Filed under: Features,Non-Rapper Dudes,Not Your Average,The 80's Files
Written by: Robbie Ettelson
The wolves are out. Irate rap fans everyone are calling for Aaron Fuchs‘ head on a pike following with the recent news that his publishing company Tuf America was suing singer Frank Ocean for unauthorized use of Mary J. Blige‘s “Real Love,” which he sung a portion of in the track “Super Rich Kids.” Predictably, this resulted in responses such as ?uestlove‘s tweet: “when i speak and reference the bloodsuckers of hip hop only ONE person comes to mind” despite the fact that Frank Ocean is technically an R&B singer. Aaron Fuchs seems to have provided a convenient scapegoat as the stereotypical “evil Jewish record label owner” who’s only purpose in life is to exploit black musicians in order to fill his own coffers. Based on the testimonies of some former Tuff City artists and a peanut gallery of online writers, this may seem to be the case. But things are never that cut and dried, so I thought it was time to investigate a little deeper than the first page of results from a Google search.
Based on my own interview with Aaron Fuchs in 2013 and an extensive Fat Lace feature on him from 2007, Mr. Fuchs comes across as a dedicated student of music who has spent the past 30 years trying to champion music he believed in while running a profitable business, even going as far as involve himself in the creative process by providing breaks to the producer’s of records that he’s released and suggesting song titles and concepts, all without any major label backing outside of his brief relationship with CBS on three early releases. After releasing seminal records from Cold Crush Brothers, Spoonie Gee, Davy DMX and The 45 King in the 80’s, Tuff City continued to issue a number of noteworthy titles as well as expanding into soul, funk, blues and R&B with the Funky Delicacies and Night Train International imprints. Beyond releasing music, the company also deals with music publishing, representing both Tuf America copyrights and those of the musicians they represent.
The stories of former Tuff City signees range from disgruntled to indifferent to glowing, which is par for the course for an independent in the 80’s. While Funkmaster Wizard Wiz, Ron Delite and Lord Al Ba-Ski weren’t exactly glowing in their recollections of their time with the label, The 45 King continues to do business with them, and Spoonie Gee went as far to declare: “Business wise and financially the best label that I’ve been on was Tuff City with Aaron Fuchs.”
The primary cause of bad feeling towards Mr. Fuchs’ business dealings, however, seems to stem from the claims that he “has gone out of his way to buy up the rights to songs put out by a James Brown and others for the sole purpose of being able to collect money from other artists who sample.” The fact of the matter is, Tuff City was building a catalogue of classic records long before the concept of “sample clearance” was a commercial reality, as Fuchs explained to Fat Lace:
“In rock ‘n’ roll there was an oldies but goodies phenomenon so I thought let me do that with hip-hop, let me create an old school catalogue. I picked up a bunch of tracks whether it was the funky stuff that was being sampled or just the hip-hop break beats like the Honeydrippers or old rap records. I bought a few tracks for an album called Old School Classics. It was amazing because what happened was when Black music is too innovative for white ears you have to go to the street for money. If you look at the early rhythm and blues artists, they were all funded by reasonably criminal elements. So I’d go to these guys and pick up the rights. They had already sold there huge street numbers and by the time these records had emerged as true copyrights, these guys were no longer around.”
Following the infamous court ruling against Biz Markie and Cold Chillin’ in the case where he’d failed to clear a sample of Gilbert O’Sullivan‘s “Alone Again,” the floodgates opened for a lucrative new income stream for artists and their publishing companies. One of these actions included Tuf America filing suit against Def Jam for uncleared use of The Honeydrippers‘ “Impeach The President” on two Marley Marl produced LL Cool J singles (“Around The Way Girl” and “6 Minutes of Pleasure”) and EPMD‘s “Give The People.” Since Fuchs had claimed to have given Marley a copy of the 45 in exchange for some a Spoonie Gee beat, this copyright claim was viewed by an act of treachery by many rap fans. Here’s Mr. Fuchs explanation:
“Back in the day, when Marley had a makeshift studio in his sister’s apartment in Queensbridge, I’d trade him records and cash in exchange for tracks. One of the exchanges of note was the 45 to “Impeach” I gave him which immediately resulted in Marley’s production of MC Shan’s “The Bridge”. I took not another dime nor a piece of the copyright for it, which would have been industry standard. Marley in turn laid down the great track for Spoonie’s “Take it Off.” A couple of years later however I brought a remix project to Marley; the multitrack to “Impeach,” over which I had dubbed a new Spoonie Gee vocal “You Ain’t Just A Fool, You’s An Old Fool” (astute listeners to that 12″ will hear the Impeach track with at least 30 seconds more music and a new break beat) but this time the remix didn’t work out and Marley, without authorization, stripped the drum track from the multitrack and built on it the track to LL Cool J’s “Around the Way Girl.” Friendly communication from Tuff City to Def Jam and Columbia about this copyright violation were ignored. At this point I’m sure even haters would agree that it would have been insane for a rational businessperson not to sue. But even then Tuff City remained dj-friendly; Marley was not named in the suit and was not liable for a dime.”
The music publishing side of the business also represents the artists themselves in some cases. “We’ve been signed with Tuff City publishing company over 10 years and they’re pretty much going after people that have been using and abusing our stuff without our permission,” original Trouble Funk bassist Tony Fisher told the Washington Post in relation to the unfortunately-timed copyright suit brought to the Beastie Boys the day before Adam “MCA” Yauch passed away in 2012, for use of Trouble Funk’s “Drop The Bomb” and “Say What?” on four songs: “Hold It, Now Hit It” and “The New Style” from Licensed to Ill, and “Shadrach” and “Car Thief” from Paul’s Boutique. This allowed the music press to pen outraged articles in regards to the insensitivity of the lawsuit and questioning why it had taken so long for any action to be taken. As it turns out, every time either of those albums “is issued in a new format, or repackaged, the statute of limitations on filing an infraction claim starts anew at year zero.”
Another interesting chapter in the Aaron Fuchs story is his love for the music of New Orleans:
“I formed Night Train International as a reissue label for music that had to that point been deemed too obscure for labels like Rhino. New Orleans was a treasure trove of this kind of stuff. I realized that the gap between New Orleans music, particularly that which was deemed to be “too New Orleans,” i.e. too Afro-Caribbean, and the rest of the world had been narrowed by hip-hop, and I moved the focus of my reissues to the soul and funk periods of New Orleans that had previously been completely ignored by reissue labels save for the occasional ‘hit’ that that period produced. The results were fast and furious. Never before had the gap between a record’s availability and it’s inclusion as a sample on a big record been achieved in record time. Within a year the lyrics to “It Ain’t My Fault” wound up on an album by an artist in the Master P stable, Silkk the Shocker (without authorization), and a track on the Gaturs album “Concentrate” was sampled in Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs’ elegy to the Notorious B.I.G., “Do You Know” (with authorization). I had succeeded in generating pay days for New Orleans rhythm and blues artists, the likes of which had not happened in decades. No one but I was investing in recordings of that era not produced by Allen Toussaint and in the entire music business, no one but I was able to earn income for New Orleans R&B artists during a brief window in which the record business was rich and able to sustain the cost of paying for samples.”
The Silkk The Shocker song was then sampled by Mariah Carey on “Did I Do That,” around the time that No Limit filed for bankruptcy, which resulted in a pre-emptive lawsuit against Tuf America for all future royalties awarded. You can read more about that as reported by Off Beat, while Mr. Fuchs offers his version of events at the Tuff City blog.
This of course brings us to the latest lawsuit to outrage music fans, the one against Frank Ocean. In their rush to crank out a quick headline, no one bothered to mention the fact that this only consists of a third of the lawsuit, which also names the Teriyaki Boyz for a sample of Black Merda‘s “Cynthy Ruth” and the unauthorized inclusion of Tony Clark’s song “Pushover” on a compilation album. Frank Ocean isn’t named liable in the lawsuit, which is only aimed at his record label, and the song writing credits for the song already include Mary J., her producers, Milk D and “Impeach” creator Roy C. Regardless, the constant witch hunt against Tuff City seems to overlook a number of facts in the rush to burn this “bloodsucker” at the stake. What seems to be getting forgotten is that sample clearance and publishing is part of the music game, and if your record label doesn’t practice due diligence, or you just hope that you don’t caught, then there may be repercussions. Why shouldn’t Tuf America help these original artists get paid when their stuff is sampled for a hit record? Or when a song from their own catalogue is used? DJ Premier understands it’s all part of the game, and he should know after having been on the lost a couple of cases himself when label clearance departments have dropped the ball.
If Tuf America wins the case against Def Jam/Universal for the Frank Ocean song, it won’t kill hip-hop. The only possible negative effect I can see resulting from the verdict would be less singers reciting Mary J. hooks in the middle of their songs, which I think we can learn to live with. It seems fair to assume that Tuff City have employed some ruthless strategies over the years to survive in the treacherous waters of the music industry, and no doubt have been involved in some deals that were weighted in their favor, but that doesn’t negate the fact that the label and it’s publishing arm have also been involved in releasing a lot of important music that might otherwise have languished in obscurity, and as a result has generated healthy revenue for some of those artists along the way, including Spoonie Gee, Trouble Funk and The 45 King. The record business is a heartless game, and clearly Aaron Fuchs has gotten his hands dirty from time to time, but to paint him as a ruthless vampire who preys on hapless musicians for profit is a disservice to the undeniable legacy of the Tuff City record label.
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