Black Male SingersMusic PublishingUncategorized

The Downfall of Peter Gunz (Copyright Law)


Guest Editorial:   Jaia A. Thomas

[quote]Uptown Baby, Uptown Baby, we get down baby, up for the crown baby[/quote]

When “Déjà Vu (Uptown Baby)” was first released, I had no clue where Uptown was or how to get there but you would’ve never known by the way I belted the lyrics each and every time the song came on the radio. Growing up in the Midwest, my only exposure to the song’s beloved boroughs was courtesy of television episodes of “New York Undercover.” But my love for the song ran deep. And apparently I was not alone. The Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz hit went on to peak at #9 on the Billboard 100 charts and sold over 1 million copies. That was 1998.

Now it’s 2013 and music videos have been replaced by reality shows for one member of the rap duo, Peter Gunz. Last week the 4th season of Love and Hip-Hop New Yorkpremiered on Vh1 with Peter Gunz as one of the central characters. Cameras showcased Peter Gunz’s love triangle between his children’s-mother-roommate and singer-songwriter-protégée-girlfriend-wife. Just when you thought reality television had reached its sensational peak. Although Peter Gunz was never crowned the King of Rap or the King of Hip-Hop, he had a respectable-enough career that one had to wonder what would prompt him to sign on for a Vh1 reality show?

In his recent interviews Gunz freely admits that not only was he three months behind on rent when he was first approached about signing on to “Love and Hip-Hop New York” but, unbeknownst to most of us, he had been living on a shoe-string budget for quite some time. So, how does an artist go from selling one million records to avoiding collection agency calls? Two words – Copyright Law.

Few may know that “Déjà Vu” is a sample of Steely Dan’s “Black Cow.” Tariq and Gunz sampled “Black Cow” without first obtaining Steely Dan’s permission. Therefore, Steely Dan took legal action and was awarded a six figure settlement. Not only were Tariq and Gunz required to pay a settlement but, Steely Dan took all of their publishing rights and 90% royalties for the song. Even someone ill-equipped with a calculator could see how this equation would leave an artist in the red.

Sampling music is nothing new, especially in hip-hop. However, under the law, artists are required to obtain two types of copyrights prior to sampling a song – a sound recording copyright (owned by a record label) and a musical composition copyright (owned by the songwriter or publishing company). The fees for such licenses vary tremendously, often depending on such factors as how much of the sampled song will be used. Many artists, unfortunately, try to eschew the law and sample another artist’s music without first obtaining permission. A word of caution: DON’T. Sooner or later it’ll catch up to you so it’s best to get things done the right way the first time around. Don’t believe me? Love and Hip-Hop comes on every Monday. Check your local listings.

Jaia A. Thomas Jaia A. Thomas is a bi-coastal sports and entertainment attorney. For more or @jaiathomaslaw. 

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