Back in 1995, GZA declared, “Tommy ain’t my motherfuckin’ boy,” on his track “Labels”. 24 years later, De La Soul are echoing those sentiments, as they’re now feuding with Tommy Boy Records over the long-awaited streaming release of the legendary hip-hop trio’s back catalog.
The whole thing stems from Tommy Boy’s lack of faith in the early work of a group that became rap luminaries. When De La Soul were just starting out in 1989, it seems the label didn’t think albums like 3 Feet High and Rising and De La Soul Is Dead would amount to anything (they respectively went Platinum and Gold), so the label never bothered to clear the numerous samples on the tracks. Unfortunately, those poor practices continued through the group’s last release with the label, 2001’s AOI: Bionix.
There’s a bunch of industry backend junk involving Warner Bros.’s absorption of Tommy Boy’s catalog and its eventual return, as well as WB’s purchase of Parlophone, but the long and short of it is De La Soul’s music was never cleared for the ubiquitous streaming revolution, neither technologically nor legally. Now, however, label head Tom Silverman has apparently navigated those challenges — but the deals with De La Soul mean the artists themselves will see little benefit.
In a series of Instagram posts, De La Soul derided the “unbalanced, unfair terms” of Silverman’s proposed deal. One post in particular claimed that fans’ “purchases will roughly go 90% Tommy Boy, 10% De La,” adding the hashtag #thephantom2milliondollardebt, implying that the “pennies” the trio will earn will go to pay back a mysterious debt Silverman is attempting to levy against them. Making matters worse, they claim Tommy Boy hasn’t actually cleared the samples from De La Soul’s catalog and are planning to “move forward with the release and deal with all claims/lawsuits later on,” which would leave the rappers under the threat of mounting legal fees.
“We are being placed in the line of fire,” De La Soul wrote in the caption of one post. They expressed regret that fans and streamers like Spotify, Apple Music, and even Vinyl Me, Please were being put “in the middle of this mess.” They added, “De La Soul cannot afford negligent hurried business. We are fighting for our livelihood. Imagine trying to settle a #phantom2millionddollardebt and now possible lawsuits lurking??? There goes that 10%.”
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The group’s social media pressure actually does look to be having an impact. A post from Wednesday revealed that, “In support of the artist, TIDAL has decided not to stream our catalog until this matter has been resolved.” De La Soul’s most recent post claims that Tommy Boy reached out to negotiate — on the condition that the trio signed confidentiality agreements. “Feels like they want to silence us to ensure that we cannot share this story with you, while they continue to short change our legacy at the negotiating table,” De La Soul wrote.
Update: Variety reports that Tommy Boy has postponed the digital release. “Because Tommy Boy has not had the opportunity to sit down together with De La Soul and finalize our negotiations — something we’ve wanted to do for months — we have decided to postpone the digital release of their catalog scheduled for tomorrow,” the statement reads. “We know fans are eager to hear these amazing recordings and we are hopeful for a quick resolution.”
Appearing on Sway in the Morning, De La Soul reiterated that the whole ordeal is rather “bittersweet.” On the one hand, they’re glad fans will have access to the music. On the other, they’re frustrated that so little of the profits will go into the artists’ hands themselves. They noted that the impending 30th anniversary reissue of their debut, 3 Feet High, likely won’t put much in their coffer either. Instead, most of their income stems from touring, like the upcoming “Gods of Rap Tour” with Wu-Tang Clan and Public Enemy (for which tickets are available via Live Nation, or on the secondary market via StubHub).
Find all the relevant Instagram messages below, followed by De La Soul’s full Sway interview, in which they go deep into the contract complications that have led to this unfortunate situation and going independent.