Kanye West and Jay-Z in Hot Water over Uncleared Syl Johnson Sample
Published Aug 24, 2011Kanye West and Jay-Z are two of the world's most famous rappers, but even a ridiculous amount of fame and money doesn't make them above the law. Now, it looks as if the pair have landed in legal hot water over a poorly cleared sample that appears on the deluxe edition of Watch the Throne.
The song in question is "The Joy," which was released last year as a part of Kanye's G.O.O.D. Fridays series. It contains a sample from "Different Strokes" by Syl Johnson, who previously struck a verbal agreement with the Yeezy and Island Def Jam about including the track on a deluxe version of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
Of course, that expanded album never happened, and Johnson was never compensated for his track appearing online, but he chose not to pursue legal action, even when Island Def Jam didn't bother to return his calls. To add a little insult to injury, though, he was also never contacted about his music appearing on Watch the Throne, and to make matters worse, the sample is credited to Numero Group, a reissue label that didn't actually publish the original song. (The label worked with Johnson on a retrospective box set last year.)
Understandably, Johnson is pretty angry about the error, and a post on the Numero Group website hints that he will pursue legal action.
The label's full post is below.
It's been almost twenty years since Cypress Hill issued their Black Sunday LP, a great record but not lacking in uncleared samples. One of those was for Syl Johnson's "Is It Because I'm Black." Two decades and several lawsuits later, Syl Johnson is a veteran of copyright infringement cases, and has done very well for himself clearing samples from his fertile catalog (we're glad to say we've helped him with a few) for use in numerous tracks. He's been amply paid, as he is quick to boast in his concerts, by acts like Wu-Tang Clan, Kid Rock, and Michael Jackson. Other performers… have not been so respectful.
Last summer we took a call from Syl wondering if we knew anything about his vocal appearing in Kanye West's "The Joy," which had been making the rounds on the internet via Kanye's "Good Fridays" series. We approached the sampling house clearing the record (whom we've worked with on several projects) about getting it cleared. They weren't sure what was happening with the track, but it was rumored to be included on a deluxe version of his upcoming album My Dark Twisted Fantasy. About three weeks before MDTF was to be released, we got a frantic email requesting the immediate clearance of the track. After a little negotiating, we came to a price and a verbal agreement (one that is completely standard.) Paperwork to confirm all of this was to arrive for counter signature. Weeks passed. Then months. No deluxe version appeared in the market place, and our emails and phone calls to Def Jam's business affairs department went unanswered. We spent the better part of five months trying to get paid, and finally handed it to our lawyer who recommended not pursuing legal action as the song wasn't actually being sold. Syl could have filed a more complex suit involving the use of his voice to promote the #1 album, but decided against it. Eventually Kanye was going to want to clear some other part of our catalog, and we'd get Syl his money with leverage. With only a non-binding email to solidify the terms, we began the arduous process of having the song removed from money making channels like You Tube, for which Syl was seeing nothing. We thought the song was dead and moved on. It happens all the time.
Late last night, we received a phone call from Syl–who was nearly in tears–asking if we knew why The Numero Group appeared in the credits to a new Kanye West/Jay Z album called Watch The Throne. We had no idea. The credits mis-identify Numero as the publisher of the sampled song ("Different Strokes"), which of course we are not, and any routine search of the BMI database would show otherwise. Wondering why we weren't consulted on this new use, and baffled why we appear in the credits, for which we never asked, we contacted the sample clearance house. Even they cannot get a response from their own clients. Island Def Jam seems to think that Syl doesn't have any fight left in him. We're betting otherwise.