Do you remember that most glorious Valentine’s Day in 2014 when De La Soul uploaded zip files of their first six albums? I certainly do. It was by far the best Valentine’s Day I ever had (I mostly celebrate Singles Awareness Day) eating chocolates and bumping the eclectic, off-kilter rhythms of De La all evening. Even their best album — the platinum-certified 3 Feet High And Rising — was among the bunch. The links to the zip files were only available for a day, but they caught the attention of Warner Music, which absorbed early hip-hop pioneer label Tommy Boy Records in 2002 and the masters to 3 Feet along with it. Warner obviously wasn’t too happy.
Today, the trio revealed to the NY Times that they blessed us that day because they’d had enough of their music not being available digitally (and losing out on the revenue that comes along with that). DJ Maseo, real name Vincent Mason, said “We were frustrated with people not being able to just get it,” and added that they weren’t able to capitalize off of the new fans they reached on their work with the Gorillaz. David Jolicoeur, formerly known as Trugoy The Dove, now just Dave, said Warner “did tap on our window” and say, “Hey guys, what the fuck are you doing?” And Posdnous, real name Kelvin Mercer, added, “We’re in the Library Of Congress, but we’re not on iTunes,” saying fans often approach them and ask, “Yo, where’s the old stuff?” Mercer also went on to say, “We spent years and years trying to figure this out with Warner,” and mentioned that turnover at the label led to the people they trusted there being “shuffled out.”
The trouble with Warner was a large part of why they decided to do a Kickstarter campaign for The Anonymous Nobody. which is out later this month. They wanted to own the album outright and not have to deal with labels. They also wanted the freedom to hand pick their guests for the album, and initially there was an ambitious list with Tom Waits, Jack Black, Axl Rose, and Willie Nelson (who politely declined, according to Dave).
The trio has largely kept the album sample free to keep labels out of the process as much as possible. Deborah Mannis-Gardner, a sample-clearance agent who worked on the new record, said that lack of guidelines back in the ’80s and early ’90s could be why Warner Music is keeping the catalog in digital limbo, and much of De La Soul’s catalog may consist of uncleared samples. The trio was already sued by the Turtles in 1991 for the use of “You Showed Me” and settled out of court for a reported $1.7 million. If the agreements on the 60 samples on 3 Feet alone don’t account for digital formats, then Warner would have renegotiate the agreements on that album and all the others before making them available for purchase and streaming online.
A spokesperson for Rhino, a subsidiary of Warner who deals specifically with back-catalogs, made this statement:
De La Soul is one of hip-hop’s seminal acts, and we’d love for their music to reach audiences on digital platforms around the world, but we don’t believe it is possible to clear all of the samples for digital use, and we wouldn’t want to release the albums other than in their complete, original forms. We understand this is very frustrating for the artists and the fans; it is frustrating for us, too.
According to Michelle Bayer, who handles De La Soul’s publishing administration, the legal phrase “now known or hereafter discovered” will be crucial to the trio’s digital future. If that phrase was included in the initial agreements, they may be protected, but if not, there is a lot of work to be done in renegotiating those agreements. De La Soul knows that’s a lot of work, and if the label isn’t willing to do it, then the group may propose buying back their licensing from the label with another crowd-fund campaign so they can do it themselves.
According to Dave, that’s surely a possibility: “Maybe that’s what’s next. This music has to be addressed and released. It has to. When? We’ll see. But somewhere it’s going to happen.”