Chicago soul singer Syl Johnson won't be pushed around.
When the legendary vocalist heard a track from his song "Different Strokes" sampled in Kanye West and Jay-Z's "The Joy," he was upset -- but he knew what to do. Johnson is a veteran of the copyright infringement suit process after a string of victories over sampling rights with groups like the Wu-Tang Clan, Kid Rock, Michael Jackson and an almost 20-year battle with Cypress Hill. Johnson knew the protocol for getting the credit -- and money -- that he claimed West's label Island Def Jam owed him.
But it seems the label, and the rappers, didn't make good on their end of the deal.
Chicago-based archival record label Numero Group claims in a post on their website Tuesday that Johnson reached out to them when he first heard a vocal sample from his 1967 single in "The Joy" last summer, when it was circulating online as part of West's "Good Fridays" series, a set of free singles released in advance of his fifth album. Numero approached the sampling house that summer about clearing the track for use and were told there weren't yet plans to release it commercially.
Numero alleges that three weeks before West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was scheduled to be released, Def Jam sent them a "frantic" email requesting immediate clearance of the track, resulting in a verbal agreement on a price and a promise that paperwork was on the way. After months without seeing a contract or hearing response from Def Jam's business affairs department, Numero claims their lawyer advised them to hold off on legal action, since the deluxe version of the album that was to feature "The Joy" hadn't yet been released and West wasn't profiting from the sample's use. Meanwhile, the track was circulating through online channels like YouTube, where Syl Johnson had no chance of earning money or credit for his work's use.
Two weeks ago, West released a collaborative studio album with Jay-Z called Watch the Throne jointly under Roc-A-Fella Records, Roc Nation and Def Jam. "The Joy" is featured as the last bonus track on deluxe editions of the record.
Numero claims that late Monday night they received a tearful phone call from Johnson, who informed them that The Numero Group was inaccurately listed in the credits of the album as the publishers of "Different Strokes" (which they are not). Numero says they're working with the sample clearing house to try to correct the crediting error and restart payment discussions with their clients, who the clearing house claims they have been unable to contact.
"Island Def Jam seems to think that Syl doesn’t have any fight left in him," Numero wrote on their website. "We're betting otherwise."
Listen to the two tracks side by side on The Numero Group's blog here.