s record and placed that audio in your new work.

Bad Bunny appears to have alluded to generous swaths of Playero lyrics, essentially presenting them in the same rhythms, and as the complaint mentioned, with a lot of the same notes. Though I think the complaint should probably have referred to the sameness of the “melodic contour” rather than notes, as Bad Bunny changes a lot of pitches, without changing contour.

Melodic contour is the shape — the rising and falling of the notes in a melody; how the rise and falls occur over time, and at what slopes or steepness. If you can, imagine “Happy Birthday To You” but alter the notes, to a minor key perhaps, or just new notes, but you still rise and fall at the same times, and to just a little different degree. You’d still have the same melodic contour — notes would rise and fall in the same way in both versions and both versions would be “Happy Birthday To You,” sorta, but would have lots of different note pitches.)

I think we’ll eventually arrive at the idea that Safaera interpolates Playero tracks.

But I don’t find any evidence of sampling. So every news article about this case has been at least a little bit wrong, I think.

Even the actual complaint against Bad Bunny reads:

Of importance to the instant action, “Safaera” includes at least four distinct uncleared samples of the Playero Works.

I don’t think it does. Safaera contains samples, including that damned tumbi thing from Missy Elliot, I just don’t know think any came from Playero. Please go ahead and change my mind.

The complaint, and dammit lots of articles on the subject, mention “samples” and “sampling” but I think the quote above is the only one that accuses Bad Bunny of employing unlicensed audio. But the rest of the time, I’d almost suspect they’re intentionally creating confusion. The complaint, as I read it, paints Bad Bunny as having cleared several other samples for Safaera (implying that Bad Bunny knows about sample clearing!) and having to take the song down briefly while a clearance got sorted out (implying Bad Bunny’s been known to be a little careless about it) if that’s even true. All of that seems directed toward substantiating the argument that Bad Bunny’s offenses are willful and therefore subject to statutory damages of, and this is what they’re asking for, up to 150k per offense.

But if Bad Bunny sampled anything from DJ Playero for Safaera, I haven’t found it yet, though I’m not really looking. It would be a lot of work. Again, what he seems to me to have done is interpolated Playero, and presumably without permission. You can still get sued for that. And I guess he has been. Kinda.

Written by Brian McBrearty