Africa Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force Seek to Reclaim 'Planet Rock' from Record Label

Two members of the group exploit the termination provision under copyright law.
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Africa Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force

There's no firmer proof of the advancing age of hip-hop than a lawsuit filed on Thursday in New York federal court.

There, Ellis Williams ("Mr. Biggs") and John B. Miller ("G.L.O.B.E."), members of the group Africa Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force — which produced iconic hits like "Planet Rock," "Looking for the Perfect Beat" and "Renegades of Funk — seek to exercise termination rights under the 1976 Copyright Act.

Congress passed that law with the idea that authors often grant rights at the earlier stage of their career, and if the copyright term was to expand, these authors should have the right to grab back rights and enjoy the fruits of their labor at the end of the term. The law was set up to allow terminations to come 35 years after initial publishing.

Dial back 35 years, and one will find the beginning of what hip-hop was to become.

In their lawsuit against Rhino Entertainment and Artists Rights Enforcement Corp. (AREC), the plaintiffs say they didn't get royalties for 27 years. In 2002, they say they entered into agreements with AREC to collect unpaid royalties. Another seven years went by until Africa Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force entered into a settlement agreement with Rhino, but according to the complaint,  AREC "failed to secure royalties for an additional 25 songs... that sampled the vocal performances of Afrika Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force."

"Planet Rock" famously sampled Kraftwerk's "Trans-Europe Express" and itself has been sampled, according to WhoSampled.com, by artists including Lana Del Ray, Kendrick Lamar, Public Enemy and Erykha Badu. Other works by the famed hip-hop group have also been sampled including by Mariah Carey for a remix version of her classic, "All I Want for Christmas."

Williams and Miller say they terminated the AREC agreement in 2013 for alleged failure to use its "best efforts" to recover royalties, and that since then, Rhino has been holding royalties due to them. As such, they are charging the defendants with breach of contract with at least $100,000 damages claimed. Additionally, they want to grab back rights to the songs by seeking a declaratory judgment.

They want a court to declare that  Plaintiffs along with Robert Allen ("Pow Wow") and Bambaataa are the owners of the copyright in the master recordings 'Planet Rock,' 'Looking For the Perfect Beat,' and 'Renegades of Funk.'"

Asked for comment, Chuck Rubin at AREC says he believes his firm recovered all royalties due from Rhino, and that the lawsuit emanates from a fee dispute. "They had an agreement with us and they didn't live up to their end," he says. "It was agreed we would receive a particular fee. It seems that became a sore point. This is the end result."

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