Showtime (for Lawsuits), Unfinished Business (for Lawyers) has the scoop today on a lawsuit instigated by producer Dave Kelly —

In Jamaican dancehall culture, “re-licking” a riddim has undoubtedly been a way of life. Almost monthly there seems to be a remake of a dancehall, reggae or rocksteady riddim that originated anywhere from just a few years ago to decades ago, often with no thought, care or compensation being made to its original composer or creator.

One veteran dancehall music producer however is not taking the re-lick of one of his creations so lightly. Dave Kelly, owner of Madhouse Records and producer of numerous classic dancehall riddims (including the Joyride, Bruk Out, Bug and Eighty-Five riddims) has reportedly sued for royalties off Linton ‘TJ’ White’s Unfinished Business riddim which was released last year. Notably, Dancehall.Mobi posted about the Unfinished Business riddim when it was just released, and highlighted that it sounded remarkably similar to Dave Kelly’s Showtime riddim which was released circa 1998.

The Unfinished Business riddim has spawned several local hits, and two international hits in Mavado’s “So Special” and Serani’s “No Games”, and White has acknowledged that the royalties from the riddim are presently tied up in litigation. It’s not known exactly how the proceeds from the sale and licensing of songs on the Unfinished Business riddim would be shared, but there are rumors that Kelly has claimed as much as 45% of the rights to the riddim.

Here are the two riddims in question, made available by for the sake of comparison —

Showtime vs. Unfinished Business Riddims

To my ears, the only thing the two riddims have in common is the admittedly obvious and distinctive “hey” sample. I can’t recall any examples right now, but I don’t think Unfinished Business is the first riddim to re-use that particular sound. I wonder whether Kelly was even the first to use it — or where he sampled it from. As central and important as that little sample is, asking for 45% of the rights seems far too greedy, and dangerous.

The layers of hypocrisy run deep on this one. Plenty of Kelly’s riddims are themselves re-licks or employ recognizable (and presumably unauthorized) samples. The Eighty-Five riddim — which underpinned Cham’s huge hit “Ghetto Story” — quite clearly versions (and samples) the Sleng Teng. Another of Kelly’s famous productions, the Playground riddim, centrally employs a sample from the Roots’ “Section.” [Oops: the Playground riddim was actually produced by Jeremy Harding, who I often confuse with Kelly for some reason.] And the Joyride riddim is audibly indebted — check that offbeat organ stab — to the riddim underlying, among others, Conroy Smith’s 1988 hit “Dangerous” (which, notably, is the first track in this bit of “Joyride” juggling posted to YouTube, showing how listeners/selectors connect Kelly’s riddim to the earlier production by Hyman “Jah Life” Right). [Hmmm: Gabriel rightly points out in the comments that the Jah Life version of “Dangerous” was produced later — 1996 it turns out — and hence is a re-lick of Joyride rather than vice versa, so I guess I will have to temper my criticisms here somewhat. Still, the overall thrust of my argument remains the same.] Indeed, it’s a wonder that Kelly hasn’t yet sued Christopher Birch over the similarities between Baddaz and Joyride, but maybe that’s because Baddaz has yet to produce equivalent hits to Mavado’s “So Special” and Serani’s “Playing Games.” So, the question for the suddenly litigious Mr.Kelly is: are you willing to give up similarly large chunks of the rights to your riddims to — among others, no doubt — King Jammy, the Roots, and Jah Life?

Hope so. Because if people start litigating around re-licks like this, the whole riddim system — which has for decades propelled the most prolific music industry in the world — is in danger of collapsing in on itself.

As I’ve argued (along with Peter Manuel), the riddim method has long operated as though rocksteady and reggae recordings were a creative commons from which musicians draw (relatively) freely. The adoption of international/US copyright law by Jamaica in the 1990s has thrown a wrench into what was an otherwise pretty organic cultural system (sure, it has its flaws, such as exploitative producers taking credit from day-laborer musicians, but that’s another issue; producers still get the spoils under current copyright).

Responses to riddim re-licking used to be more creative. As I wrote back in 2005, referring to David Katz’s oral history of reggae during the lawsuit between Scientist and Greensleeves —

perhaps it was better when these things, in lieu of any kind of laws in place or in practice, were simply settled musically. with no legal recourse available, sugar minott and coxsone dodd would simply stay one step ahead of the competition [note: for those unaware of the “ethnic” dynamic in jamaica, think of yellowman’s “mr.chin” as a kindler, gentler, perhaps more insidious “black korea”; which is to say, there’s a similiar dynamic happening there, but accented differently; note also, however, that minott dismisses such attitudes as immature–an important qualification]:

Though the advent of rockers stole the fire from Bunny Lee’s flying cymbal, the Revolutionaries’ habit of adapting Studio One rhythms naturally caused most offence at Brentford Road, particularly after many of Coxsone’s artists defected to Channel One. Coxsone’s greatest weapon in the war of styles turned out to be Sugar Minott, a man with his ear constantly on the pulse of Jamaica’s dancehall scene. ‘It was a living war with Channel One,’ laughs Minott. ‘They used to call me “Coxsone’s Boy.” When they made “I Need a Roof” for Channel One, I immediately knew what it was, because I’m an expert in music and rhythm [i.e., riddims] from [when] I was a kid. So I went to Coxsone and said, “Look, it’s “Mean Girl.” We went to buy a flask of rum, so I was hyped up, did over “I Need A Roof.” Me and Tabby them was friends, but I didn’t care because I was like “Channel One? I hate Chinese.” That was my thing in them times–I was young that way: “I’m not singing for no Chinese.” There was a next one called “Woman Is Like A Shadow.” Coxsone called me and said, “I want you to sing this music, listen that tune,” so I thought it was an old song from some old group that never came out and he wanted me to do it over, but I didn’t know it was a Meditations song that never even came out yet. I did over “Woman Is Like A Shadow” and it came out before the original, because the original used to play on the sound. When my version drop in, the whole of Baktu was looking for me–it was a war with Channel One. Every time they try to do a Coxsone song I go and tell him, so they came and fling bottle and stone to mash Coxsone’s studio. They had the force–everybody was following the Chinese. Somehow Coxsone and Joe Joe got in some fight and that was that.’ Perhaps unsurprisingly, Joseph Hoo-Kim contests Sugar’s version of events. (p.227)

In short, lawsuits such as this one threaten the very vitality of Jamaican popular music. I hope Dave Kelly, who himself stands on the shoulders of giants, reconsiders. And I would urge the Jamaican government to reshape their IP laws in a manner that attends to distinctive local creative processes.