With 1989’s “Three Feet High and Rising,” the Long Island rap trio De La Soul created one of the truly groundbreaking albums in hip-hop history, bringing a happy, psychedelic, flower-bedecked vibe — dubbed “the D.A.I.S.Y. Age” — to a genre that had largely been musically and lyrically aggressive and/or self-aggrandizing up to that point. With songs like “Me Myself and I,” “Say No Go,” “The Magic Number” and the earlier single “Plug Tunin’,” the album was certified platinum, reached No. 1 on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop chart (and No. 24 on the Billboard 200 albums chart) and is universally recognized as one of the best and most influential albums in hip-hop history.
But the album and the group’s other early recordings for decades have been mired in legal issues with its label, Tommy Boy Records, stemming both from the extensive use of uncleared samples — a field that was an unexplored Wild West at the time — and the group’s contract with the company, which the members signed when they were teenagers. Consequently, De La Soul’s classic early recordings are not available on streaming services; the group’s members claimed in 2019 that per their contract, they would receive just 10% of streaming revenue and declined to sign off. Along with much of late R&B singer Aaliyah’s catalog, it remains one of the few remaining major-artist holdouts from streaming services.
But with New York-based music-rights company Reservoir’s $100 million acquisition of the Tommy Boy catalog announced Friday morning, all that appears to be changing: A spokesperson for Reservoir tells Variety, “We have already reached out to De La Soul and will work together to the bring the catalog and the music back to the fans.”
The group’s problems began shortly after the release of “Three Feet High and Rising” in early 1989. Sample clearances were a new and largely undefined business at the time, and what exactly constituted a copyright violation was a moving target often revolving around handshake or legally incomplete deals. By today’s standards, the album’s use of snippets or pieces of songs by everyone from Hall & Oates to the Turtles to “Schoolhouse Rock” was egregious, but it was all new terrain in 1989. The group, producer Prince Paul and Tommy Boy found themselves embattled by lawsuits — particularly from the exceptionally litigious original members of the Turtles — to the extent that their follow-up album, “De La Soul Is Dead,” was delayed for many months and ended up being stripped of most of its samples (and suffered musically). It’s fair to say their formerly fast-rising career never fully recovered, although they have continued to release albums and tour in the years since.
The group’s relationship with Tommy Boy remained problematic, and a new set of legal issues were thrown into the spotlight in 2019 after the label’s ownership was re-acquired by founder Tom Silverman from his former partner, Warner Music, two years earlier. The group claimed that its original contract dictated that the members would receive only 10% of streaming income from their early recordings, while Tommy Boy would receive 90%. Tommy Boy ultimately postponed plans to bring the group’s music to streaming services, telling Variety in February 2019, “Because Tommy Boy has not had the opportunity to sit down together with De La Soul and finalize our negotiations — something we’ve wanted to do for months — we have decided to postpone the digital release of their catalog scheduled for tomorrow. We know fans are eager to hear these amazing recordings and we are hopeful for a quick resolution.” A rep for the group did not immediately respond to Variety‘s requests for comment at the time.
Also, sources told Variety that the long-disputed sampling issues around the recordings had not been resolved when Silverman re-acquired the catalog from Warner Music in 2017.
De La Soul spoke on the issue on SiriusXM’s “Sway in the Morning” in February of 2019. 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 acknowledged 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 told Sway. “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 said that it has never earned more than “peanuts” or “pennies” on their recorded music, and instead has earned a living from touring and merchandise. Sway asked how the group felt about those long-lost albums being made available on streaming services.
“I can’t say I’m not with it,” Mase said, “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.”