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“Artists getting robbed for their publishing/By dirty Jewish execs who think that it’s alms from the covenant.” -Lupe Fiasco
She was only 19.
But word had spread that she was something special. The genre was still relatively new, barely 20 years itself, and every cash-strapped label was searching for that one hit that would propel them out of the red and into solvency.
There was competition. So the struggling label, it was barely a year old, gave her a guaranteed contract. On her way to sign it, however, she was in a car accident that left her hospitalized. The label took care of those costs, and even though the artist was laid up in the hospital bed (make a note of this), they had her sign the contract.
For the next three years she kept the label afloat. And what was her payoff? $690 dollars a song. What 19 year old wouldn’t take that, right? For that money, a young, cash-strapped artist would worry about all of that contract business later.
But later does come. And, while this sounds like it could be a modern scenario, it actually took place over 60 years ago. (That $690 dollars is adjusted for inflation, it was $69 dollars in 1948). The artist that we’re talking about is Ruth Brown, the label, incidentally, is Atlantic Records which came to be known as “The House that Ruth Built.”
Brown didn’t receive any royalty checks until the 1980s. That’s right…thirty (30) years later. And this was common practice. From the time that Race Records became a thing in the 1920s, record deals with Black artists all had a similar slant — large amount of cash up front — little to nothing on the back-end.
Here’s why it’s not so cut and dry. Since Mamie Smith made Okeh Records a major player with her hit “Crazy Blues,” it’s been a little about the music and A LOT about the business. You would be hard pressed to convince someone that the talent scout for Okeh, Ralph Peer, didn’t love the music. Or that the Chess Brothers main objective was to exploit their talent. Hell, you would lose in the court of law if you tried a case against Atlantic founder Ahmet Ertegun. Aretha Franklin might even testify on his behalf.
It’s a business. Most importantly, it’s a business in a capitalist society, where less for you means more for me. One can argue the scruples of record executives forever but at the end of the day, the decisions they make are considered “good business.” https://festivalpeak.com/record-labels-robbery-accusations-are-as-american-as-apple-pie-6f931e1537b5
In the late '40s and '50s, artists like Muddy Waters, Wolf, Buddy Guy, Bo Diddley and the Soul Stirrers were paid flat fees for their recordings and received no royalty payments from Chess on the sales of those records. In fact, most were saddled with artificially inflated debt accounts: As recently as 1986, Muddy Waters's account showed a negative balance of $56,000. The same year, sales from Waters's catalogue earned more than $25,000 in royalties -- money that wasn't paid out at the time but now will be. The estates of both Waters and Wolf are expected to receive significant checks from MCA. "It's wonderful that all these Chess artists who, to my knowledge, never received a royalty check in their lives, are finally getting paid." https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1989/12/07/mca-to-pay-royalties-to-rb-greats/63714098-29be-481e-915f-cb43f6bdf07c/?noredirect=on
N.W.A broke up in 1991, with Ice Cube and Dr. Dre departing and aiming criticism at Heller and Eazy in diss tracks. However, Ice Cube's diss tracks only occurred after the remaining members of N.W.A. initiated things on the 1990 E.P. 100 Miles and Runnin'. Both Ice Cube and Dre accused Heller of breaking up N.W.A with the way he managed the group. Dr. Dre later recalled: "The split came when Jerry Heller got involved. He played the divide and conquer game. Instead of taking care of everybody, he picked Eazy to handle it. And Eazy was like, 'I'm taken care of, so fuck it'." Ice Cube, in his diss track "No Vaseline", accused Eazy of being too much under Heller's influence and both of them exploiting the rest of the group: "Eazy-E, MC Ren, Dr. Dre, and Yella". Also, "It's a case of divide and conquer, 'cause you let a Jew break up my crew" and "house nigga gotta run and hide, yellin' Compton but you moved to Riverside."
He denied the accusations of financial impropriety. In particular, he wrote that Ice Cube didn't understand finances, and alluded to rumors of his own financial impropriety on his own record label. However some members of the group have said that their first check was not released until they signed contracts, which they did not have read by outside lawyers or managers. So it stands to reason that the same scenario happened to Ice Cube, which he has maintained was the final straw and reason he left the group.
Heller defended himself in his book stating,
N.W.A.'s song publishing royalties were always hefty because the band sold so many records ... Ruthless took twenty-five cents out of each dollar of publishing royalties. Again, a fairly customary bite. Some labels take 100 percent. The other publishing companies involved (Cube included) also took twenty-five cents. Of the fifty cents left, the lyric writer took twenty-five cents, and the beat writer took twenty-five cents. Dre composed the beats for every song N.W.A. ever put out, so he always got that quarter out of every dollar coming in, less deductions for all his sampling. You wrote a lot of the words, Cube, so some of the time you took a quarter bite out of those dollars. There were quite a few times though, when you had to share with cowriters, such as Dre, Yella, the D.O.C., Eazy, or Ren. So you had to share your quarter ... It's not robbery. It's not a Jewish conspiracy to rip off the poor artist. What it is, O'Shea, is mathematics - pure and simple. You received every single penny that was coming to you. If you say you didn't, then you are lying.
In October 2015, Heller filed a lawsuit against several members of N.W.A, NBCUniversal and others involved in the production of Straight Outta Compton. He has also filed lawsuits against rappers Dr. Dre and Ice Cube. The lawsuit claims "the film is littered with false statements that harm the reputation of (Heller) and aim to ridicule and lower him in the opinion of the community and to deter third persons from associating or dealing with him." Producers for the film, which included Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, filed a countersuit in February 2016 to have portions of the Heller suit thrown out. In June 2016, U.S. District Judge Michael Fitzgerald dismissed nearly all of Heller's lawsuit, but agreed to allow one key claim to continue. Despite Heller's death in September 2016, his attorney Mickey Shapiro has indicated the lawsuit will continue. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerry_Heller
an so on...