Black Sheep Dres Explains His $750 Million Lawsuit Against Universal Music
Earlier this month, it was reported that Hip-Hop duo Black Sheep is leading a $750 million class action lawsuit against Universal Music Group over artist royalties related to Spotify streams. Black Sheep Dres (as he is now known) and band-mate Mista Lawnge released two major label albums as Black Sheep (ahead of some independent releases). Their suit alleges that they never agreed to the royalty terms of streaming, as the duo signed nearly 20 years before the technology existed. Furthermore, per reports earlier this month, Black Sheep contend that an agreement UMG made with Spotify compromised royalties in place for artists without their knowledge or consent.
Dres unpacks the lawsuit on a clip from his recent appearance on Math Hoffa’s My Expert Opinion podcast. Forty seconds into the interview clip (embedded below), Dres confirms the details of the lawsuit. “It’s a class action suit; I’m merely the tip of that spear,” says the New York MC regarding the eye-grabbing $750 million monetary figure. Mecca, an MC/journalist and industry veteran, asks his peer the question. “I put this sh*t into motion; I filed the paperwork. But the class action is this: everybody that did a deal before streaming existed needs to join me,” Dres adds. “Everybody who did a deal before streaming existed, is welcome [to join me],” he urges while looking into the camera. “I’ve given plenty [of] cats my lawyer’s [phone] number to jump on with me, ’cause it’s not about me, it’s about us.” The artist who worked with De La Soul, Showbiz & A.G., Vanessa Williams, and others argues that this collectively-minded approach should be the new normal.
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Dres points to Black Sheep’s 1990s deal with Mercury/Polygram Records and reminds all that streaming did not exist. “We went from vinyl to cassette to CD. So when I did my deal, those were the three [formats]. Streaming didn’t exist, so how is a mothaf*cka gonna tell me [now] that they’re gonna give me a dollar for a thousand streams? I never negotiated that. Nobody that put out a record before streaming existed negotiated that. No one!” Dres says that the value of his intellectual property was determined without his involvement, and it is not proper compensation.
The artist reveals the action he took. “So I had to look back and find out, ‘Oh sh*t, in my contract, there’s language that speaks to ‘unforeseen.'” He paraphrases, “If there’s an unforeseen way that we’re selling music other than vinyls, CD, and cassette, whatever that is—in my contract, we split that 50/50, which means [that] since 2008—when y’all started streaming—y’all ni**as owe me 50% of every f*ckin’ stream I’ve ever had.” He then expands his point: “Not only me, but every artist that did a deal before streaming.”
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Dres adds that he currently owns half of his publishing and expects to acquire the other half soon. In looking at his publishing, Dres says that his lawyer, Brian Levinson, showed him a 1976 clause that alleges record companies can only retain publishing for 35 years. Mecca says that 3rd Bass’ MC Serch recently spoke about that on My Expert Opinion. Dres adds, “Peep the nuance. The nuance is this: you have to have the paperwork filled out and filed two years prior [to the 35th year]. [In] the 33rd year, you have to have it done. If it’s not done two years prior—the 34th year? It’s too late, and it effectively just rolls over.” The room agrees that these contract terms are “crazy” in their predatory nature. Dres contends that if an artist misses that 35-year window, the next chance they get to retain publishing is 70 years after the contract was signed. “So that’s how this whole sh*t started.” Dres adds that his current attorney, Levinson, was part of Legal Affairs at Universal when Dres initially did his deal. “He now has a private practice, so he knows the ins and outs and deal-working. Now that he’s private [and] we can have conversations, he’s put me onto [useful information].”
Dres and Levinson’s conversations included the artist telling his lawyer about his dissatisfaction with streaming income. “And then we started digging deeper, [and] we found out that Spotify did this deal with Universal, this, that, and the third.” He continues, “I’m not at liberty to go into specifics, but I am at liberty to say that this sh*t is not about Black Sheep! We are just the face of it. We’re the ones that filled out the paperwork. We’re the ones that filed the lawsuit.” Dres says that there are approximately 25 artists currently in the class action suit. He wants to encourage others to join for strength and unity. “It’s not about the fingers; it’s the fist,” he illustrates, adding that it’s not about his group potentially winning a nine-figure lawsuit; it’s about a collective of artists potentially winning that sum together.
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Black Sheep Dres wants to shift the narrative from artists being upset at predatory contracts to artists taking legal action. The MC, who released Sheep Stu in 2022 with producer Stu Bangas, adds that he is pleased to educate others in this process. Dres then mentions JAY-Z and Puff Daddy, and says that while he does not wish to disparage them, “These ni**as knew sh*t! But they’d rather [go], ‘Oh, they’re giving you a dollar for a thousand streams? I’ll give you $1.50 for a thousand streams.’ Like, ni**a, that’s not helping! This is what’s helping! Like, we don’t have to play that game so that these individuals can eat.” JAY-Z has positioned Tidal, a competitor of Spotify, to be more advantageous to artists.
The conversation leads to De La Soul, frequent collaborators of Dres during the 1990s, who acquired their masters and are bringing their early catalog to streaming for the first time in March. Dres says he was an advocate for fostering the Native Tongues collective as a power-play. He alludes to incorporating the group, and making music as a crew—just as the members had at Manhattan’s Calliope Studios in the 1980s and early 1990s.
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While De La Soul has remained a unit for over 35 years, Black Sheep did not. Following two major label albums, the duo had some on-again, off-again status in the public eye. While Mista Lawnge went on to partner Ras Kass on The White Crows, Dres maintained a solo career, while forming EvitaN with Jarobi from A Tribe Called Quest. Asked about this history, the man born Andres Vargas says, “If you notice, I don’t bad-mouth Mista Lawnge. I’d rather be silent than say something derogatory. But at the end of the day, sometimes, as men, you grow in different directions. One thing I can say is this: Lawnge’s a good person. But we grew up differently.” He speaks about their contrasts and shares, “As men, sometimes you have to separate yourself from what you’re standing next to you if it doesn’t represent the man you are.” Moments later, Dres says that money was a catalyst in the split. “[Mista Lawnge] is a little brother to me. When the day comes that the family is ready to do something, I’ma reach out to my little brother,” he says, before suggesting that a conversation has needed to happen for years.
Ambrosia For Heads’ What’s The Headline podcast recently devoted significant time to analyzing Black Sheep’s lawsuit against Universal Music Group in episode #98. In the discussion above (beginning at the 37:00 mark), the AFH team, including decades of music industry legal experience, breaks down what is at stake in the filing, and what it could mean for Black Sheep (and others). The conversation also points to Black Sheep’s longtime fight for their rights, in a history of arguably being exploited by the record industry.