UPDATE Feb. 28 3:45pm ET: In a pair of Instagram posts Thursday, De La Soul said that Tidal has told the group that it will not stream the catalog until the issues outlined in this article are resolved: “Thank you Tidal, thank you Jay [Z, Tidal’s primary owner]”; the group also said that Tommy Boy “want to negotiate, but only if we sign a confidentiality agreement first,” to which the group replied, “How about we close a deal first, and then we agree to keep the deal confidential.”
De La Soul’s 1989 debut “3 Feet High and Rising” is widely acknowledged as one of hip-hop’s all-time classic albums, yet it and several other releases from the group’s catalog have not been legally available on streaming services due to longstanding complications over sample clearances (or the lack thereof). And even 30 years later, as De La Soul’s longtime label, Tommy Boy Records, prepares to finally release the group’s catalog on streaming services, the problems remain — and this week, the group spoke out about them.
Indeed, “3 Feet High and Rising,” produced by Prince Paul of Stetsasonic, was a pioneering event not just in hip-hop history but in the art of sample technology — and it suffered accordingly, as copyright laws were rewritten as a result of it. The group was the first to be sued by the now-famously litigious musicians Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman of the Turtles, who went after De La over the unlicensed use of a snippet of the Turtles’ song “You Showed Me” in “Transmitting Live From Mars” (the suit was ultimately settled for a reported $1.7 million). Similar problems have bedeviled several of the group’s other releases. Over the years, the catalog has moved from Tommy Boy to Warner Bros. and recently back to Tommy Boy, yet the complications have remained unresolved.
On Tuesday, the group — Posdnuous (Kelvin Mercer), Trugoy (David Jolicoeur) and Maseo (Vincent Mason Jr.) — put its collective feet down and posted messages on Instagram claiming that due to the unsettled business around the albums, the royalties they receive from the releases will be miniscule, and on Wednesday they sat down for a 45-minute interview with Sway Calloway on SiriusXM’s “Sway in the Morning.”
The first Instagram message reads: “Dear Fans … just got off the phone with Tommy Boy Records … negotiations (or lack therof) to release our catalog on all streaming platforms.. Uh oh.” The next message reads: “Just got wind that Tommy Boy was not happy about our last post. Touche. We are not happy about releasing our catalog under such unbalanced, unfair terms. #RespectTheArtist.” A caption next to that post reads, “For our fans to finally be able to stream and/or download our music will be a dream come true! The reality for De La… what an ugly greedy nightmare.”
The next post reads, “The music WILL be released digitally. After 30 years of good music and paying their debt to Hip Hop, De L Soul unfortunately will not taste the fruit of their labor. Your purchases will roughly go 90% Tommy Boy, 10% De La. Thank you. Sincerely yours, #thephantom2milliondollardebt.”
A final post reads, “Monday, when confronted and questioned whether or not all samples had been cleared for our catalgoe’s streaming release, Tommy Boy felt that it would be better the move forward with thte lresase and deal with all cleams/lawsuits later on… really? That’s just not smart business. We don’t want to be sued. “ A caption next to that one reads, “We are being placed in the line of fire. We understand respect and appreciate your support and business. We regret that you and fans have been place in the middle of this mess. De La Soul cannot afford negligent hurried business. We are fighting for our livelihood. Imagine trying to settle a #phantom2millionddollardebtand now possible lawsuits lurking??? There goes that 10% Thank you @tommyboyrecords #respectourlegacy#dorightbytheculture #tommyboycott#4080 #delasoul #30years.”
At press time, reps for Tommy Boy Records had not responded to Variety’s repeated requests for comment.
Speaking with Sway on Wednesday, the group’s Maseo, explained, “For some years, the catalog had been held up because … of the issues that existed behind the projects, with samples not being cleared.” He then acknowledges that few could have foreseen the forthcoming legal problems around sampling in 1989.
“I don’t know what [Tommy Boy’s] deals were with clearing samples, but back then a lot was probably done on a handshake, especially when you’re an independent” label like Tommy Boy, he says. “Nothing comes to the surface until it actually turns into something. If I was the record company at that time, I would have probably thought it was a small thing and not cleared it: ‘This little 30-second thing, who would come after that?’ And it happened! I think by the time [the catalog] got to Warner Bros., people started come out of the woodwork, and I think for the most part [those] people are the ones whose business didn’t get dealt with.
“Now it’s 2019,” he continues, “Tommy Boy has been able to acquire the catalog back, but there are still some infractions around the catalog, things we’re sure aren’t cleared, that might have new potential issues. Also, what’s on the table [contractually] for De La Soul is unfavorable, especially based on the infractions that have taken place, the bills that exist over time. And we have continued to pay the price, and that’s one of our big concerns with [the streaming releases of their albums].
The group says that it has never earned more than “peanuts” or “pennies” on their recorded music, and instead has earned a living from touring and merchandise.
“Because the catalog [hasn’t been available], it has [earned] nothing,” Mase says, with Dave adding, “So we’ve been somewhat aimlessly performing the music but we’re not getting any [income from it].”
Sway asks whether the group is not with the fact that these long-lost albums are finally being made available on streaming services, which has become the primary format for hundreds of millions of music fans.
“I can’t say I’m not with it,” Mase says, “I’m just not with the administrative structure behind it. Let’s be straight up: We don’t really financially benefit — there’s so many infractions around this whole thing that we’ll probably never see no money from it or any project that has these infractions.”
Asked whether they’ve ever received any royalties from the albums, Dave says, “Pennies, compared to what Tommy Boy was receiving.”
Yet De La Soul remained with Tommy Boy for six albums and 12 years. “We never felt like any label was really good,” Mase explains, “but the music ended up really doing well so no one could try to tell us how to make music — we had our creative freedom the whole time. That was the best thing,” he adds, “the only thing that was great [about remaining with Tommy Boy].”
The group gets into greater detail about these, and happier matters in the 45-minute interview below.
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For our fans to finally be able to stream and/or download our music will be a dream come true! The reality for De La… what an ugly greedy nightmare. #threefeethighandrising #delasoulisdead #buhloonemindstate #stakesishigh #aoimosaicthump #bionix Tag and let @tommyboyrecords and @dodo_011.1 know how you feel #respecttheculture #respecttheart #respecttheartist More news to come on Sway In the Morning, tune in.
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We are being placed in the line of fire. @discogs @spotify @applemusic @tidal @googleplay @deezer @vinylmeplease @amazonmusic We understand respect and appreciate your support and business. We regret that you and fans have been place in the middle of this mess. De La Soul cannot afford negligent hurried business. We are fighting for our livelihood. Imagine trying to settle a #phantom2millionddollardebt and now possible lawsuits lurking??? There goes that 10% Thank you @tommyboyrecords #respectourlegacy #dorightbytheculture #tommyboycott #4080 #delasoul #30years