Forty-one years ago this month, Rodney Stone, aka Lil’ Rodney Cee, joined the Funky 4 + 1, the first hip-hop group to sign to a record label or perform on national TV. Stone is 57 now. When I ask him how he’s doing over the phone, he says, “I’m breathing on purpose, man, I’m good.” He recently spent 12 days hospitalized with COVID-19. He has health coverage through Medicaid, so it didn’t cost him anything. Which is good, because, as Stone remembers it, Sugar Hill Records only paid him about $500 for the group’s influential 1980 single, “That’s the Joint.” At the time, the Funky 4 + 1 members were so young, their parents had to sign the contracts. Stone didn’t have a lawyer. “We learned that the business don’t care about nobody,” he tells me.
Stone’s story is sadly common, as far as label deals are concerned, especially for Black artists. But as the music industry has started to confront its myriad racial inequalities, such business practices have been rightfully called into question. On Blackout Tuesday, when major music companies paid their respects amid the recent worldwide protests against racial injustice, the University of Southern California professor Josh Kun tweeted, “If the music industry wants to support Black lives, labels and platforms can start with amending contracts, distributing royalties, diversifying boardrooms, and retroactively paying back all the Black artists, and their families, they have built their empires on.” A week later, on June 9, music-rights firm BMG became the first company in recent years to announce that it would scrutinize old record deals for racial unfairness.
“We need to play our part in addressing historical injustices inflicted on Black people,” the company said in its announcement. “Mindful of the music industry’s record of shameful treatment of Black artists, we have begun a review of all historic record contracts.” This month, BMG added that it has analyzed royalties for more than 3,000 artists so far and expects to share its results soon.
What BMG’s actions will mean in practice remains to be seen. Bertelsmann, a German conglomerate, created the music-rights company in 2008 after selling its stake in the label that previously carried the BMG name. Among BMG’s holdings today are the groundbreaking reggae label Trojan Records and the storied house label Strictly Rhythm, along with some of the international rights to Sugar Hill and the R&B and funk label SOLAR Records.
Founded by the late Joe and Sylvia Robinson in 1979, Sugar Hill gained a reputation for tight-fisted habits within the burgeoning hip-hop world. Kool Moe Dee, who recorded for Sugar Hill as part of the early hip-hop group Treacherous Three before leaving for a successful solo career, has been saying for more than 30 years that the label never paid him a single cent in royalties. His fellow Treacherous Three member LA Sunshine puts it bluntly: “I made a conscious decision to stop recording, because had I continued to record and not get paid I would’ve killed somebody. The record business is the worst business in the world.”
The Robinsons were the Treacherous Three’s managers as well as their record label owners, a clear conflict of interest. Kool Moe Dee says they didn’t have a lawyer look at the contract before signing it because they couldn’t afford one. Finally, in the early 2000s, the group received some modest royalties from Rhino Entertainment, one of Sugar Hill’s eventual co-owners. While politely skeptical, Kool Moe Dee welcomes BMG’s efforts. “There’s some six-figure number in there that we could track down, and that would be great,” he tells me.
Melle Mel, who with Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five was responsible for two of Sugar Hill’s most important records, “The Message” and “White Lines (Don’t Do It),” relates a similarly frustrating experience. “For the most part, none of the artists really never got paid,” he says. He recalls being given “decent” advances of $5,000 to $10,000, but he says royalty payments were murky. “Come royalty time, you might have had some money coming, but they would take out the advances, and you wind up owing them money.”
For all that, Melle Mel points out that his experience isn’t especially unusual. “It’s not like getting ripped off in the record business was anything new,” he says. “There’s been way more talented people than me that made way bigger records, and they actually did worse than what we did.” Melle Mel isn’t raising his hopes about what a review of historic contracts might accomplish. “Could the record industry be more fair? I guess, yeah,” he shrugs. “But that’s just the nature of the beast. Where there’s money, somebody’s going to always want to take more money than they deserve.”
In the early to mid-2000s, several former Sugar Hill artists—including Rodney Stone and Melle Mel—won royalties settlements in a series of legal battles. Steven Ames Brown, one of the lawyers who represented them, tells me that Rhino and BMG’s Sanctuary Records, the two companies that together own the global rights to Sugar Hill’s catalog, have indeed paid consistently since the settlements. “The Sugar Hill artists had to sue to get justice,” he says. (BMG declined to comment on the record for this article. A representative for Rhino also declined to comment.)
Once billed as “the Motown of the ’80s,” SOLAR Records was founded in 1977 by the late Dick Griffey as an offshoot of Soul Train Records. It has gone through various ownership changes since the late 1990s, and BMG currently shares the rights with the Canadian company Unidisc. Regardless of who owns the label, some of SOLAR’s biggest artists describe what they see as decades-old contractual inequities.
R&B trio Shalamar recorded six albums for SOLAR, including two platinum-sellers—1980’s Three for Love and 1982’s Friends—before core members Jody Watley and Jeffrey Daniel left the group in 1983. Craig Brown, manager for Daniel, a former Soul Train dancer who taught Michael Jackson the moonwalk, claims his client has not received any Shalamar label royalties since his departure. “That was obviously an unfair contract,” Brown says. “Royalties should not be dependent upon whether a member is active in the group or not, for material they have recorded.” (Unidisc did not respond to requests for comment.)
The trailblazing all-woman R&B group Klymaxx released their first two albums on SOLAR before moving to its pop subsidiary, Constellation, for their top-selling record, 1985’s Meeting in the Ladies Room. Klymaxx vocalist-drummer Bernadette Cooper says that the group did, at least, hire a lawyer before initially signing with SOLAR—“Because we were young girls with no business acumen, we would have signed an agreement on toilet paper if it meant we could fulfill our dreams,” Cooper tells me—but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still lingering issues.
Vocalist-bassist Joyce “Fenderella” Irby, who sings lead on Klymaxx’s “I Miss You,” the No. 3 song of 1986, says she has never received royalty payments for her work as a co-producer on Meeting in the Ladies Room or its self-titled follow-up. Her producer agreement with SOLAR clearly states that she was entitled to royalties after the recoupment of recording costs; whether that means she’s owed the “half a million dollars” that she claims—and if so, from whom—is unclear. “This situation has been painful and depressing for over 30 years,” Irby says.
BMG’s catalog includes full global rights to the ska and reggae label Trojan Records, where the power discrepancies between a UK company and Black, Jamaican artists may have been most acute. Now part of Sanctuary as well, Trojan has passed through a succession of owners (and is separate from Trojan Jamaica, a new label). Dandy Livingstone, whose landmark records include 1972’s “Suzanne Beware of the Devil” and the pre-Trojan gem “Rudy, a Message to You,” says that he has long received a “pittance” from the label. His contract was adjusted in September 2003, but he wasn’t happy with the terms. “Come on,” he says. “I’ve been there from day one, from 1968. A lot of my stuff sold a lot of records. I was a bit—sorry for the expression—pissed off.” Still, Livingstone reluctantly accepted: “What choice did I have?” He hopes to meet with BMG to discuss amending the terms of his contract.
Marcia Griffiths, a Trojan star both solo and with the duo Bob and Marcia before going on to achieve immortality elsewhere via the “Electric Slide” song, remembers racial disparities as almost inevitable. “Of course I think artists of color back then were treated quite differently contractually than others, whether it was intentionally or not,” she says in a statement, adding that she’s pleased to hear about BMG’s efforts. “I look forward to positive results.”
UK music executive Errol Michael Henry says he’s working with several Trojan artists to fight for better pay through his artist-advocacy group Music Justice. He likens the industry’s longstanding practices to large-scale theft. “You need to make sure when you purchase back catalogs that the artists whose music you’re buying were properly taken care of,” he says. “BMG will not get away with a marketing-based spin to appear woke or compliant. They have to pay. If they bought the catalogs, then they bought the liabilities. It’s that simple.”
Originally Appeared on Pitchfork