Dave Shemar, an artist who is entirely new to making music, dropped his first single on SoundCloud to explosive success in late 2018. It’s a story no struggling hip hop artist wants to hear, but all want to live. The fairytale success story started when Shemar received a mysterious beat in his inbox via an anonymous VPN. He claims he just laid down some vocals on it, and the response was staggering. Shemar has received very little attention for these songs where they are featured on other platforms, so the whole situation just evidences the phenomenal impact SoundCloud can have on an artist’s trajectory if they hit the right chord with their audience. It’s a success story most of us equate to hearsay and exaggerated misinformation, and some even dismiss any such success an artist has on SoundCloud alone as an absolute indication of an industry plant. While none of us really know whether or not that’s happening, and if so, how often it happens, I can tell you that after speaking with the artist, I was sufficiently satisfied in the details he provided me with to vouch for him here. He doesn’t seem to be a plant, but he certainly sounds good enough to be one.
There are a couple of factors that may explain why this song hit the mark so perfectly with SoundCloud listeners. First of all, it samples the song, “No Scrubs” by TLC (off their album, Fanmail, circa 1999). This song was a viral hit in its day as well, and anyone who is old enough to remember 1999 probably remembers it playing that whole year incessantly. It was an absolute sensation. The song, “No Scrubs” is known for having that infectious, ear wormy quality that nobody can manufacture purposefully. You just get lucky and happen to make a song like that. Earworms are instant success stories because they get stuck in our heads, and then we inexplicably feel the need to hear them again. And thus the cycle of radio rotation and digital streaming continues. I should note that the “No Scrubs” arpeggiated sequence that was sampled did change some, but there was clearly no attempt to creatively alter it in any way. More just to poorly mask its identity. I say “poorly” because the sample is still instantly recognizable. Trap drums and reverb can’t erase years of hearing that song on radio-repeat. Only minor changes were made to the original TLC sequence: In some parts of the song the sample slowed/pitched down, and in other parts, it sounds like the original sequence was used, just at low volume. So, the sample is still recognizable. I haven’t listened to “No Scrubs” in years, but I recognized it immediately when I heard “Bad Terms,” within about five seconds of hearing the song.
Understand that I’m not against sampling. Sampling is a time-honored tradition, and it’s at the very roots of what gave hip hop life. Without it, hip hop wouldn’t exist at all, and even if it did, it would be unrecognizable from what we know and love today. So, the fact that the beat uses a sample is not the issue here. It comes down to this: This beat and the song’s subsequent success (potentially because of this beat), and the fact that this beat arguably relies on the catchiness of TLC’s original song to garner that success — these are the factors that make this song seem like morally-ambiguous sample usage. Again, sampling is almost always a fully sanctioned practice in hip hop, but usually, the sample is taken from a different era, or from a different genre, or else it’s a totally obscure piece of music. Unless it’s a direct homage to someone, it’s usually obscure or very old. This is not an homage; it feels more like an act of low key plagiarism, which someone thought nobody would identify. It’s not like this sample is a single kick or a single guitar lick. It’s the melodic riff everyone remembers from TLC’s song. Also, most producers will manipulate their sample to sound unrecognizably different from the original. That’s when sampling is most permissible. It’s like the way you might cut out pages from a magazine — not to put those pages in your own magazine — but rather to make a collage. It’s supposed to be a tool, used to creatively innovate. But this song’s sampling is not one of those things. I do want to state, however, that Dave Shemar is actually very talented, in terms of mainstream-type artists. He has all the right vocal qualities and tonal cadence, all the right melodic riffing and the requisite performance instincts to easily be the next Travis Scott. But I do want to pose the question, how much credit can we give a viral hit when it relies heavily on a sample from a viral song that already existed? Could Dave Shemar have done this on his own? I think, yes. Probably. Just maybe not on his first track, with only 6 months experience in song-making. To be fair, there’s no way to know how much Shemar’s talent had to do with this, too. But, I feel it necessary to note that the beat didn’t make his voice sound good, nor did it write his lyrics (which somehow feel personal, even in their minimalist state). The beat may have created the buzz around the song, but it didn’t make the song. So, credit to him for his part in it. The question for me is, would anyone have ever heard this song, if it had been on a different beat?
The key takeaway for this song: This particular beat may have gotten Dave Shemar in the spotlight some, but it won’t keep him there. Only time will tell if he can do it again. This time without TLC’s help, and without the charity of some secret fairy-godmother turned producer, who anonymously emails new artists a free, instant-hit-making beat. But, if his success is by his own merit, it won’t be an isolated instance, and, indeed, I hope that it is not. I wish him all the best as he moves on to the next phase of his career. Quick credit to Daze, this song’s feature and audio engineer. He did a fantastic job with the mix and master, and as the feature on the track. I hope he continues his endeavors.