We are living in historic times. No, I’m not talking about the presidential election or even the pandemic. I’m referring to the experience of watching music’s greatest legends go head-to-head in what have become epic showdowns – The Battle of Soul between Gladys Knight and Patti LaBelle; the Battle for the “Dirty South” between Ludacris and Nelly; the Battle for The Boy when Brandy and Monica went toe-to-toe; and just last night, in the Battle for Atlanta when Gucci Mane and Jeezy went head-to-head. Like so many others, I tuned in early with anticipation, eyeing the empty regal-like chairs in the infamous Magic City. Would they or wouldn’t they? And then Gucci kicked things off with “Round 1.”
The beef between Gucci and Jeezy has been a slow burn spanning 15 years. It’s a story that we are all very familiar with, captivating the headlines with the likes of a murder trial, public disses, club brawls, and bounties. For those who weren’t paying attention in the early aughts, the real battle began in 2005 over who owned the rights to their first collaboration, “Icy.” So when Gucci dropped “Icy” before Jeezy could release it on his debut album, the implications were huge.
Jeezy, from then on, would have no rights to how “Icy” could and would be used. He lost all control over a song that he thought was his own. These kinds of disputes can run the gamut, from who’s credited on the song and therefore is entitled to royalties to who owns the master recordings, or “masters,” as they are more commonly known. Owning your own masters is the holy grail of the music business.
In the battle for fairness and economic justice, it’s not about which hit made it to Number 1 (“Icy” made it to number 5), but rather who owns the rights and who can cash in. And yet so few artists actually own their own masters. Oftentimes, it’s the record label that owns the masters and not the artists. These arrangements are built into contracts from the very beginning, which can be hard to pass up for new and up-and-coming artists. Some artists may be listed as the songwriter, which is a step in the right direction, as it affords artists the publishing rights to their songs. But it’s a small step.
In 2008, a fire broke out in the backlot of Universal Studios, where Universal Music Group’s music vault was housed. That day, the music world lost some of the most valuable masters from music greats, such as Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and so many more. As the NYT noted, record companies are in the storage business. Most masters are stowed away only to collect dust and money for rich record companies. While artists and their family estates have to hope that record companies will carefully guard their legacies.
But back to the epic battle (event Stacey Abrams made a cameo!). At one contentious moment (Round 16), Gucci takes a swipe at Jeezy’s demurred look, boasting that his outfit cost “ten bands.” Jeezy responds that he “owns over half of Atlanta,” referring to his various real estate investments. But in Round 21, Gucci hit back playing “I Get The Bag” rapping “A trapper, baby/I rap but I own all my masters, baby”. And at the end of the day, as Prince famously said “If you don’t own your masters, your master owns you.”