Public Enemy’s Chuck D Settles B.I.G. Copyright Suit

Multimillion-dollar lawsuit inspired by alleged unauthorized use of Chuck D's vocals on drug-related song.

A lawyer for Carleton “Chuck D” Ridenhour — the leader of the rap-group Public Enemy — and producer Gary “Gwiz” Rinaldo said Tuesday (Nov. 17) they have settled a copyright-infringement and defamation lawsuit filed against the late rapper Christopher “The Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace’s estate.

The suit, which also was filed against a number of music-publishing companies, Bad Boy Records and Arista Records, was the result of the alleged unauthorized sampling of Chuck D’s vocals on the Notorious B.I.G. song “Ten Crack Commandments,” a tune that offers helpful rules on dealing crack.

“The parties have reached a confidential, out-of-court settlement,” Chuck D’s attorney, Kenneth P. Freundlich, said.

Chuck D’s manager, Walter Leaphart, explained that it was not sampling per se that offended the rapper, but the context in which the sample was used. In essence, on “Ten Crack Commandments,” Leaphart said, “You’ve got Chuck D doing a count on how to be a better crack dealer. And Mr. Chuck is very anti-drugs, as we all know.”

Although the case has yet to be formally dismissed, Freundlich said that Chuck D, Rinaldo and the defendants had reached a settlement “in principle.” He declined to say when they arrived at a resolution, other than “recently.”

Freundlich also declined to discuss details of the agreement, including whether Chuck D received any payment in the settlement or whether his voice would be removed from future pressings of the Notorious B.I.G. album.

“Ten Crack Commandments” appears on the 1997 Notorious B.I.G. two-CD release, Life After Death. It features B.I.G. describing 10 rules to follow when dealing crack, as Chuck D counts off the numbers. Chuck D’s vocal is sampled from Public Enemy’s “Shut ‘Em Down” (RealAudio excerpt), which originally appeared on their 1991 Apocalypse ’91 … The Enemy Strikes Black album and hit #26 on the R&B chart in 1992.

The suit, filed in United States District Court in New York on March 6, charges the estate of Christopher Wallace; Big Poppa Music; C. Martin; Justin Combs Publishing; EMI April Music, Inc.; Gifted Pearl Music-EMI; Bad Boy Records; and Arista Records, Inc., with two counts of copyright infringement and defamation. It was posted Tuesday on The Smoking Gun website (www.thesmokinggun.com), which twice a week posts legal documents, police reports and FBI files dealing with the famous and infamous.

Chuck D and Rinaldo allege in the suit that “in or about 1997, Wallace and/or Martin created a composition entitled ‘Ten Crack Commandments’ which contained a portion of [the 1991 Public Enemy hit, 'Shut 'Em Down.'] Neither Wallace, Martin, nor any of their respective designees … had permission, as required under the laws of the United States and the State of New York, to use any or all of ['Shut 'Em Down'].”

The copyright-infringement portions of the suit asked for at least $2 million in damages

The defamation portion of the suit proclaimed, “Chuck D had an excellent reputation for his public support of non-violence and anti-drug-use campaigns throughout the country. In this regard, he published a book entitled Fight The Power, which carried [his] anti-drug message and appeared in a Public Service Announcement for the Partnership for [a] Drug Free America.” The suit also claims that “Shut ‘Em Down” is “not about drugs but rather about empowering young black persons through peaceful non-violent and non-drug using means.”

The sharp contrast between the positive message of “Shut ‘Em Down” and the how-to-deal-drugs text of “Ten Crack Commandments” is what was at the heart of the defamation portion of the suit. “Chuck D has been injured in his reputation and good standing in his community,” the suit read, “and has been held up to ridicule and contempt by his friends in general.”

On the defamation charge, Chuck D and Rinaldo asked for a minimum of $250,000.

Representatives for Bad Boy and Wallace’s estate did not return calls for comment by press time. Representatives for Arista Records had no comment on the suit or how much the settlement was.

Bob Kohn — an expert in music-copyright issues and author of “Kohn On Music Licensing” — said there’s a “certain amount of irony” when an artist in hip-hop — a genre that liberally has sampled other musicians’ work — takes legal action for having his own work sampled.

Public Enemy’s landmark 1988 release, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, widely is acknowledged as a hip-hop classic, with its densely layered samples. The album grabbed from a variety of sources, including death-metal band Slayer, ’70s funk-group Average White Band, soul-legend James Brown, R&B-vocalists the Temptations and glam-rocker David Bowie.

After that album, Public Enemy went on to sample such artists as pop-star Prince before he changed his name to The Artist, folk-rockers Buffalo Springfield, funk-rockers the Isley Brothers and R&B-singer Rufus Thomas.

Nonetheless, Kohn, who also is the chair of the Internet-music label GoodNoise, said that an artist’s suit based on creative and moral motivations — such as Chuck D’s objection that his own anti-drug message is tarnished by the B.I.G. song — is far from uncommon.

“It’s not unusual … for artists to deny permission [for their work to be used] on the basis of some political or sociological reason,” he said.

This is not the first time Chuck D has sued over the unauthorized use of his vocals to promote things that don’t meet with his approval.

In the early ’90s, he sued and settled with the makers of St. Ides Malt Liquor, after his voice was sampled in a commercial that featured fellow-rapper Ice Cube. One of Public Enemy’s songs, “One Million Bottlebags,” takes a strong stand against malt-liquor sales in the inner-city, and Chuck D took exception to the commercial’s sample undermining his message.