The Outcome of Tracy Chapman's Lawsuit Against Nicki Minaj Could Change Rap Forever
Nicki Minaj is wary that the ruling could decimate experimentation in hip-hop.
In August 2018, Nicki Minaj released her fourth studio album, Queen. However, an unreleased track that didn't make the album could have just as much impact as the album itself.
In the weeks leading up to the album's released, Minaj tweeted about her frustrations over a track, "Sorry." The song, which featured Nas, originally interpolated Tracy Chapman's 1988 track "Baby Let Me Hold You." Minaj's representatives sought a license to sample the track, but were rejected. The original version was scrapped, thus Nicki and Nas worked on a new version of the song. Subsequently, the song was left off the album altogether.
Here's where things get tricky. The day after the album's release, Funkmaster Flex played the song, leading Chapman to issue DMCA takedown notices for copyright infringement. Eventually, she sued Minaj for copyright infringement.
"[Minaj] violated Ms. Chapman's copyright by creating an illegal derivative work and distributing that work," says Chapman's attorney John Gatti. "Moreover, these actions were indisputably willful."
Nicki's attorney Eric George sees it differently. If Chapman's suit is successful, the precedent will make it illegal for artists to sample older songs without the artists' consent, even if the songs go unreleased.
"In the process of creation, no one approaches the original songwriter for a license to experiment," the court brief reads. "The musicians just experiment. If something works, and the recording artist wants to release the song commercially, then the record label, managers, and attorneys get involved and seek the required permission. If it is granted, the recording is commercially released. If permission is denied, the recording is discarded; no one is harmed; and the experimentation begins anew. Recording artists require this freedom to experiment, and rights holders appreciate the protocol as well."
The eventual ruling will greatly affect hip-hop in particular, which has a long, storied history of sampling.