Elvis did it. The Rolling Stones did it. Led Zeppelin did it. They all did it and got away with it. From the Mississippi Delta to the Deep South, decades before, artists were playing Rhythm and Blues music. These artists stole or shall we say “borrowed” liberally and made it their own. Unfortunately there were no sampling laws back then to help out the artists these Rock and Roll Hall of Famers took from. Fast forward to more modern times. In the early 70’s, James Brown was known to have “borrowed” from David Bowie on “Hot”. Gilbert O’Sullivan set the precedent when he sued Biz Markie for the use of “Alone Again, Naturally” without permission. Prince Paul effed up with sample clearance on 3 Feet High and Rising and lived to tell. The Beastie Boys sampled everyone on Paul’s Boutique and sampling would never be the same again, and they got out basically unscathed. In the early days of Hip Hop, James Brown was often the most sampled artist, along with samples from Skull Snaps, Joe Tex, Kool and the Gang, Melvin Bliss, Chuck Brown and The Soul Searchers, and the Honeydrippers among others. However, there was another artist that has been sampled well over 100 times, and has the Gold and Platinum records to prove it. Syl Johnson, Chicago’s own, known for his dirty, raw, and down low R & B, for his Lp Is It Because I’m Black, and the Ultimate Breaks and Beats classic “Different Strokes”, has a beef with Kanye West, and it’s about sampling. Last year West released “The Joy”, produced by Pete Rock and featuring Jay-Z, Charlie Wilson, Curtis Mayfield & Kid Cudi. A certified banger, with the Chocolate Boy Wunda lacing Ye with a near perfect beat while Hov, Cudi and Charlie Wilson bless the mic something lovely. Wait, I left someone out, the record features Curtis Mayfield. In typical condescending Kanye vernacular he was saying: “I have more money than any of you other Hip Hop artists”, I don’t just sample Curtis, I feature him”, Mr. West gave credit where credit was due, to Curtis Mayfield’s part. But what about Syl Johnson’s scream and likeness to “Different Strokes” in there too? For any Hip Hop head, the sample is quite obvious, but wasn’t credited to Johnson or Numero Group at all.
“ I think Kanye West, kind of, he blew it, he knows me, he knows my daughter, Syleena Johnson. And hey, for a few, you know, a small amount – do it in front like Kid Rock, Wu-Tang Clan and all the people behind me.” – Syl Johnson
Apparently when My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy came out, Numero Group and Universal were in some talks over the use of the sample (or likeness of), as Johnson and Numero Group own the copyright. It appears the sample was never cleared properly. Numero’s Twitter feed said: “Hey @kanyewest & @JayZ, thanks for illegally sampling Syl Johnson on “The Joy” and then crediting us(?). Have your lawyers call our lawyer.” on August 23rd. There was also an article on their blog with a timeline of the sample controversy, but that has been taken down since. When someone asked them on Twitter if they were mad about what was going on, they responded: “Not mad. Syl’s getting a huge pay day.” I’m sure he will get a huge pay day, and it’s well deserved if he does. Shame on you Kanye, and shame on you Jay-Z for letting this thing slip through the cracks. Ok, the artist may have no idea what goes on after the finished product goes to the record label, so who’s fault is it? Is it Universal’s responsibility to get the sample cleared or is it Kanye’s to make them aware because he knows Johnson and his daughter personally (and obviously used and knows the sample)? Did Pete Rock have a hand in it? Hard to believe any of these guys would let an obvious sample like this slip through the cracks. Whatever the case, this is another one in the books of what not to do when sampling as a Hip hop artist. As far as Syl Johnson goes, he may be bummed out, but it looks that he will get what he deserves. “Island Def Jam seems to think that Syl doesn’t have any fight left in him,” Numero Group says in a blog post. “We’re betting otherwise.” So are we here at Flea Market Funk. Get yours Syl and Numero, watching the throne is not the only thing that Jay and Ye should watch, how about watching who you sample as well?
Check out the interview Syl Johnson did with NBC Chicago in regards to this sampling nightmare here.
While you’re at it, Check out Syl over on NPR.