Over the summer, I got a tip that Larry Heard and Robert Owens had filed suit in an Illinois court seeking redress for what they claimed was years of copyright-related violations by Trax Records. I looked up the case and sure enough, they had: Heard & Owens were claiming millions in damages from malfeasance that they alleged went back more than 30 years, to the initial shockwave of house music’s origins in Chicago.
It followed a recent similar claim by Adonis and years of complaints by then young and as far as I can tell exclusively Black artists including Jamie Principle, Marshall Jefferson, DJ Pierre and Frankie Knuckles, both in passing and on point, claiming that the early Chicago labels had ripped them off.
If you’re new, this is going to shock you, but none of this tawdry bullshit has been a secret. Over the last 15 years, we’ve interviewed all of the people listed above and all of them have gone on record about the shit that went down with each of their early catalogs. Some content from 5 Mag’s profiles listed above even wound up referenced in the Heard & Owens vs. Trax lawsuit. Frankie and Jamie went so far as to re-record some of their classic tracks and direct people to the new releases, issued by Nocturnal Groove, rather than the old “classic” labels that released them. (This is a technique also done by many musicians whose reps then offer the new recordings for licensing.)
Too often as an industry, we elevate packaging over product, memorabilia over music, brand over artist. All might be forgivable except the last. These are real people that have been fucked over, and we helped.
While lawyers do their business in this case (and there are rumors of more cases to come), there is a broader point to be made here about the responsibility we have as fans, DJs and media. How they got to this point is for the courts to hash out, but these scenarios continue largely because of a misguided sense of consumer loyalty to brands that long ago ceased being the kind of thing you should respect. Talk to any of these artists and they had for years pointed out how they’d be harmed by these labels — yet media continues to treat these labels with the respect better afforded to the artists they took advantage of as record buyers continued to fetishize what are little more than 30 year old zombie brands.
Too often as an industry, we elevate packaging over product, memorabilia over music, brand over artist. All might be forgivable except the last, because there are real people involved in this, many of them are still alive and still active artists. They’ve been fucked over, and we’ve helped do it.
We should be supporting the people who made these tracks — but the keyword is on “made.” Steve Albini once said that the only two people in this industry that mattered were the artists and the fans, and everyone else was just in one way or another putting themselves in between them. When these two get together, the rest wilt and die. It’s a combination that is impossible to beat and the internet has made it a very real possibility.
We probably don’t need bullet points for this, but this is not a bad place to start:
- Buy records from artists.
- Stop fetishizing labels.
- Stop buying represses controlled by cretins.
We all know there are people in this game primarily to collect records, the way some dads “collect” baseball cards. If it gives you a high to dig up a mint condition Phuture rookie card, there ain’t nothing wrong with that. But that’s where it should end. It isn’t really hard to direct your money for Phuture-related records and t-shirts and shit to DJ Pierre, Herb Jackson, the family of Earl Smith Jr, Roy Davis Jr or the other people who made the records rather than the zombie brands that still push re-issues. Social media is magic. It isn’t hard to get the straight dope from these guys — in my experience, they’re pretty happy to set you straight.
And while this may be wishful thinking, there’s something else you can do while you’ve got them on the line: check out their other music. Tons of these guys have two sets of fans: the people who dig their old stuff and the ones who like the new. It’s incredible to me how many people have no idea how much music Frankie Knuckles made after the year 2000. Or hell — after 2010. If your only interest is a sound from the ’80s, that’s fine but I think you’ll find an artist made records you liked then likely makes shit you will like now. Taste is rarely irretrievably lost.
For most of dance music’s history, the question of who profited off a record was something that DJs and fans could look past. In fact, you kinda had to. If you wanted “No Way Back,” there was only one place to get it, right?
That’s no longer the case. In the broader economy, power and wealth is being concentrated at the top, it’s true. But in our little cul-de-sac of the entertainment world, power can be distributed and a sense of reparation, if not justice, can be served.
Do you want to support Adonis? Go buy from Adonis. With Bandcamp, Patreon and other services, this is entirely feasible. Spending the five minutes to see if you can in some way support the artist rather than the zombie brand that exploited him feels like a very 2021 kind of thing to do. Can we give it a shot?