Kendrick Lamar‘s lawyers are surely already on the case, but he’d better get his checkbook ready. As TMZ pointed out earlier today, the good kid, m.A.A.d city MC is facing a lawsuit demanding at least $1 million over “Rigamortis,” a breakout track from his 2011 album, Section.80. Ultimately, it’s Lamar’s virtuoso rapping that makes this track such a treat. At the same time, though, the two jazz vets filing the suit, Eric Reed and Willie Jones III, offer a fairly damning argument that their 2010 track “The Thorn” became the basis of “Rigamortis” without their permission.
In the July 2 lawsuit, which you can read in full below, Reed and Jones allege that Willie B, one of the track’s producers and a nephew of trumpeter Clifford Brown, contacted Reed a few months after Section.80‘s release, asking via Facebook: “I need to ask you a question about sampling ..Like if I were to sample your work for a hip hop record.. What would your feelings be about that?” Reed claims he never gave consent.
Perhaps most devastatingly, the plaintiffs also point to a video where Brown demonstrates making the song from a track identified on a computer monitor as Willie Jones III’s “The Thorn.” The video description reads, “Willie B. plays the original sample of “Rigamortus” and shows the session in fruityloops. #HiiiPoWeR.” The video, uploaded by Brown in September 2011, was removed from YouTube during the writing of this post.
For what it’s worth, Reed and Jones also cite Pharrell Williams praising “Rigamortis” (also stylized “Rigamortus”) and saying “I LOVE — that jazz sh*t.” And they point out Lady Gaga tweeted with the hashtag “#rigamortis” in 2011 before seeing Lamar at Pitchfork Music Festival.
The evidence in the complaint, particularly the removed video, certainly suggests Lamar’s track uses copyrighted material without permission. Where Reed and Jones are on weaker ground, though, at least from the view of a music listener, is when they argue that “‘The Thorn’ isn’t merely part of ‘Rigamortis’ … IT IS ‘Rigamortis.’” There may be rappers who are known for the hooks they’ve sampled, but the lyricism-driven Lamar isn’t one. There’s more to “Rigamortis” than its instrumental, and it’s up to the courts to decide how much more.
A summons for the defendants in the case, including Lamar, was issued on June 17. The presiding judge is Robert Dow in federal court in Chicago.
See a still from the since-removed “The Origin of ‘Rigamortus’” video below, browse the full lawsuit, and scroll down to compare both songs.