Dispute Over Sampling Fees Has George Clinton in a Legal Funk
The cramped nightclubs and theaters that play host to funk star George Clinton these days can’t accommodate the gigantic silver spaceship that was his signature stage prop in his heyday.
But the 59-year-old singer-composer keeps touring, typically on the road 200 nights a year. He says he needs the money to pay his lawyers.
With a court judgment against him, Clinton is on the verge of losing his claim to a fortune he hadn’t foreseen--the millions of dollars generated by licensing his early contribution to pop music.
Along with James Brown, Clinton is considered one of the creators of a musical style that has inspired pop artists as varied as Prince and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Infusing classic soul with synthesizers and exuberant bass lines, Clinton and his Parliament/Funkadelic ensemble produced music in the 1970s that integrated dance floors and offered messages of support to the era’s antiwar and civil rights movements.
Funk, as Clinton says, became “the DNA of hip-hop,” as rap artists began lifting snippets of his songs to form the musical background behind their rhymes. Rap has made Clinton perhaps the most-sampled artist on the planet--a lucrative distinction at a time black music is so popular that it’s becoming a Wall Street commodity. The Isley Brothers, who have had more than 410 requests for permission to sample their catalog, last year closed an estimated $15-million deal to issue bonds backed by their future royalties.
Sampling also has generated new fortunes for such acts as the late Curtis Mayfield and writer-producers Nile Rodgers and the late Bernard Edwards. And it has provided a new source of cash for the publishing divisions of the major record conglomerates.
Record executives speculate that Clinton’s songs should have generated the record industry’s biggest sampling fortune. Use of his work in hundreds of rap and R&B; songs since the late ‘80s easily could have meant $10 million for him, they say, if every performer who lifted a piece of his songs had paid and if the catalog had generated money at the same rate as those of other heavily-sampled artists. Lawyers dueling over the songs say the true figure could hit $20 million or more.
But Bridgeport Music, the Detroit company that administers licensing of the songs, says it doesn’t owe Clinton a nickel. And the company said there isn’t that much money to fight over--Bridgeport said it has collected only about $4 million for Clinton songs, including recent court settlements, because record labels have copied snippets without paying. Label executives, in turn, say their artists often don’t inform them when they’ve borrowed from other works.
Clinton has accused Bridgeport of stealing his fortune and he is bent on recovering whatever money he can.
But his best chance may have passed. In a lawsuit Clinton filed in U.S. District Court in Florida, a judge in January ruled in favor of Bridgeport and dismissed Clinton’s complaint. Clinton had contended he still controlled more than 130 songs he co-wrote from 1972 to 1984. The list includes compositions that proved to be the most popular with rap acts, such as “One Nation Under a Groove,” “Freak of the Week” and “(Not Just) Knee Deep.”
Clinton said he legally owns the songs and that he hired Bridgeport only to field requests from record labels seeking to reuse them. Bridgeport was supposed to keep his royalties only until enough money came in to pay off his Adrian, Mich., farm, which the company owned, he said.
Bridgeport President Armen Boladian said Clinton sold his songs to the company in documents signed nearly two decades ago.
And Bridgeport said it doesn’t have to pay Clinton any of the money publishers usually owe to songwriters.
Writers typically sign over their copyrights to a music publisher in exchange for 50% of the money the company generates from finding new uses for the songs.
But Boladian and his lawyers said in interviews that Bridgeport doesn’t owe Clinton that share because it hasn’t recouped more than $5 million in expenses and advances paid to the composer over the years. Bridgeport is deducting the advances from Clinton’s royalties until they are paid off, a standard industry practice.
Since the Florida federal judge ruled in Bridgeport’s favor, Clinton has fired his lawyer and is challenging the decision. He also is demanding an accounting of his royalties for the last 24 years.
A partial accounting Clinton received from the company, his attorneys say, shows Bridgeport took more than $1.6 million in questionable deductions from his royalties. Among other items, Bridgeport charged him $500,000 for “estimated revenue lost” from licensing opportunities that might have arisen if the company hadn’t been in litigation. It also deducted $750,000 for its own legal expenses in a related case in which Clinton wasn’t a party.
In a separate lawsuit, Clinton is trying to win back ownership of the farm that was his family home for 16 years before Bridgeport’s Boladian evicted him.
“I don’t feel like I was treated fairly in any sense of the word, not by [Bridgeport] or even the legal system,” Clinton said in an interview. “If you don’t have enough money to even come to court with these things, you’re out of luck anyway.”
Clinton said he remains on good terms with most of the artists who borrowed his work. “There ain’t no animosity toward hip-hop [artists] for doing it. I believe most of them did pay. But [Bridgeport] didn’t forward the monies to me or the other writers involved. Like the business has always been, it’s hard to get paid. We’ve just got to get what we feel we have coming out of it.”
Boladian said Clinton isn’t entitled to anything.
“I’ve advanced George Clinton a lot of money,” he said, claiming to have given the musician millions of dollars in advances and expenses during the 1970s and 1980s. “In the ‘80s George was completely broke. Nobody cared. I was supporting him. I was giving him money to live on.”
Boladian said he now has set his sights on collecting back royalties for Clinton’s music from the record industry. He blamed the musician for being too slow to publicly discount a claim of ownership made by still another company, which he said hurt the collection process.
The catalog “could have generated a lot more if everything was squared away a lot earlier,” Boladian said. “There’s a lot of stuff that went down the drain because of it. [Record labels] took advantage of the situation.”
Two weeks ago, Bridgeport filed a federal lawsuit in Nashville charging hundreds of companies with short-changing it by not paying for Clinton samples. Boladian is close to settling a separate claim against Zomba Recording Corp., the most successful independent record label in the business, to recover money he says his company is owed for samples used on records by such acts as R. Kelly and Aaliyah.
Boladian has secured an estimated $2 million from EMI Group’s Priority Records, whose acts include Ice Cube and Snoop Dogg, said three sources who asked not to be identified for fear of legal ramifications.
In the end, Boladian said, he still might not see a profit because of legal fees linked to the litigation.
At the root of the dispute is a catalog of songs that neither he nor Clinton predicted would be worth millions of dollars.
“I knew they would be valuable. But I didn’t [expect] nothing like hip-hop,” said Clinton during a recent interview between recording sessions for Shaquille O’Neal and Warren G, who want him to appear on their upcoming albums. “I didn’t think there’d be that much money made.”
Born in Kannapolis, N.C., Clinton moved north with his family as his father pursued work, eventually settling in Newark, N.J. Clinton started singing as a teenager with a doo-wop group called the Parliaments, making money on the side as a barber.
When the act began attracting attention, Clinton moved to Detroit, where he eventually worked as a songwriter for Berry Gordy’s blossoming Motown label. But he developed a distaste for what he considered the too-polished sound of Motown’s acts, and instead started drawing from the rock stylings of Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone.
Clinton renamed his vocal group’s backup musicians Funkadelic and began recording for Boladian’s tiny new label, Westbound, while the same band, under the name Parliament, recorded for the Casablanca label. The ensemble, along with several offshoot bands produced by Clinton, recorded dozens of hit singles and toured with an elaborate stage production through the 1970s.
But by 1982, financial disputes among Clinton and three labels--Casablanca, CBS and Warner Bros.--cut the ride short. The singer recorded one more successful album for EMI’s Capitol Records, but became embroiled in a series of legal squabbles, including some with his former managers.
Reeling from a fight with the Internal Revenue Service, Clinton filed for bankruptcy two years later, discharging more than $2 million in debts he said he owed Boladian’s publishing and record companies.
Bridgeport then paid an estimated $500,000 to purchase Clinton’s farm home and rescue the musician from eviction.
Clinton said he and Boladian agreed that his future royalties would pay off the house. Boladian said that no such deal existed and that Clinton agreed to pay him $8,500 a month in rent. At the time, Boladian claimed Bridgeport owned Clinton’s publishing rights, which would have been the musician’s primary source of income.
As rap music began taking over the charts, Clinton’s songs became even more valuable--a fact not lost on Boladian.
About a year after the 1991 release of the rap album “Terminator X and the Valley of the Jeep Beats,” a solo album by a member of hot-selling rap act Public Enemy, Bridgeport sued the performer alleging his use of a Parliament song, “Body Language,” infringed Bridgeport’s copyright. That lawsuit prompted a claim from Clinton’s former manager, Nene Montes, that he, not Bridgeport, owned the songs.
Bridgeport and Montes battled for more than five years and settled out of court--after Clinton denied handing over his publishing rights to either one. In the middle of the case, Boladian evicted Clinton and his wife from their farm, saying they owed him a decade’s worth of back rent.
In a confidential settlement with Montes, according to sources familiar with the case, Bridgeport agreed to pay the former manager $1.2 million and obtained control of the disputed song copyrights, but released its claims to four Parliament albums.
Clinton, who had been building a war chest with proceeds from his concerts, had saved enough by 1999 to file a copyright infringement lawsuit against Bridgeport, laying claim to the unexpected fortune generated by sampling.
The dispute, as told in court documents from five separate cases, centers on three agreements Boladian claims Clinton signed from 1982 to 1985.
The agreements allegedly transferred ownership of the bulk of Clinton’s work to Bridgeport. Clinton, however, asserts that they aren’t valid because he never signed them.
Boladian, who used some of the agreements to register his ownership of the songs with the U.S. copyright office, has acknowledged in court that Bridgeport altered one of the documents.
The paper Clinton originally signed didn’t transfer any rights to Bridgeport, and Boladian said in court that his company added songs and rewrote the language to transfer ownership to Bridgeport. He said he had authority to do so because Clinton had granted him power of attorney over his affairs.
He also acknowledged in court papers that he had a Clinton signature on one of the agreements notarized eight years after the composer allegedly provided it. A federal judge in 1994 chastised Boladian for his actions, but that judge’s opinion was vacated in a later settlement.
In a lawsuit he filed in Florida, Clinton said that even if he had signed agreements transferring ownership from Malbiz, his own publishing company, the contracts were invalid. Clinton said the company was 75% owned by his wife, who hadn’t signed any of the papers.
Nonetheless, U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle threw out his lawsuit in January. Though finding that the 1982 document “seems to have one or more missing paragraphs” and is “hard to understand,” Hinkle found that Clinton did sign it and a 1983 agreement transferring the songs to Bridgeport.
The judge also said Clinton was barred from profiting from the songs because he hadn’t disclosed them as assets in his 1984 bankruptcy filing.
Clinton insists that the songs didn’t belong in his personal bankruptcy because they belonged to his corporation, Malbiz.
And he plans to return to court.
“I’m just getting started,” he said. “Ain’t no way in hell it’s going to end like this.”
Hear a clip illustrating the use of a rhythm section in a George Clinton Funkadelic song in a recording at www.latimes.com/sampling.
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A Sampling of ‘Sampled’ Songs
Rap and R&B; artists have lifted snippets from, or “sampled,” the music of funk composer George Clinton perhaps more than that of any other performer. Artists frequently use his rhythms to form the musical foundation of their own songs. Here are some examples of how his work has been reused.
* “Atomic Dog”--”Who Am I (What’s My Name)?” by Snoop Dogg
* “One Nation Under a Groove” -- “Stomp” by Kirk Franklin and gospel choir God’s Property
* “Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk” -- “It Was a Good Day” by Ice Cube
* “(Not Just) Knee Deep” -- “Me Myself and I” by De La Soul
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