You’ve likely peeped that there’s a call-out moment happening with artists and their first contracts. Kelis and Mase are addressing false promises, low earnings, and jacked publishing with Pharrell and Puffy, respectively. But how much of this is just business and how much of it is, indeed, sheisty? I wrote about complicated contracts and the pitfalls young, eager artists have fallen into since the beginning of recorded music for Billboard Biz.
“Industry rule No. 4080: record company people are shady.”
A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip memorably sounded his warning about the perils of the music business almost thirty years ago; a cautioning that was well-reflected over the following years as news of multi-Platinum artists going bankrupt and global superstars changing their name a symbol to get out of their recording contracts became part of pop culture lore.
Stories of the entertainment industry have always been Little Red Riding Hood analogies: the young, vulnerable and overeager artists are seduced by the generous offerings of label execs dressed as friends and/or benevolent family figures. A look through any number of major music biopics (Straight Outta Compton, Why Do Fools Fall In Love, The New Edition Story), as well as VH1’s defunct Behind the Music and TVOne’s Unsung, will reveal stories of convoluted management deals and missing money, but also those of perfectly legal label and production contracts that didn’t match verbal promises. It’s why Ice Cube left N.W.A, why New Edition was only making dollars each at the end of their first tour, even according to some, possibly why Sam Cooke was murdered.
Last week, a conversation about fairness and ethics in record deals surfaced when first singer Kelis, then rapper Mase, called out what they consider injustices in their old contracts. In a Jan. 30 interview with The Guardian, Kelis said she was “blatantly lied to and tricked” by “the Neptunes and their management and their lawyers and all that stuff” when she signed her initial deal. The “Milkshake” singer says she was told “[we] were going to split the whole thing 33/33/33.” When she realized she wasn’t making any money off of her albums, only her touring, she says she questioned her deal. “Their argument is: ‘Well, you signed it.’ I’m like: ‘Yeah, I signed what I was told, and I was too young and too stupid to double-check it.’”
Kelis’ comments were followed a couple of days later by a post from Mase, once Bad Boy’s marquee artist and the new Starsky to Diddy’s Hutch following Biggie Smalls’ death in 1996, in response to an impassioned speech Combs delivered at Clive Davis’ pre-Grammy gala. While receiving the Icon Award, the entertainment mogul put the Grammy organization — a cosponsor of the event — on notice regarding their appreciation, respect and acknowledgement of Black artists, arguing “We need the artists to take back control, we need transparency, we need diversity.”
Diddy issued an edict on behalf of the Black music community for the Grammys to “get it right,” saying, “I’m here for the artists.” Combs also added that while his goal used to be simply making hit records, “Now it’s to ensure that the culture moves forward.” The magnanimous speech left Diddy, who now often uses the nickname “Brother Love,” open to criticism, as Bad Boy Entertainment has a trail of unhappy, messy or downright tragic artist relationships and breakups in its historic wake.