Milli-selling rapgoblin Lil Wayne probably didn’t worry too much about borrowing the Rolling Stones’ “Play with Fire” for the hook of his track “Playing with Fire.” Hell, it wasn’t even a sample. He hired R&B sublegend Betty Wright to sing it, shuffled some words around, changed the tune a bit, and called it fair. In the grand scheme of hip-hop infringement, it seems like a mere trifle.
But no! A suit has been filed against Mr. W.F. Baby and Universal Records seeking undisclosed damages in return for their reckless theft. Aside from the copyright issue, Wayne had the indecency to use ripped-off Stones lyrics alongside “explicit, sexist, and offensive” language, something of which the Stones would surely never approve. But wait! Before you accuse the Stones of being huge fucking hypocrites, consider this: the senior rockers lost the publishing rights to their entire pre-1970 catalogue decades ago, and they most likely have nothing to do with this lawsuit. (In fact, they just signed a huge contract with Universal.) A far more malevolent force is at work.
I’m guessing Weezy didn’t realize how appropriate the title “Play with Fire” is. In releasing a track that borrowed from classic Stones (however lightly), he not only played with fire, he stirred the wrath of someone whose strongarm tactics over the years have earned him a reputation as one of the most sinister, bellicose volcano gods of the recording industry. ABKCO Music holds the rights to an exceedingly valuable catalogue, one that includes the classic work of the Stones and Sam Cooke plus material by many other eminently reissuable ’60s hitmakers. It’s quite a nest egg, and ABKCO defends it like an angry mother eagle.
ABKCO is the brainchild of Allen Klein, a classic supervillain of the music biz who spent a few years handling the business affairs of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles before bitterly alienating them with self-serving management and ugly dealings. Klein’s first major taste of infringement litigation put him on the wrong side of the courtroom; while he was managing George Harrison, he was involved in the famed “subconscious plagiarism” suit regarding the ex-Beatle’s hit single “My Sweet Lord,” for which Harrison had unintentionally used the tune of the Chiffons’ 1963 hit “He’s So Fine.” Bright Tunes, the owner of the “He’s So Fine” publishing rights, had a strong case and stood to make millions.
At some point during the long years of litigation, Klein and Harrison acrimoniously ended their business partnership. Klein had a brilliant dickhead inspiration: he’d just buy up Bright Tunes for himself, thus jumping from the losing team to the winning team. In pursuit of this repugnant dream, he went so far as to feed Bright Tunes detailed financial data on the sales of “My Sweet Lord” and fiendishly undercut a settlement offer made by Harrison. From a 1981 decision by a judge in the case:
“ . . . Harrison made a settlement proposal which, at the time, Bright Tunes’ lawyer regarded as ‘a good one.’ Unknown to Harrison, Klein, at that point still involved in bitter post-firing litigation with Harrison, made a substantially higher offer to purchase Bright Tunes’ claim on behalf of ABKCO, thereby causing Bright Tunes to conclude that the level at which it had been negotiating with Harrison was far too low.”
In the end, Klein’s ploy was so laughably despicable that the judge barred him from profiting by it, and Harrison wound up owning the rights to “He’s So Fine” himself. The setback seems only to have hardened Klein’s heart, and that led to decades of ruthless overcompensation.
In the early ’90s, ABKCO demanded that Janet Jackson give Jagger and Richards partial writing credit on the track “What’ll I Do” after she had the audacity to use the words “Hey hey hey/That’s what I say.” Another seven-word phrase, “You can’t always get what you want,” is said to have cost George Michael a share of the royalties from his “Waiting for That Day” single.
Most notorious was the sad case of the Verve: though they had cleared the Stones-related sample with Decca and PolyGram for use in their hit “Bitter Sweet Symphony” (which took four bars of a greasy orchestral reworking of “The Last Time”), Klein, as holder of the publishing rights, at the last minute decided that they’d appropriated too much of the musical content of the song. Since it was too late to halt the release and remove the sample, the Verve hastily agreed to hand over 50 percent of the “Bitter Sweet” royalties to ABKCO. Once the song became a massive hit, however, Klein decided that the Verve had overstepped the original agreement and that he’d now be more comfortable taking 100 percent. And even that wasn’t enough to wet his whistle, so he sold the song out to Nike and Vauxhall commercials against the band’s wishes.
Given decades of precedent, I can’t imagine how Wayne and Universal didn’t see this coming. Who knows what kind of bill they’ll be stuck with, but it’s my personal well-informed legal opinion that both defendants are set to be F’d in the B. If any good comes of this, it’s that we might get to see “Jagger/Richards” pop up in the credits of a Lil Wayne album. Which is the eyeball equivalent of huffing spray paint.