De La Soul Speak In Detail About What Went Wrong With Their Record Company

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This week, the legendary group De La Soul announced to the public that they are currently unhappy with their former record label, Tommy Boy. These revelations came with good news for music fans, as De La’s first six albums are reportedly soon to made available to digital retailers and streaming platforms. The trio of Maseo, Posdnuos, and Dave have described the development as “bittersweet.” During a series of social media posts this week, the trio alleges that they will receive 10% of the cut regarding their catalog, which has been left offline for years. They also alluded to being informed of a $2 million debt that they owe the label that began releasing their music in 1988.

On 1993’s “I Am I Be,” Plug 1 rapped that he was, “Here to make papes to buy a record exec rakes / The pile of revenue I create / But I guess I don’t get a cut, ’cause my rent’s a month late.” More than 25 years later, that sentiment appears to be unchanged between the platinum trio and the label that ushered them into the game. Appearing on SiriusXM’s Sway In The Morning Tuesday (February 26), the three Plugs unpacked some history with Tommy Boy, and explained why they are upset with the circumstances surrounding some of their most beloved songs and albums.

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On today’s show (February 27), Sway Calloway confirmed that Tommy Boy founder and president Tom Silverman and producer Prince Paul were expected to join yesterday’s discussion. However, De La appeared alone.

At 7:00, Maseo alleges that in the early 2000s, Tommy Boy “lost their catalog” to Warner “based on a debt they owed. During that time, Warner Bros. didn’t quite feel that the music was worth being put up on the digital [marketplace] because of the issues that existed behind the project—[and all of our Tommy Boy] albums, with samples not being cleared, to even pursue things.” In 2002, Variety reported that Tom Silverman received approximately $10 million as a onetime payout. Meanwhile, the a source told the publication that 80 employees were let go in the transaction. Maseo continues, “I don’t know what Tom Silverman’s deals were with clearing [our] samples, or if he even chose to clear samples, but I know a lot back then was probably done on [a] handshake, especially when [Tommy Boy was] an independent [label]. ‘Go ‘head, do your thing, whatever,’ and nobody really comes to the surface until [the music] actually turns into [a success]. I think by the time [the catalog] got to Warner Bros., I think people probably came out of the woodwork, and say, ‘Hey, it’s time to cash a check.'” Maseo alleges that the sample and copyright issues stem from parties not compensated ahead of the De La releases, which he alleges was part of the label’s responsibility. The group has publicly expressed concerns that copyright holders would hold them liable.

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Plug 3 continues to say that apart from sampled artists, he feels that the group is not getting their due. “What’s on the table for De La is unfavorable, especially because of the infractions that have taken place. The bills that exist over time behind not being able to recoup because of the loss of [Tommy Boy’s] catalog. Throughout the time of us having [AOI: Bionix] out, we never even had the opportunity to recoup whatever debt that exists because they folded.” Bionix, released in 2001, was the trio’s final album with Tommy Boy, ahead of the Warner acquisition. “With the catalog being in limbo, and doing what we’ve been doing since Bionix up to this point, the catalog has done nothing. So we’ve been somewhat aimlessly performing the music, but we’re not getting anything other than just touring and merchandise [revenue].” Dave suggests that the first three De La albums: 1989’s 3 Feet High And Rising, 1991’s De La Soul Is Dead, and 1993’s Buhloone-Mindstate are the three works dealing with copyright infractions. Maseo adds that the next three albums may be in question too, “because we’re not sure.”

Maseo also asserts that the group is not negligible regarding sample clearances. “They tried to throw the responsibility on us,” he says. Dave asserts that De La, themselves tried to clear some of their samples, saying that, at the time, they “already took the route of trying to get things cleared.” Dave lays blame on the label’s founder. “Tom Silverman, in particular, didn’t think 3 Feet High And Rising was gonna do well at all.” Plug 2 says that the label, projecting sales beneath 100,000 units, may have opted not to clear samples on an album that has since achieved platinum certification. “We’ve continued to pay the price. That’s one of our main concerns with this release now,” Mase’ admits.

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Sway asks Plug 3 if he’s with the 30th anniversary re-release, coming to digital. Maseo answers, “We don’t really financially benefit. There’s so many infractions around this whole thing where we’ll probably never see no money. Probably.” Sway asks if the group received any royalties from the first three albums, which all had Prince Paul at the production helm (who the group unanimously shouts out during the interview). “Pennies,” Maseo responds. Dave charges that the label benefited greatly from those albums. De La Soul Is Dead achieved gold certification following a perfect 5-mic review from The Source magazine. “Royalties was nothing we ever really relied on. Ever,” Maseo declares. He reveals that the tenure with Tommy Boy, lasting more than a dozen years, had to do with the quality of the music and the group’s creative control.

At the 16:00 mark, the group reveals that they tried to re-acquire their work while it was in the Warner system. Posdnuos explains that after 2002, Warner Bros. agreed to let the trio be independent following the acquisition. “At one point, Lyor Cohen, who was one of our first managers with Russell [Simmons], he was [at Warner Music Group] helping us trying to get [our music on digital platforms]. But at one point, staffing changes, Lyor goes on to bigger and better things, new people come in; they don’t know what we’re talking about.” The three artists admit that for years, they have wished to acquire their back catalog while Warner held it. “It was a song-and-dance,” Maseo dismisses, based on the conversations De La Soul’s lawyer had with WMG. “Obviously, Tom got a response.” In 2017, Tommy Boy Music re-acquired its label catalog from Warner for an undisclosed sum.

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Five minutes later, Maseo admits that he believes what his Native Tongues brother Q-Tip labeled “Industry Rule #4080” has always existed, apart from LL Cool J’s longtime relationship with Def Jam. LL owned a stake in the label that discovered him, which he later sold in 1996. Dave and Maseo both double down that Tom Silverman “does not respect the culture.” As Sway questions that statement, Mase’ charges that “some people get lucky standing next to [Afrika] Bambaataa to get props from the culture.” One of Tommy Boy’s first releases was “Planet Rock.” Outside of his label, Silverman also founded Dance Music Report, and was a co-creator of New Music Seminar.

Sway asks the group if they feel the label has “taken advantage” of them. “Yep. We’ve been the nice guys; we’ve showed up for work, disgruntled and all, in the past. [We] made our peace with certain things, compromised on a lot, just to continue to move forward for ‘the bigger picture,’ not just the bigger picture for us, but the bigger picture for the culture.”

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Plug 2 continues, “I think we’ve accomplished more [without Tommy Boy than being signed to them. [We have] built our [careers and brand to this point]; for us to turn back and accept—or not even be able to [negotiate] where both parties are happy, it’s kind of a slap in the face. You’ve got to sit back and say, ‘Wow, these guys have gone and done a lot. They’ve really done a lot.’ But I know there’s no fairness in business. Business is business.” Maseo suggests this opportunity to work together is bigger than business, “You can legally do whatever you want to do, but how about doing the right thing?”

Plug 1 chimes in and expounds on what De La Soul’s social media posts called a “phantom debt.” “My man stepped to us with a contract like, ‘Okay, we can get this. But there’s this $2 million debt you owe us.’ From what?” Dave chimes in that the fault of that debt is Tom, not De La. Meanwhile, Pos’ continues, “If our stuff was [online], you would’ve been able to get rid of that debt years ago. But even if it didn’t, the way labels work, they would write that off anyway.” Plug 1 does acknowledge the “beautiful people who have our back to this day” that have been Tommy Boy staff. He suggests that some of those people are in De La Soul’s circle since they parted ways with the label.

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Despite whatever impasse De La Soul and Tommy Boy Music may be currently stuck at, Sway highlights the trio as pioneers of the independent blueprint. In the last decade, the group has done the Are You In? mixtape commissioned by Nike. They crowd-sourced the Grammy-nominated and the Anonymous Nobody… album, their most current release. The group has done merchandising partnerships, toured extensively during breaks between albums, and won a Grammy alongside the Gorillaz for “Feel Good Inc.”

De La Soul’s latest Sway In The Morning appearance is not strictly about grievances. The group updates Heads on some new release plans. “We’ve got other great things comin’ too,” Maseo begins at 32:30. “We ’bout to do a real good record for the culture, produced by Pete Rock and [DJ] Premier. We’re also completing the [Art Official Intelligence] trilogy, ’cause the fans have definitely been asking for that. We still enjoy making the music, puttin’ it out, performing it. It’s going down, man.”

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Since 2014, the Preemo and Pete-laced project was said to be titled Premium Soul On The Rocks. Pete Rock also worked on anonymous in 2016.