Syl Johnson Planning to Sue Jay-Z and Kanye West Over Sample

Syl Johnson Planning to Sue Jay-Z and Kanye West Over Sample

Soul singer "in tears" over use of his "Different Strokes" on Jay-Z and Kanye West's Watch the Throne.

Published August 24, 2011

Jay-Z and Kanye West allegedly sampled Syl Johnson on Watch the Throne, but didn't clear the usage beforehand—and now the veteran soul singer is planning on suing the chart-topping duo.

"The Joy," which is included on the deluxe version of the No. 1 album, appears to sample Johnson's classic "Different Strokes," which has also been jacked by Wu-Tang, Public Enemy and others. "The Joy," co-produced by legendary beatmaker Pete Rock and West, was first heard as part of Ye's promotional "Good Friday" MP3 leaks in the lead-up to his 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

According to Numero Group, West's record label, Island Def Jam, originally contacted the company to clear the sample for use on a deluxe version of Fantasy. But after the deluxe release never came to fruition, Johnson was surprised to hear "The Joy," complete with the uncleared sample and erroneous credits, turn up on Jay-Z and Kanye's Watch the Throne earlier this month. He contacted Numero Group, reportedly in tears, and then the label issued the following tweet, which suggested a lawsuit was in the works: "Hey @kanyewest & @JayZ, thanks for illegally sampling Syl Johnson on 'The Joy' and then crediting us(?). Have your lawyers call our lawyer."

Numero later released a more in-depth statement, which can be read in full below:


It’s been almost twenty years since Cypress Hill issued their Black Sunday LP, a great record but not lacking in uncleared samples. One of those was for Syl Johnson’s “Is It Because I’m Black.” Two decades and several lawsuits later, Syl Johnson is a veteran of copyright infringement cases, and has done very well for himself clearing samples from his fertile catalog (we’re glad to say we’ve helped him with a few) for use in numerous tracks. He’s been amply paid, as he is quick to boast in his concerts, by acts like Wu-Tang Clan, Kid Rock, and Michael Jackson. Other performers… have not been so respectful.

Last summer we took a call from Syl wondering if we knew anything about his vocal appearing in Kanye West’s “The Joy,” which had been making the rounds on the internet via Kanye’s “Good Fridays” series. We approached the sampling house clearing the record (whom we’ve worked with on several projects) about getting it cleared. They weren’t sure what was happening with the track, but it was rumored to be included on a deluxe version of his upcoming album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. About three weeks before MBDTF was to be released, we got a frantic email requesting the immediate clearance of the track. After a little negotiating, we came to a price and a verbal agreement (one that is completely standard.) Paperwork to confirm all of this was to arrive for counter signature. Weeks passed. Then months. No deluxe version appeared in the market place, and our emails and phone calls to Def Jam’s business affairs department went unanswered. We spent the better part of five months trying to get paid, and finally handed it to our lawyer who recommended not pursuing legal action as the song wasn’t actually being sold. Syl could have filed a more complex suit involving the use of his voice to promote the #1 album, but decided against it. Eventually Kanye was going to want to clear some other part of our catalog, and we’d get Syl his money with leverage. With only a non-binding email to solidify the terms, we began the arduous process of having the song removed from money making channels like You Tube, for which Syl was seeing nothing. We thought the song was dead and moved on. It happens all the time.

Late last night, we received a phone call from Syl—who was nearly in tears—asking if we knew why The Numero Group appeared in the credits to a new Kanye West/Jay Z album called Watch The Throne. We had no idea. The credits misidentify Numero as the publisher of the sampled song (“Different Strokes”), which of course we are not, and any routine search of the BMI database would show otherwise. Wondering why we weren’t consulted on this new use, and baffled why we appear in the credits, for which we never asked, we contacted the sample clearance house. Even they cannot get a response from their own clients. Island Def Jam seems to think that Syl doesn’t have any fight left in him. We’re betting otherwise


Jay-Z and Kanye have yet to address the matter.

 (Photo: Scott Gries/Getty Images)

Written by Alex Gale


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