The Colour Of Money

During my tenure at Ichiban Records I had several job titles. The main two were staff producer and studio manager. When I wasn’t busy working on a project with an artist of mine, I was responsible for over seeing the day-to-day operations of the studio. Things like, booking time for the artists, scheduling the engineers, deciding who worked what sessions, ordering tape and other supplies (yes I said tape…this was the 90s) and just making sure things ran relatively smooth.

In addition to the day-to-day stuff, I along with all the staff at the studio, were asked to keep our ears open for any possible samples our artists might record. This was just as sampling was getting immensely popular and people were “borrowing” from just about every artist conceivable. Ichiban had sent me to LA in the early 90s for a convention hosted by publishers, labels, entertainment lawyers and the like. The purpose was to discuss the laws regarding sampling at the time and what precedents were actually being set. In essence, it was then as it is now; if you sampled something, you must have it cleared. The law stated that should you fail to clear a sample, the artist AND the record labels were both held responsible. Seems fair enough I’d say. After all, if you are going to use someone else’s music, is it too much to ask for a little credit and a license fee? Apparently, to many it was just that. At the convention they gave us examples of groups like De La Soul who made nothing on their debut record. In fact, they went deep in debt because of all the sampling issues. MC Hammer was another artist who by sampling Rick James’ “Superfreak,” requested permission to split the publishing with Jobette Music (the owners of the song) for writing new lyrics to it. The head of Jobette was present and read his reply to Hammer. “Who asked you to? We’ll take 100%” So as you can see, record labels and publishers were finding a wealth of hidden money in songs that were being sampled. Both were hiring people to go through all the popular songs and albums of the day, digging for sample usage. The pressure was on for record labels to really scrutinize the music of their artists that made use of sampling. If an artist, group, or producer came to the studio and they were recording hip-hop, it was part of our gig to know where the sample came from. One major un-cleared sample could break a small label like Ichiban. Just as an aside, we originally released Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” but for unrelated reasons quickly sold it off as it was blowing up. That sample from Queen cost over 1 million as a back license fee not to mention royalties. That would have shut us down before ever getting started!

Artists were asked to fill out a sample clearance form, but not always could they be relied upon to do so. The mindset was “we can mangle this sample up so badly NOONE will ever know!” Arrogant thinking by arrogant artists. One such artist sampled the piano intro to “Hey Bulldog” by The Beatles. (a “gangsta” riff if ever there were one) When I pointed out that he could in no way use this, his response was priceless. First, he at least copped to the fact it indeed was a Beatle sample. Score one for the artist. BUT, his logic about using this was his true arrogance. Very matter of factly, he proceeds to tell me, “Well only you white boys are gonna know this song ‘cause black people don’t listen to the Beatles, only white folks.” This statement was incredible on so many levels. I would have busted out laughing then but I could tell this guy was very serious in his thinking, so I just said, “ Well Yoko Ono ain’t white either and she listens to The Beatles and SHE’S gonna fuckin’ know!” He dropped the sample. I don’t even remember his name and it’s probably cause I ruined his career for not letting him use that sample. I apparently suck.

Now one guy I will mention who recorded on Ichiban was Kilo Ali who was known only as Kilo back then. He was working on his Bluntly Speaking record at the time. His producer was a guy known as Red Money. Kilo and Red showed up together initially, but after the introductions I guess Kilo figured he had put in his day, so he left. That left Red myself and the engineer together to sort through the project As Red was tracking the first song, a sample jumped out at us. The engineer, Jimmy O’Neil and I, picked up on this almost simultaneously shouting out “Just The Two Of Us” by Grover Washington. We were so excited ‘cause at that moment it felt like we were on Name That Tune or something. I think we were even half expecting Don Pardo to tell us what we won. What? An artist’s producer lied to us about using a sample? How could this be? I explained how I had just returned from a conference regarding sampling and how labels are cracking down and all. I very nicely explained that this was Richard Tee on Rhodes piano, and it had a very distinct sound that makes it instantly identifiable. He was pissed but seemed to accept it and said he’d lose it. Great.

The next tune he started he wanted to use the intro to Rocky but, having learned I was a keyboardist, asked me if I could play it and make it a little different. I told him yeah be glad to. I was trying to build that relationship so that we at the studio would not be looked at as the stool pigeons we kinda were. We had to look out for ourselves, the label and also in some noble way, the music we loved. So I played the intro theme and he was happy. He learns Jimmy plays guitar and he asks him to play as well. Everyone was laughing and having some fun so maybe the initial “bad footing” we started off on was behind us.

About 2 weeks later, he comes back and he wants to lay a new track. Let’s do it! Surely we’ve got this sampling thing behind us now right? He’s got the beat going and everyone in the control room is nodding their heads and it’s all good. Then, like a flare in the night sky, Richard Tee’s piano part on the song lights the track up! You have GOT to be kidding me!! Parts of it were reversed and cut up (the arrogance of we can mangle it) but there was just NO mistaking that piano sound or that songs chord progression; no matter what direction it was playing. I asked, Red if I could see him for a minute. He came to my office, which doubled as the reception desk …I think truer to the case it was a reception desk that doubled as my office. Anyway, I tell him he STILL could not use that sample without first obtaining a license. He was livid and immediately started trying to deny that he was using it, but as I said, there was no mistaking it. Again! I’m not sure what he ended up doing on that song if anything, but that sample didn’t make an appearance again. But the “real” fun was yet to come.

One afternoon Red showed up alone to dump a couple more songs. Kilo was to come in later and add his vocal. I guess Mr. Money felt if he was going to get busted out on something then he didn’t want his artist there. That was fair enough. I never confronted him in front of Kilo or the posse. I would always ask him to step into my “office” when he had a chance so as to not put him or anyone else for that matter, on the spot. So he, Jimmy and myself are sitting in the control room. At this point, things between Red and us are more than a little strained to say the least. I know the label is making him work at the studio because they can control budget somewhat. He is essentially stuck with us as we are with him. Fail all the way around. However, during these situations all you really want to do is get through the sessions without incident, make everyone happy and move to the next project. Anyway, we’re transferring his songs to tape and we have all the beats down. So far so good Red. He lays down another half dozen or so parts and not a sample in the bunch. Maybe this will go smoothly after all. Uh-oh! What’s that? Damn it! Jimmy glances over at me with a “here we go again” look. He knows it’s a sample but doesn’t recognize from exactly where. With the cast of characters we had working at the studio, we covered a lot of musical territory. Rock, pop, country, jazz, R&B, classical, one of us usually could tell. This one fell more into my musical area. I looked at Jimmy, shaking my head and then at Red Money. Very calmly I said, “Red, you can not use this sample. This is a piece of Charlie Parker’s break on the song “A Night In Tunisia.” He looks back at me and has the balls to say “ No it’s not. That’s ME playing the trumpet!” I’m thinking holy fucking shit is this guy serious? He HAD to have anticipated this and rehearsed that response. Jimmy reached for a Tums. I was seriously trying to not laugh. And with a great deal of excitement in my voice (albeit sarcastically) I said, “Damn Red, if this is you playing trumpet and you play like THAT, not to mention that your trumpet playing sounds AMAZINGLY like a saxophone, then let’s stop this session IMMEDIATELY! I want to call a rhythm section in and cut a record on YOU and we will ALL be famous!” He was looking really pissed now. All he could do was look at me and in that schoolyard voice kids have said, “Yeah? Well you know what?”“ That shows what you know. It’s not Charlie Parker; it’s a guy named Bird…asshole!” I nearly fell out of my chair from laughing so hard, which I’m sure infuriated him more. Finally I had to tell him that Parker’s nickname was Bird. Then I think I muttered something to the effect that, the only “bird” in the room was his brain. This of course is mumbled, due to the proximity of my face to his fist. I walked out of the control room and he walked out of the studio and never came back. I did however. Every day!

I am sure the label was not thrilled with how things went down because they obviously had to finish the last couple of songs at another studio.

In the long run though I guess Red had the last laugh. As I recall, he didn’t list any of us at the studio in the credits. Gee thanks pal!

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