I’ve written a lot here about the “riddim method,” a cheeky term suggested by my co-author Peter Manuel to describe a well-worn practice (and in the case of our article, a distinctly Jamaican version of it). We jest, but we’re serious. In short, what we try to explain is an approach to musical materials as shared/public/communal resources which people feel a certain license to riff on, reinvent, rearrange, remix — an approach sharpened and modernized in some special ways in the soundsystem<->studio industry-ecology of L20C Kingston, and an approach long gone global via reggae’s own migrations not to mention as absorbed and additionally broadcast by hip-hop, house, jungle, garage, grime, you name it.
But just because people participate in riddim/remix culture doesn’t mean they aren’t quick to turn the screws of copyright when it suits them. As Peter and I note in our article and as Larisa’s thesis will no doubt illuminate in lots of nuanced detail, plenty of reggae artists, musicians, and producers have sued each other over the years over allegedly unauthorized examples of plagiarism or infringement or tiefing.
Take Nando Boom, for instance, one of the Panamanian pioneers of dancehall reggaespañol. My co-editor-y-compi, Raquel, told me many months ago that Sñr Boom was suing Don Omar (as well as Wisin y Yandel and their producers) for the unauthorized use of elements from his “Enfermo de Amor” in their relatively successful single, “MySpace” (a song initially discussed here way back when). So thanks to Raq for putting it on my radar, though I’ve been steadily wondering — even while sitting on a draft of this post — what’s been happening with the suit. In that regard, I gotta thank my tweep Tito for letting me know yesterday that the case was recently settled, at least between Nando Boom and Don Omar.
Indeed, it apparently was announced earlier this month that Sñr Boom was withdrawing “counterfeit charges” against Don Omar and would accept his $100k offer as “bastante” despite having turned up his nose at it for about a year and a half (he initially demanded a sum in the millions and is still waiting on W&Y to “square up”).
When I discussed “MySpace” back in June 2007, what I appreciated about it was the brief moments when Don Omar performs a retro style reggae/ton flow —
We hear a number of signposts of the new reggaeton — state-of-the-art synths, emotive harmonic progression, dembow loops — but we also hear a nostalgia for “old school” stylee in a few retro interludes (e.g., around 1:10, 2:10), complete with throw-back, flip-tongue rapping by Don Omar over a crunchy, skanking, digi-reggae loop (though I can’t quite place it) –
Jace was quick to note that the riddim itself seemed to be a version of “Night Nurse,” and about that he was right. What neither of us caught at the time was that Omar was actually directly alluding to — really, re-performing — a central phrase from Nando Boom’s own version of “Night Nurse” (and it’s worth noting that a good number of Boom’s songs, including his own big hits, have been covers of Jamaican dancehall recordings):
While taking more departures than Arzu’s siempre fiel (save for Spanish) “Amor” — including, of course, the very melody / flow and lyrics that Don Omar recites — Nando Boom’s song is itself quite audibly a version of Gregory Isaac’s rubadub classic, employing the Night Nurse riddim as well as some of Isaac’s vocal melodies (and, yeah, underlying medical conceit). Doing what Omar does in “MySpace” or what Nando does on “Enfermo” — i.e., inserting a musical mnemonic, invoking a familiar phrase — is not merely commonplace but arguably central to the poetics of reggae and its many musical kin. (Can I get a zunguzungung?)
Call it quotation, homage, allusion — we have lots of words for this sort of thing (including, I’m afraid, “interpolation,” which is an attempt to bend language & culture to the demands of commerce & its legal armature). So while there’s no disputing that Don Omar has, in a word, “copied” something from Nando Boom, there’s no way that Sñr Boom himself can avoid the same charge on the very song for which he is claiming ownership. (Or just about any other song in his “catalog,” to risk reifying another recording industry concept.)
Tego Calderon noted the inherent irony of the case a while back:
To his credit, Omar has essentially gone the genteel route, proclaiming himself a “caballero” all along, apologizing throughout, offering praise and respect for Nando, and offering $100k in recompense. Actually, it’s not clear how much they eventually settled for. Nando Boom will only say it’s “bastante”; he won’t specify p/q “hay secuestradores” (kidnappers).
Now, I’m not saying that Sñr Boom didn’t pay some serious dues. I feel too that, in some sense — indeed, in the same sense that applies to the pioneers of hip-hop who never got to profit from its eventual global commercial triumph — dude deserves some “reggaeton money,” if you know what I’m saying. Despite his seminal contributions to the genre, Nando Boom never made the kind of cheese that these guys have. And maybe that’s what Don Omar’s magnanimous settlement is nodding to. Still, I don’t know about shaking down random
infringers participants in riddim/remix/REGGAE culture.
Among other things, it just adds to bad precedent — and I don’t mean actual legal precedent, since this never went to court, and I’m not really sure about the wider implications of a Panamanian ruling about reggae copyright infringement (except that it could be bad for a lot of Panamanian reggae artists) — I’m talking about how bad faith behavior can have chilling effects on an immense, international, interlocked system of peer-to-peer cultural norms.
I hope Wisin y Yandel and the producers of the song continue to stand their ground. Or maybe just break dude off with a micro-writing credit or something, if that’s what he’s getting at. That seems fair enough, especially if it can be dialed down to the degree to which his so-called “property” animates the song — good luck trying to calculate that, folks.
I can understand if the bad blood / press might have itself felt like bastante to Omar, but I still can’t believe he didn’t go to court over this. Would it really have cost him $100k in lawyers’ fees? (Did they really make that kinda dough with “MySpace”?) Then again, given that the Panamanian courts had apparently granted Nando Boom’s request to arrest Don Omar and Wisin y Yandel should they ever come to Panama (see last para here), who knows whether he could have beaten the charge. In a US trial, I think he might be able to make a decent argument, despite that I don’t have great faith in this country’s legal system when it comes to policing musical practice. But when the issue becomes a question of national patrimony (even if that so-called patrimony is also Jamaican), tensions can really flare.
As I’ve been noting for a while, this sort of geographical enmity / argument among reggaeton’s “stakeholders” (i.e., would-be stockholders) — in particular between Panama and Puerto Rico — animates a great deal of online discourse about reggaeton, and my chapter in the reggaeton book was an attempt to speak to and sort out the various claims. Ultimately, I try to show the various and distinctive ways that each node in the network — Jamaica, Panama, Puerto Rico, New York — have done their part to shape what we now call reggaeton. Clearly, not enough people have read it ;)
Nearly every blogpost, news article, and vaguely related YouTube video have played host to strongly jingoistic arguments about who is owed what in this case. See, for example, the comments from one particularly UNHINGED fellow on that blogpost about Tego pointing out Boom’s hypocrisy —
CARLITO EL PANAMENO is practically calling for his gente to receive reparations from reggaeton. But shouldn’t that open the floodgates of such claims? Should reggae and hip-hop artists, in turn, shake down their legion interpreters in Panama and Puerto Rico alike? I mean, if that’s the game, better be prepared to play by those rules. If it’s true that, as is alleged, Hector El Father decided to drop a dime on Omar + W&Y, I wonder whether Nando Boom should worry about someone making a call to the Cool Ruler.