De La Soul Have Hope Their Classics Will Finally Be Available Online
De La Soul’s music can be found in the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry, alongside such historic works as John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, Prince’s Purple Rain, and Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet. The Long Island, New York trio’s 3 Feet High and Rising is registered as Pop – not Hip-Hop – by the Registry, one of the quirky indiosyncrasies that make De La Soul so unique. So while the group’s debut LP is forever vaulted in the Library of Congress, it is nearly impossible to purchase digitally or stream online.
However, there are signs pointing to the possibility that De La Soul’s digital catalog could be expanding. In an August 9 New York Times report titled “De La Soul’s Legacy Is Trapped in Digital Limbo,” writer Finn Cohen examines the Plugs’ tricky relationship with selling music in the modern era and the consternation fans and group members themselves have felt along the way. “Hip-hop has become a top-performing genre on streaming music sites, and the internet has helped coronate a new crop of blockbuster rappers,” Cohen writes, before remarking on the fact that save for the group’s 2004 (and most recent) full-length album The Grind Date, “De La Soul has not been able to earn anything off its catalog from digital services.”
“We’re in the Library of Congress, but we’re not on iTunes,” Posdnuos tells Cohen, a statement which sums up the limbo referenced in the article’s title. As Cohen explains, much of De La Soul’s early catalog “may be fraught with problems, according to people familiar with the group’s recording and publishing history.” For example, “In 1989 (the year the group released 3 Feet), obtaining the permission of musical copyright holders for the use of their intellectual property was often an afterthought. There was little precedent for young artists’ mining their parents’ record collections for source material and little regulation or guidelines for that process.” The development of Hip-Hop would directly challenge old methods of music licensing and publishing, but much of the legal back-and-forth has left much of De La Soul’s early stuff in a perennial state of in-betweenness.
Warner Music Group has owned the rights to De La’s first six albums since 2002, and the label’s apparent refusal to release them in digital form has earned them plenty of criticism. However, WMG has what could be justified concerns, namely the uncleared samples beautifully littering much of De La Soul’s game-changing discography. “My understanding is that due to allegedly uncleared samples, Warner has been uncomfortable or unwilling to license a lot of the De La Soul stuff,” sample-clearance agent Deborah Mannis-Gardner tells Cohen. Additionally, as Cohen argues, the language present in many of De La Soul’s sample agreements is confusing and outdated, at best. “If those agreements, written nearly three decades ago, do not account for formats other than CDs, vinyl LPs and cassettes, Warner Music would have to renegotiate terms for every sample on the group’s first four records with their respective copyright holders to make those available digitally.” That’s not such an easy undertaking, considering there are 60 samples on 3 Feet alone.
But what makes De La Soul unique? After all, they are by no means the only Hip-Hop act to sample the works of other artists. Well, it could all boil down to one simple legal phrase – or the lack thereof – in the group’s samples contracts. “‘[N]ow known or hereafter discovered’ may determine De La Soul’s digital future,” Cohen writes. “It ensures that samples cleared in the past are legal for use on streaming services and for digital music retailers.” However, that string of words seems to be missing from early negotiation paperwork, and that opens the door for a wide variety of potential complications. One of De La Soul’s publishing administrators, Michelle Bayer, tells the Times that due to the phrase’s absence, “[i]t’s tricky because someone could deny the sample use now, or negotiate high upfront advances, maybe even higher percentage or royalty than was originally negotiated, which lessens what the label can earn.” That, of course, would discourage Warner from pursuing the digital release of De La Soul’s earlier works.
Even in 2016, more than 25 years after it’s release, 3 Feet High and Rising continues to inspire copyright claims, according to Bayer. “Two songs from the first album just came up that had never come up before,” she says, adding her suspicion that once Warner became the legal proprietor of De La Soul’s first six projects, people had a financial impetus to pursue copyright claims. “I think when Warner got the catalog, I think people started making claims, people were kind of coming out of the woodwork going, ‘Oh, well now it’s a major label involved, and we can possibly get more from them than we might have gotten from an independent label like Tommy Boy,'” she says.
According to Tommy Boy’s discussion with the Times, it seems the label feels that “making the group’s catalog available digitally would not be difficult, considering that Warner Music should know the copyright holders who have been receiving royalties for the physical sales of the records.” The label’s founder Tom Silverman shared the sentiment that “[c]utting a deal, you would think, to give them more money, shouldn’t be that hard, especially if you’re fair and logical and say, ‘Let me pay you the same percentage that we’ve always paid you on physical on digital, too, so you can make that much money.’ So it doesn’t really make a lot of sense that they’ve haven’t even tried.”
Questlove also contributed his feelings about the debacle, saying “[u]nless Warner’s illustrious history is so disposable that they can let one or two classics just fall by the wayside, and live in this sort of storied folklore — I mean, 3 Feet High and Rising is very much in danger of being the classic tree that fell in the forest that was once given high praise and now is just a stump.” According to the group, though, there have been attempts made at opening up the conversation about carving a digital path for De La Soul, and it appears Warner was not open to the idea. “The group says it volunteered to bear the administrative burden of making the catalog available but that Warner Music was not interested,” Cohen reports.
“[W]e 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,” a spokesperson for WMG’s Rhino imprint tells the Times. In Maseo’s words, what Warner Music is doing (or not doing, as the case may be) is affecting him on a personal level. “I’d appreciate you don’t wait until one of us die to do this. Can I enjoy some of the fruits of my own labor, while I’m alive? Obviously, we’re in the music industry — more people are more valuable dead than alive, you know? Can we change that landscape?,” he shares.
In the past, Prince Paul says, indie labels have approached him about releasing the material, but “interest fizzles when he directs them to Warner Music.” However, there may be some solutions to what is proving to be a litigious quandary. “If Warners won’t license it, perhaps they could sell it back to the band members,” Mannis-Gardner suggests. Silverman, Cohen reports, “hopes to obtain his label’s entire back catalog from Warner Music, and making De La Soul’s disputed albums available digitally is the first thing he said he would do.”
Dave is clearly eager to untangle the group from its digital limbo, too. As he tells the Times, “[t]his music has to be addressed and released. It has to. When? We’ll see. But somewhere it’s going to happen.”
In the meantime, Heads have August 26 to look forward to. That’s the day De La Soul’s and the Anonymous Nobody arrives.