By Andre Gee
Taylor Swift tried to buy back pre-2018 masters from her old label Big Machine Label Group throughout the 2010s, before powerhouse manager Scooter Braun stepped in, bought the label, and sold the masters for $300 million. She called Braun and Big Machine owner Scott Borchetta “bullies” in a Tumblr post, framing the situation as her “worst-case scenario.”
“Essentially, my musical legacy is about to lie in the hands of someone who tried to dismantle it,” she said in the post. But then she pulled an unorthodox move to rewrite history: she re-recorded those songs and urged her fans to listen to those instead of her original releases.
The move was credited at the time “as a shrewd power play that could earn her millions.” It’s unclear how much she’s grossed from streams of her re-recorded songs, but it’s been proven that re-recording allows veteran acts to reclaim their work. Acts like Def Leppard, Jojo, and Frank Sinatra have all re-recorded old work (with Sinatra getting a Grammy for re-recording his old hits). Prince once threatened to re-record his entire catalog.
This method can work in the hip-hop space, too. Artists like Young MC and DMX have re-recorded their old music for compilation projects. Recently, Cam’ron divulged that he’s re-recording some of his old tracks, and his business partner Jacob York says that some of them will be NFTs that they hope to make a fortune on. As Young MC tells Complex, his motivation for re-recording tracks was very simple: “Master ownership, copyright ownership, and control over it.”
Some artists are re-recording their old work to create new versions of old projects, while some have redone their hits for compilations. But no matter the intent, the rewards are the same: re-recording allows a rapper like Young MC to re-release a classic song and gross the lion’s share of proceeds from it. They control licensing of the new masters, allowing them to cut the label’s traditional share when the re-record is used for commercials, TV, and movies. In theory, it’s a clever way to circumvent the often unfair business model of major labels.
But there are obstacles in the way of a successful re-record, from the possibility that an artist’s voice may not sound the same to the expensive prospect of re-clearing samples. And those are headaches that don’t even start until the re-record window is open, which can vary according to lawyer Brian Caplan, an entertainment industry litigator for 33 years.
“The re-recording restriction can be anywhere between three years—and I’ve seen them as much as seven years—but three to five years is normal,” he informs. “The clock doesn’t start running until you end your relationship with your first label.”
Technically, anyone other than the artist can remake a song at any time, hence the success of cover songs like Alien Ant Farm’s “Smooth Criminal” and satire acts like Weird Al Yankovic. Caplan notes that as long as the new song’s melody and lyrics are the same, it’s all fair game—though the original songwriter still gets royalties for the cover. Caplan says all a remixer has to do is get a compulsory license from whoever owns the original song’s copyright. They would just have to “send a form in to the music publisher giving them advance notice that you plan on doing the rerecord of the song.”
“As soon as I found that I had any opportunity to re-record a master, and to make a version of something without a sample, I would do it. Just so that in the long-term, I’m not hamstrung by a previous deal that I was signing when I didn’t have the assets.” – Young MC
The original artist must wait until the restriction is lifted, however, in order to “safeguard the record label against competition from its own artists,” according to Caplan. The restriction protects a label from spending marketing money to make a song well-known, then having an artist immediately re-record a version of it that grosses them all the money.
[Labels] figure if that period of time is three to five years after you’ve left the label, generally speaking, you’re not going to be in a huge amount of competition anymore,” Caplan says. “For the average artist, that record would have already seen its heyday and not be subject to huge sales going forward.”
That’s true for the average artist. But as an industry entrepreneur (and business partner of Cam’ron) Jacob York recalls, some artists have capitalized off of extraordinary circumstances.
In the mid-2000s he was working with Atlanta-based indie label Big Cat Records and found himself wrangling with Warner Bros about the rights to Gucci Mane’s music. He recalls getting a call from Jimmy Henchman, who told him that he and Warner were ready to sign the then-rising Atlanta rapper and “challenge you on your contract.”
He says Jimmy told him, “Your re-record clause is not limiting us from re-recording all of the masters you have over there and putting it back out.” Gucci’s re-recording restriction only lasted for a year, allowing him the opportunity to quickly re-record anything he had done with Big Cat—including “Freaky Gurl,” one of his first big singles.
“So that’s what made me go, ‘Let me look at this re-record thing,’” York says. “I’ve been studying it ever since.”
He then sat on the idea until around 2020, when he informed Cam’ron about his ability to re-record. And now the iconic rapper isn’t just going to reclaim hits like “Oh Boy;” he’s going to take them into the future by making some of the songs NFTs. York says that some of the Cam’ron re-records will be released through York’s NFT company Electric Token.
“The NFT says that the artists own these masters in perpetuity,” York explains. “And then, as it’s moving around the blockchain and all around the world, these masters are still owned by the original artists. And if it’s [repeatedly traded], the artist still makes a percentage of it in perpetuity.”
York is excited about the prospect of NFTs allowing artists not just to make money off of their music, but their intellectual property. He noted the multi-million dollar sales of major record labels, and how “hip-hop and Black music played a huge part” in the sales, but no artists are selling their IP “for a billion or getting investors to put billions into their IPs.” He reflected that artists are in a position where “they’re having to go outside of music and leverage the IPs on other things to make money.”
In his eyes, that “revolutionary” chance for artists to become wealthy from their music is coming via NFTs. “There’s a couple of things that’s coming that’s going to give artists the ability to do so much with blockchain,” he says. “And that’s going to decentralize the entire control that people at these institutions have on IPs of artists. [Artists] just have to be willing to do it.”
York is looking to work with acts of all ages on Electric Token, and believes that NFT music companies are a potential “billion dollar” concept. But as a self-described artist advocate, he’s all for artists re-recording their material even without the intent to turn them into NFTs.
“Imagine if De La Soul is like, ‘Fuck you, Tommy Boy, we’re going to re-record all those masters,’” he says. “Imagine if Drake wakes up and says, ‘Hey, listen, man, I think I’m just going to re-record all those masters.’ [...] What’s going to happen is a lot of the labels are going to get scared and they’re going to run to these artists and say, ‘Why waste your money doing that? Here, let me give you a million dollars, so we can have another seven years.’”
There haven’t been many major modern rappers with that foresight yet. But Young MC says his studies as an economics major made him proactive about re-recording. He jokes that he “probably bugs his lawyers and accountants too much” about ways he can capitalize off of his catalog. He tells Complex, ”When I’m in a deal with somebody, I’m going to do my best for them. But once the deal is over and the material is sitting there, they’re not exploiting it.”
The “Bust A Move” MC released B-Sides Demos & Remixes in 2008, a 14-track project that he says was a product of him “digitizing all the stuff that I wanted to get out to people and being able to capitalize on it.”
”As soon as I found that I had any opportunity to re-record a master, to make a version of something without a sample, I would do it,” he noted. “Just so that in the long-term, I’m not hamstrung by a previous deal that I was signing when I didn’t have the assets.”
He says that “ever since 2002, I’ve owned all my stuff,” and plans to re-record more of his work from the late ’90s and early 2000s. But as he explains, remaking some of his work has drawbacks, including the necessity of re-clearing a sample.
“If you talk about my big records, there’s samples all in them. So what do I do?” he says. “You can’t really re-sample because then, can you imagine going back and saying, ‘Okay, I want to use this now. How much are you going to charge me?’”
The cost of re-clearing a sample can be a challenging obstacle. Caplan explains that artists re-recording songs with sampled beats need to retain a compulsory license from the label, as well as a sample license from the publishing company that “owns the rights and the underlying composition” of the sampled record.
York says that Cam’ron plans to re-clear the samples from his previous hits, but concedes that he’s in a more favorable financial position than the average 45-year-old rap vet: “[Cam’ron’s] been in the business of being independent so long that he has the ability to do certain things that artists don’t.”
For most artists, the next best move is to reproduce a song without samples. The digital-only Old School Hip-Hop compilation was crafted by Cleopatra Records in 2012. Perera says he’s a fan of classic hip-hop, and was watching VH1’s 100 Greatest Hip-Hop Songs when he had an epiphany: “Instead of taking on all these groups for new albums, if I pay them enough to motivate them, I can get one or two songs out of them.” The 40-track project contains re-records of classic records from across eras, including a re-record of DMX’s “Party Up” classic.
Cleopatra owner Brian Perera sought to get around the sample issues that arose on the compilation by having instrumentalists replay everything. “We work with great players that are actually playing these instruments from scratch and recreating it,” he says, adding that they were able to get “pretty close.” He says, for instance, on Tone Loc’s “Wild Thing” re-record, “we went in and created the backing track to sound exactly like the original did with the [Eddie Van Halen] samples.”
According to Perera, almost all the artists he reached out to were receptive because of “a better royalty rate” (though MC Hammer was “was very adamant about not re-recording”).
Cleopatra has released several re-record projects with rappers since then, including a 2014 Greatest Hits album with DMX, which consisted of 12 re-records and two remixes. Cleopatra Records actually released “X Moves,” a rock-funk-rap fusion featuring Boosty Collins, on the day of X’s hospitalization (before news broke). Perera has a lengthy relationship with X, noting, “I actually signed DMX 13 years ago. He was having a little bit of trouble at the time. We signed the deal while he was still incarcerated, and worked out a deal where once he was released that [he would do the re-records].
In theory, a DMX greatest hits project would be a goldmine, but reviews of the project are mixed on Amazon, with one verified purchaser commenting: “DMX fan but don’t like his originals remixed like this! Horrible.” While Taylor Swift is at an age where she can still mimic the vocals from her teens and early 20s, older artists will have challenges. The wear on vocal chords from years of recording, concerts, and other aspects of the rap star lifestyle can make it difficult for a rapper in their 30s or 40s to replicate their voice from their early 20s.
“A lot of artists don’t sing exactly the same as they used to,” Perera admits. “Sometimes if we did a session with an artist, the vocals weren’t as great as they could have been, and maybe they didn’t spend enough time on it.”
Young MC divulges that he’d never be able to recreate the vocals of the original “Bust A Move” for a surprising reason.
“Within a year of [recording] ‘Bust A Move,’ I had my tonsils removed,” he says. “So there was a strain on my voice that didn’t make me sound like I would normally sound at that age. So [the idea of] me re-recording. I mean, I guess I can imitate myself. But even when I do it live, I don’t sound like the record.”
The rap vet would also have to contend with the “issue” of his original recording being so beloved. “The original version of that song is what my lawyer calls evergreen,” he says. “It out-lasted my second single, third single, second album, third album. And even beyond that, people would try and remix it. If you look, there’s some huge, really talented, successful remixers that have taken shots at that record. And it just doesn’t take hold. There’s no long-term listenership except for the original version.”
It can be a tall ask to expect fans to play a new version of a song that their ears have become accustomed to after playing it for decades. Many people listen to classics for comfort and familiarity, but noticeable vocal changes (or the extreme departure of a live replaying of a sample) could make fans decide to stick with the original. Cleopatra Records owner Perera acknowledges that reality, but contends that fans “should keep an open mind” and reminds that “the artist gets a better royalty rate” from the re-records. He says that Cleopatra gives artists 50% of earnings whenever their re-records are used in TV, film, or commercials.
Young MC says he’s had success licensing his re-records. He says that “Get Your Boogie On” was used in a cartoon, while “Rollin” was used in the 2008 redux of the Knight Rider TV show and also got playtime at numerous car shows.
He’s making money from his re-records, and says he’s also looking forward to taking advantage of the 35-year copyright reversion clause on some of his records. The clause, also known as the 35-year law “provides musicians and songwriters an opportunity to regain ownership of works that they transferred to outside entities” such as labels.
“That’s the big one,” Young MC says. “You’re literally talking about a community of urban artists, 35 years removed from their hits. So there’s a little bit of luck involved in that. Just having a hit record that’s relevant, or that’s worth something, 35 years after. And living and being useful enough to take advantage of it.”
As the past six months alone have shown, too many rap veterans are in dire straits. York, Cam’on, Young MC, and Perera believe that the least artists deserve is equitable ownership of their own creations. Re-recording offers them a chance to try to get some of that back. There are sample clearance and nostalgia hurdles to consider, but earning something is better than nothing.
“You’ve got rap artists that are still in their 50s like, ‘I’m dead broke,’ with no ownership,” York laments. “These rock artists are older than rap artists, [who are] broke at 50 [while] rock artists are still making millions. There’s something a little racist about that.”
York firmly believes in the power of re-recording, and believes younger artists and dealmakers should be more cognizant of the re-record clause and take advantage of it after the window is up—if not try to shorten the length of the term in future deals. He adds that labels “are really doing meetings trying to figure this out” contractually.
“Within the industry right now, it’s whispered every day,” he says. “I’m still tied into a lot of major labels. So they’re really looking at contracts and looking at provisions and trying to protect themselves. Because, [with] rap being 52% of the market, if these guys start reducing their re-record clauses to a year, the labels are in trouble.”