Black Sheep’s $750 Million Lawsuit May Take Down The Music Business

One of the greatest Hip-Hop super crews is undoubtedly the Native Tongues. The New York City collective, reportedly masterminded by The Jungle Brothers’ Baby Bam, would grow to include De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Queen Latifah, Monie Love, Leaders Of The New School, Black Sheep, Chi-Ali, The Beatnuts, and others, in addition to the pioneering JBeez. In 2023, roughly 35 years after these Hip-Hop innovators came together as a movement, they remain in the news.

De La Soul kicked off the new year with the announcement that they are re-releasing its first six albums on digital streaming platforms on March 3. More recently, Posdnuos, Dave, and Maseo released the beloved “The Magic Number” as a reminder of what’s been missing online from one of Hip-Hop’s greatest groups. For the first time in history, the 1989 song is resurrected online under release from De La’s own A.O.I. Records imprint. This follows the group acquiring their masters in 2021 after Tommy Boy sold its catalog to Reservoir Media Group.

The Beatnuts Confirm Onetime “Secret Group” Including Q-Tip, Posdnuos & Juju (Audio)

Black Sheep is also making major headlines. The duo of Dres (nka Black Sheep Dres) and Mista Lawnge are suing Universal Music Group. Billboard‘s Chris Eggersten first reported that Andres “Dres” Vargas Titus and William “Mista Lawnge” McLean have led a class-action lawsuit that alleges UMG signed a “sweetheart” deal with Spotify in 2008. This agreement offered lower royalty rates for UMG music in exchange for cash and equity in the then-fledgling digital streaming platform. The lawsuit was filed last Wednesday (January 11) in a Manhattan court.

In the lawsuit, the members of Black Sheep allege that UMG did not disclose the deal, which greatly affected royalty payments to the duo and other musical artists. During the 1990s, Black Sheep released two albums on Mercury/Polygram Records, 1991’s A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing and 1994’s Non-Fiction. The duo claims that the alleged UMG and Spotify deal violated their personal 1990 contract with Polygram, which merged with Universal Music Group eight years later. Per the lawsuit, that initial 1990 contract required the parent label to pay 50% of all net receipts connected to the exploitation of Black Sheep’s outputs. The suit says that the corporation failed to fulfill that contract’s obligations, and cheated artists like and including Black Sheep out of $750 million, based on the value of the Spotify equity.

Rather than distribute to artists their 50% of Spotify stock or pay artists their true and accurate royalty payments, for years Universal shortchanged artists and deprived Plaintiffs and Class Members of the full royalty payments they were owed under Universal’s contract,” the suit reads. “Over time, the value of the Spotify stock that Universal improperly withheld from artists has ballooned to hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Following the filing last week, an unnamed UMG representative spoke against the allegations, while refusing to comment further. “Universal Music Group’s innovative leadership has led to the renewed growth of the music ecosystem to the benefit of recording artists, songwriters and creators around the world,” the representative said in a statement published at Complex. “UMG has a well-established track record of fighting for artist compensation and the claim that it would take equity at the expense of artist compensation is patently false and absurd. Given that this is pending litigation, we cannot comment on all aspects of the complaint.”

This lawsuit is the topic of 2023’s first What’s The Headline podcast episode (embedded above in video and audio below, with timecodes in each). In the discussion (beginning at the 37:00 mark), the Ambrosia For Heads team, including decades of music industry legal experience, breaks down why this lawsuit was filed, what is at stake, and what it could mean for Black Sheep (and others). The conversation also points to Black Sheep’s longtime fight for their rights, in a history of arguably being exploited by the record industry. In a different way than the mid-1990s war cry from De La, the Native Tongues are officially reinstated—especially as talented artists unafraid to fight for theirs in a frustrating industry.

Episode #98 also examines De La’s developments, celebrates some recent Slick Rick news, and discusses Dr. Dre’s reported music catalog sale. Additionally, the podcast remembers Gangsta Boo and Dr. Dre affiliate Laylaw, as well as discusses new music by Black Thought & The El Michels Affair and Skyzoo & The Other Guys.

AFH readers can catch regular discussions about the culture on our What’s The Headline. The podcast has conducted interviews with Rapper Big Pooh, Cormega, Meyhem Lauren & Daringer, Diamond D, Joell Ortiz, AZ, Blu & Mickey Factz, Kurupt, Evidence, Skyzoo, Pharoahe Monch, Prince Paul & Don Newkirk, Statik Selektah, Lyric Jones, The LOX, MC Eiht, Havoc, Duckwrth, photographer T. Eric Monroe, and Lord Finesse.

#BonusBeat: Last year, Black Sheep Dres partnered with producer Stu Bangas for Sheep Stu, which featured A.G.:

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