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Dr Luke facing trial over Price Tag drums

By | Published on Monday 10 August 2015

Dr Luke

Well, here’s a thing. Producer Dr Luke is facing court over the use of a breakbeat in Jessie J’s ‘Price Tag’. If successful, the case could have serious implications for thousands of other artists and producers.

A breakbeat, if you’re not sure, is a portion of a percussion track played solo without other instruments. These have long been popular with producers because they can be sampled and looped to create new drum parts. Most famous is the ‘Amen Break’, taken from 1969 track ‘Amen, Brother’ by The Winstons, which has featured in thousands of tracks. There is some controversy around this, as these samples are rarely cleared.

Dr Luke is being sued over the alleged use of another popular breakbeat, taken from ‘Zimba Ku’ by Blackheat, according to the Hollywood Reporter. New Old Music Group, which is owned by the writer of the 1975 track, Lenny Lee Goldsmith, sued the producer earlier this year claiming similarities between the Zimba Ku break and the drum part in ‘Price Tag’. In a ruling last week, a New York judge refused to dismiss New Old Music’s claim and proposed that the case should be put before a jury.

The producer’s lawyers stated, in a similar way to the defence in the ‘Blurred Lines’ plagiarism case, that the drum part merely contains elements representative of a particular style. However, Judge Ronnie Abrams said: “The court disagrees. While many of the individual elements of ‘Zimba Ku’ may be commonplace, defendants have not shown that, as a matter of law, the combination of those elements in the drum part is so common as to preclude any reasonable inference of copying”.

Abrams added: “A jury may well find that even though it has not been presented with prior art embodying precisely the combination of elements at issue, the similarities between ‘Zimba Ku’ and ‘Price Tag’ nevertheless do not sufficiently raise an inference of copying. At this point in the litigation, however, the court cannot conclude as a matter of law that no reasonable juror could infer, on the current record, that the creators of ‘Price Tag’ copied ‘Zimba Ku'”.

If ‘Price Tag’ is shown to infringe ‘Zimba Ku’, it would be by no means the only track to have done so. Songs by NWA, Eric B & Rakim, DJ Shadow, Chance The Rapper, Biz Markie and many more feature the breakbeat.

Exactly what precedent this could set it not clear. And, of course, Dr Luke could still win the case.

In 2000, photographer Brian Cross brought together three session drummers responsible for many popular hip hop breakbeats, Earl Palmer, Paul Humphrey and James Gadson. The aim had been to photograph them and ask them what they remembered of recording those drum tracks, though for the most part, as busy musicians for hire in the 60s, none had very much recollection of any of them.

It did, however, result in a collaboration between the drummers and turntablists such as Cut Chemist, Madlib, DJ Numark, JRocc, Babu and others, for a collaboration that spawned the short documentary ‘Talking Drums And Whispering Vinyl’ and a live show that was captured on second film ‘Keepintime: A Live Recording’.