Anyone within earshot of a car stereo or a pair of loud headphones this summer inevitably heard “Mercy,” the bass-quaking single from Kanye West and company that offered an air-conditioned antidote to warm weather languor. The multitudes induced to bob their heads and dance were otherwise engaged when the production credits rolled by — and in fact may yet be rolling by; the list of names attached to a hit rap song can stack up like shoes in Kanye’s and Kim Kardashian’s closets.
Since the days of the Sugarhill Gang, rap has always been heavily collaborative. But as solo performers have become more common than groups, the void has been filled by ad hoc assemblies of artists aiming to turn each track into a party-to-go. The obvious question: How does anyone figure out who gets paid what?
The standard industry breakdown allots half of the publishing to the producer, and the other half to the rappers. Shares are meted out depending on how many bars each rapper raps and who does the hook.
The platinum-certified posse-cut from West’s “Cruel Summer” — the new GOOD Music compilation — offers a window into the often-complicated world of rap publishing. West shares writing credits with guest rappers Big Sean, Pusha T. and 2 Chainz. The beat, a blend of dancehall reggae and regional rap style Southern trap, was chiefly produced by the mono-monikered Lifted, but four others share additional production and instrumentation credit (West, Mike Dean, Mike Will and Hudson Mohawke).
Of course, that doesn’t take into account the three samples sutured together within track: Reggie Stepper’s “Cu Oonuh,” Super Beagle’s “Dust a Sound Boy” and a chopped and screwed mix of YB’s “Lambo.” Despite his lyrical paeans to obscene wealth, West’s creative decisions on “Mercy” point in an oppostie direction: Instead of keeping the pie all to himself, he opted to split it up into a mass of slivers. All performers on “Mercy” split royalty payments equally. However, the production splits were a more complex division.
The Super Beagle sample takes up roughly half the copyright. “If you wanted to license ‘Mercy,’ you’d have to clear the rights with 10 different publishing companies between the producers and rappers,’ says Rell Lafargue, executive vice president of Reservoir Media, the publishing firm that represents 2 Chainz. “Rock bands are much easier to clear. They have four or five writers, tops, and they’re usually represented by one publisher.”
Over the past decade, producers had moved away from sampling, which had gotten expensive and difficult to clear. But over the past few years, publishers and writers have become more open in allowing people to sample them, Lafargue says.
Of course, not all samples are created equal. Context is everything. The iconic 2 Live Crew sample used in the French Montana summer jam, “Pop That,” is apt to command a heftier chunk of the publishing split compared with something less well known. Lawsuits are rare, but discrepancies are common — especially when royalty payments in foreign territories are factored in.
The uptick in sampling has occurred partially due to the diminishing returns of the record business. As artists grow increasingly reliant on licensing, publishing companies are less likely to charge exorbitant sums to clear their music. And while the complexity of certain publishing splits could theoretically turn off music supervisors, Lafargue notes that publishers have grown more willing to accomodate licensors.
“It’s not, ‘How much can we charge?’?” he says. “Its more, ‘How can we work with them and create a new song?’?”
For 2 Chainz, the publishing calculus factors significantly into his recording decisions. At the moment, the adrenal comedy supplied by the Def Jam-signed Atlanta native has made him the most sought-after cameo artist in hip-hop. Last month’s “Based on a T.R.U. Story” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts, and he’s reportedly asking six figures for 16 bar contributions. Still, he tries to avoid performing on songs where the producer doesn’t pay for the sample costs out of their share, knowing that he could be stiffed otherwise.
“If a producer submits a beat with a sample, I expect them to take care of it on their end,” 2 Chainz says. “That’s how it worked on ‘Mercy,’ but that’s not always the case. Most people want to be the performing artist and get the limelight, but in the publishing game, the producer often gets wealthy very fast. They just aren’t as well known. A lot of producers can’t even get into the club, but they would be the richest people in there.”
Danja, the former Timbaland protege who has crafted hit singles for everyone from DJ Khaled (“We Takin’ Over”) and the Game (“Put You on the Game”) to Britney Spears (“Gimme More”) and Pink (“Sober”), is one producer who might fit the 2 Chainz’s description.
Danja says its important to consider the music before determining the splits.
“For me, when it comes to publishing, it’s about being fair,” he says. “Over the past few years, samples have started to come back more into use. The way to avoid more conflicts is by going to the publishers first, and figuring out the terms before you release your song. If you don’t, you have to comply to their demands or risk a lawsuit.” What: Payments for rap songs often involve dozens of entities and artists.
The takeaway: Publishers and writers have grown more welcome to licensors.