November 8, 2022 Musicology No Comments

Compared to everything else Ye has going on lately — anti-semitic remarks here and there for example, and the backlash that’ll come from that sort of thing — Adidas, Gap (still in business) and Balenciaga disassociating themselves — another copyright infringement lawsuit is table stakes, but it’s the stuff we understand, so…

Kanye West is getting sued for copyright infringement, again. As in the “Move Your Body” situation earlier this year, we’re now looking at another song off “Donda,” which Kanye released on a proprietary playback and remix device, a stem player. So its lucky creators, Kano Computing Limited, are (again) getting sued right along with Kanye. I’m sure they’re thrilled.

According to the complaint, Ye’s “Life of the Party” includes an “exact reproduction of South Bronx,” and I’m not at all sure yet what that really means. Is it a sample? Did he interpolate or otherwise recreate material from “South Bronx?” The complaint specifically mentions horn hits, a drum fill, and “a melodic figure.”

“South Bronx,” one of hip-hop’s earliest and best-known diss tracks, is by Boogie Down Productions. If that’s not a familiar name, maybe you’ve heard of KRS-One, (Booya-ka-SHA!), or DJ Scott LaRock who sadly was one of the first prominent hip-hop violent fatalities. But the plaintiff here is Phase One Network, a record company that says they own or control the rights to “South Bronx.”

“South Bronx” itself though is loaded with samples. And really, that’s my first thought. What wound up on “Life Of The Party,” and do they have standing to sue? The considerations are myriad.

And I’m a little skeptical. I’ve mentioned this before, but Kanye obviously understands sample clearance, and sample reproduction. Not “re-played samples” in the way its sometimes conflated with interpolation but the way the term should really be used, when you re-record something you wanted to sample so you don’t need to go to a record company and negotiate the rights to the audio. Does Phase One Network own the recording AND the underlying composition? Maybe. I’m getting a little ahead of myself, so let’s hear the tracks.

See if you can hear “South Bronx” in “Life Of The Party.”

Interestingly, the complaint claims that a license for the use of South Bronx was sought by Kanye but not obtained for whatever reason. Not a completely unique situation. I’m sorta beginning to wonder if there isn’t some economic rationale that somehow leads one to produce a work first, try to clear the sample afterward, and then if you don’t clear the sample for whatever reason, you publish the work anyway and take your chances? But then again the strongest force in the universe (after compound interest, and irony) might be “willful statutory damages.” The risk there is a bit steep. Whereas accidental statutory damages range from $750-30k, intentional infringement should you find yourself so ruled against can get you up to $150k per infringement. And having asked for a license in the first place and not getting it, assuming that’s what happened, puts ye (hahahahahaha) in the conservatory with the candlestick in your hand before we even listen to the tracks, wouldn’t you think? Btw, IANAL! (I’m not a lawyer!) I’m just a forensic musicologist. The plaintiff’s lawyers mention it on page 16 of the complaint. (They’re lawyers.)

They do not, however, mention exactly what material was so “exactly reproduced,” nor where in “Life Of The Party” we can find that infringing material. Feel free to point me in the right direction in the comments area if you’ve heard it. I confess I do not hear it. I hear samples, but I don’t hear BDPs samples.

So for the time being, my hot take is that nothing much comes of this.

Written by Brian McBrearty