October 7, 2019 Musicology 1 Comment

Lil Nas X has like a zillion dollars worth of lawsuits coming at him all of the sudden. There’s the Bobby Caldwell “Carry On,” issue. And right now I’m going to look at a new complaint that “Rodeo” sounds too much like a track called “Broad Day” by PuertoReefa and Sakrite Duexe.

It would seem producers Don Lee and Glen Keith DeMeritt III created a beat entitled “gwenXdonlee4-142,” which was eventually incorporated into the song “Broad Day.” And “Broad Day,” according to the complaint, was “performed, published, and distributed widely, including without limitation in and around the Atlanta hip-hop scene.” So, if Lil Nas X has been in and around the Atlanta hip-hop scene, I suppose he might’ve heard “Broad Day,” and that’s one possible explanation.

It’s common in popular music that two songs will sound alike and “Rodeo” does sound a lot like “Broad Day.” I get it. And if you’ve never heard them before, you’ll get it too, probably after about 20 seconds of each. Here, listen to both.

They sound a lot the same, sure. Gimme three minutes and I’ll explain how, and then why this case won’t go anywhere. They sound the same because over and over and over they’re both playing the same three guitar chords and in the same order. These songs both go from E then up to F then up to G, back down to F, and then back to E; and all of these are major chords; E major, F major, G major.

So E-F-G-F-E.

It’s got a certain sound, right? A recognizable character, it’s a thing, a device, all by itself. It’s familiar enough that it evokes something in the listener. It’s the kind of thing you find humorously employed in a Quentin Tarantino film about badass mariachis or something. It’s a bit like this…

And that thing in music has a name. It’s called phrygian mode. It sounds like surf music thanks to Dick Dale and Pulp Fiction and before that it sounded like Spanish music (check out “Flamenco Mode” on Wikipedia); as in Maleguena. Here, check out the late great Roy Clark. You’re welcome.

Or La Fiesta by Chick Corea?

(Those two guys are good, eh?) If you blew the rest of my three minutes listening to them all the way through, I don’t blame you.

La Fiesta popped in my head instantly when I saw what this suit was. It happened to be one of the pieces that taught me to play this style of music as a teenager. It contains exactly the same chord progression as Rodeo and Broad Day.

It’s a cliché. And it’s a cliché because it’s familiar, and it’s familiar because it’s been done countless times across a whole genre of music. If I were asked to compose a piece for something titled “Super Duper Bad Hombrés,” E-F-G-F-E is one of the first places I’d explore. Probably THE first. But unless I add a melody and lyric that goes, as Rodeo does, “Oh here we go, please let me know; Off we go, don’t leave me in the cold,” I wouldn’t expect to hear a peep from Lil Nas X about it. He doesn’t own that progression any more than the delusional people suing him own it.

The complaint claims:

“Rodeo incorporates the same uncommon scale and key in popular music as
Plaintiffs’ Work.”

I’d grant them that there isn’t a ton of popular music written in the phrygian mode, but it’s still a mode. Modes are not terribly different from “keys.” Nobody would ever try to say, “you took my song because they’re both in the same key.” There are countless songs in the key of E Phyrgian.

The parts of these songs that are similar are just an arpeggiated “I – II – III – II – I” progression in the Phrygian mode.

I’ll be surprised, and dismayed, if this goes very far.

Written by Brian McBrearty