Kool Herc Says HBO Unfairly Used His Likeness…& Now He’s Suing

HBO’s Vinyl has become the latest in the television network’s string of hit series. Based on 1970s New York City, it traces the music industry’s growing pains and triumphs and centers around a record executive played by Bobby Cannavale. Given the series’ location and theme, it comes as no surprise to Heads that many of the story lines have delved into the world of Hip-Hop, making the show a crossover hit for fans of the days when the city’s street culture merged with music and youth to create what is the single most influential art form in the world today. In fact, in the very first episode, 1520 Sedgwick Avenue makes a brief cameo and back in February, DJ Kool Herc (born Clive Campbell) himself was profiled briefly in the New York Post‘s article “Vinyl is about the early days of Hip-Hop, too.” His involvement with the show went even deeper than a source of inspiration, it seems, as a character on the show called “Mr. Campbell” and nicknamed “Herc” appears to be the on-screen embodiment of the man many consider to be the progenitor of Hip-Hop culture, including in scenes like this one. However, based on a lawsuit filed with the Manhattan Supreme Court, the real-life Campbell is none too pleased.

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Yesterday (May 4), the Post once again profiled Herc, this time detailing the events which led to his filing a lawsuit against HBO earlier this week. “Clive ‘DJ Kool Herc’ Campbell turned down a $10,000 offer to waive his rights and for consulting services for the show, but HBO used his image anyway,” reports Julia Marsh. “When Campbellā€™s attorney contacted HBO, a network attorney claimed the famed DJ was offered $10,000 only for consultation services. The lawyer said HBO had a right ‘to base a character on a real-life person,’ the suit says.” According to reports, HBO feels they have done nothing wrong because Vinyl‘s portrayal of his character does not paint him in a negative light, so there is no defamation at hand.

Nevertheless, the case brings up an important point about creative license and our claim to those creations of ours that are not tangible. For example, do philosophers “own” the ideas by which millions of followers live their lives? Even if portrayed positively – or even revered – on screen, is DJ Kool Herc the “owner” of his influence? It’s a tough question, but one thing is clear: Hip-Hop has often become the victim of appropriation and theft and so by filing this lawsuit, Mr. Campbell is standing up for much more than himself.