It’s been a whirlwind few months for KueenD, the 30-year-old Dallas rapper behind “Shake That a$$,” a slinking, clapping single designed to torch late-night dancefloors. Working with the producer D Thrilla Beats, she created the song in February, flipping the libidinous 2013 single “Booty Me Down” from rapper KStylis. Within weeks, a snippet of KueenD’s song featuring a verse from rapper-dancer Lil Eaarl was already soundtracking a popular dance challenge on TikTok. “Shake That a$$” was officially released April 30th, and it went on to gain the attention of Lizzo, along with over a million other TikTok users who used it in their videos.
But trouble was imminent. In May, Kstylis released the identically titled “Shake That A$$,” which was also built around a slow-chant sample of his own “Booty Me Down.” While KueenD says she had been in communication with Kstylis about her track, she had still not officially cleared the sample she used, so her “Shake That a$$” was pulled down from streaming services the same month. This left Kstylis free to take advantage of the viral momentum that KueenD had built. All she could do was sit back and watch as he amassed streams — 2 million plus and counting on Spotify; another 1.4 million on YouTube — and celebrated his accomplishments on social media.
The episode serves as a harsh reminder of the reality of the music industry, where initially triumphant viral moments can sour quickly, turning a breakthrough into a brawl. “To backdoor it, steal the name of the song [and] put a version out, that’s cruel,” KueenD says. “All the labels that were reaching out [to me] lost interest because of the drama behind trying to clear the beat. I don’t have any opportunities now.”
The “Shake That a$$” saga also illustrates the challenges first-time artists face at a time when sampling is incredibly popular and songs with uncleared samples can explode in a matter of hours. When tracks blow up quickly, they start generating real income and become worth fighting over. “A large percentage of the artists going viral have songs containing a sample,” explains KueenD’s manager, Jonathan Hayman. “If a TikTok hit has a sample and it blows up, the artist who’s sampled has the leverage to manipulate or control the situation any way they want. They can mess with an artist’s career in a negative way.” (Kstylis’ manager did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
Sampling has been a fraught topic since the birth of commercial hip-hop: The genre’s first major single, Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” interpolated Chic’s “Good Times,” leading the group’s Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards to take legal action and obtain sole songwriting credits. After the Turtles triumphed in a sampling suit against De La Soul and Gilbert O’Sullivan won against Biz Markie in a landmark 1991 case, it became clear that sampled acts held the power over the samplers, at least after a song was released. It may be better to ask forgiveness than permission in some areas of life, but it’s a risky move in pop music.
Thanks to modern production software, however, sampling is easier than ever. That ease means that novice artists who aren’t aware of the do’s and don’ts of the music industry can romp through pop history, pilfering whatever they like, testing the results on a platform like TikTok and getting instant feedback.
The results of this process are often exciting, but they may not be officially sanctioned: While technology is more aligned than ever with the urgency of the creative impulse, legal frameworks remain comparatively rigid. Acts can flip a snippet of a song they like and create a new hit in record time. But whoever created the track they sampled still controls the fate of that new release.
“Kids need to understand that even though you’re giving something away for free, sharing it on TikTok because you’re really excited about something you created, you still need to get permission [to use a sample] because you don’t own that song 100 percent,” says Deborah Mannis-Gardner, one of the music industry’s most outspoken advocates of proper sample usage, and the founder of DMG Clearances.
Yet conflict around sampling remains a thorn in the music industry’s side, going well beyond kids on TikTok. Earlier this month, Aaliyah’s uncle Barry Hankerson claimed the singer Normani had sampled his niece in “Wild Side,” a charge that Normani’s team denied. Memphis rapper Kingpin Skinny Pimp also recently told Rolling Stone that he’s been trying to get in touch with the rising rapper Freddie Dredd over samples of his Nineties work in the song “Oh Darling.” (Dredd’s manager did not respond to a request for comment.)
In the case of fast-moving hits, the two sides usually try to come to terms so that both can benefit. Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” was based on an initially uncleared Nine Inch Nails sample, but both sides reached an agreement where the band received 50 percent of the single’s publishing income. In March, City Girls tweeted about their inability to clear the sample underpinning “Twerkulator,” another TikTok hit, but they managed to put it out in May. The label Black 17 Media has generated robust business by tracking down Russian producers making new hits based on old Memphis rap records from Three 6 Mafia and Kingpin Skinny Pimp, among others; instead of taking down the tracks with uncleared samples, Black 17 Media does the work of making them legitimate, allowing the producers to continue to rack up streams and the veteran rappers to make money as well.
But not every situation ends happily. Kamillion’s “Twerk 4 Me,” based on Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me,” was a major success on TikTok; Kamillion said last year she was unable to clear the sample, preventing an officially authorized release.
KueenD is contrite about failing to pursue the proper avenues for pre-release clearance. “That’s our bad for not getting it done right the first time,” she says. But she didn’t have a lot of money when she made “Shake That a$$,” so paying thousands of dollars for a pre-release clearance would have been out of reach.
Major-label artists have teams with budgets that can handle sample clearance for them. Saweetie and Loui’s “Talkin’ Bout” also appears to sample the drums from “Booty Me Down,” and that collaboration has faced no issues while amassing hundreds of thousands of TikTok videos and millions of streams. (Even with money and infrastructure, though, major-label acts can’t get every sample cleared: Tracy Chapman recently won $450,000 from Nicki Minaj for an unauthorized flip of “Baby Can I Hold You.”)
KueenD – Shake that A$$
The most unfortunate thing about the “Shake That a$$” spat is that no one really benefitted. Though KueenD is working on more music, her momentum has stalled out: Those in the music industry who were watching “Shake That a$$” inspire truckloads of videos are now wary of trying to sign the track if they can’t officially release it due to sample issues.
“Anyone who was interested [in the song] is now like, ‘I don’t know if this is worth our time,'” says one music manager who works frequently with popular TikTok creators. “How can we invest in this seemingly great thing” when there’s so much uncertainty around it?
And while Kstylis moved quickly to try to take advantage of the “Booty Me Down” sample — or, as KueenD puts it, “straight up muscled” her out of the way — TikTok users don’t care much for his song. While his “Shake That A$$” has picked up more than three million streams, the snippet of the track on TikTok has been used in less than 2,000 videos.
KueenD is still hoping some sort of resolution can be reached. On Monday, she re-uploaded her version of the track to streaming services. “I’m not trying to beef with anybody,” she says. “I just want my song out there.”