The legal rumblings that began in August have now become a full-blown lawsuit: 75-year-old bluesman Syl Johnson is taking Jay-Z and Kanye West to court in Illinois over the uncleared usage – essentially, of a pronounced vocal “ungh!” – from his 1967 song “Different Strokes” on Watch the Throne’s “The Joy.”
“The Joy” was originally intended to be included as a bonus track on Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, then left off when sample clearances were not obtained in time; when the song subsequently appeared on WTT, Johnson’s reissue label Numero Group said that the distressed singer was “nearly in tears.” “[Throne label] Island Def Jam seems to think that Syl doesn’t have any fight left in him,” they wrote on their website. “We’re betting otherwise.”
Johnson, a relatively obscure but beloved figure in soul and blues – EW gave his 2010 box set Complete Mythology an A – has been sampled countless times in hip-hop; “Different Strokes” alone has been used more than two dozen times by giants of the genre such as Erik B. and Rakim (1987’s “I Know You Got Soul”), Public Enemy (1987’s “Miuzi Weighs a Ton” and 1989’s “Fight the Power”), De La Soul (1988’s “The Magic Number” and the Beastie Boys (1988’s “Desperado”).
In August, according to hiphopdx.com, Johnson told NBC, “”Well, they didn’t pay me. They used my style, my sound, my likeness, without my permission … I think Kanye West, kind of, he blew it. He knows me, he knows my daughter, Syleena Johnson” – who sang the hook on West’s 2004 hit “All Falls Down” – “And hey, for a few, you know, a small amount – do it [up] front like Kid Rock, Wu-Tang Clan and all the people behind me.
“I hate to sue people. I’ve sued quite a few people. But, it ain’t my thing to sue them. But, this is the law. This is a country of laws.”
Producer Pete Rock, who helmed “The Joy,” has taken to Twitter to clear his own name in the matter, saying the sample was added after he completed production on the track: “Just to clear the air about WTT, i never sampled that syl johnson record,if u sample syl u gotta show him sum respect and clear the sample.”
As Rolling Stone reports, Johnson lost a previous $29 million lawsuit against Cypress Hill in 2008 due to a lesser-known law stating that sound recordings made before February 15, 1972 are not subject to copyright protection under the Copyright Act. The singer subsequently sued his legal team for malpractice after the ruling was upheld by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals earlier this year.
There is no word yet on when or if Johnson’s case will go to court, or be settled outside of it.
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