Dres On De La, Dilla and Taking On UMG
By Kyle Eustice
The Queens Hip Hop luminary has several plates spinning in the air, including an upcoming J. Dilla documentary, a monthly EP and that $750 million lawsuit against Universal Music Group. Needless to say, the Black Sheep MC has been busy, something that hasn’t changed since he was first introduced on De La Soul’s sophomore album, De La Soul Is Dead, in 1991. For more than 30 years, Dres has carried his passion for Hip-Hop like an Olympian carries the torch. As a member of the Native Tongues collective, he considers De La Soul brothers and was relieved to learn their Tommy Boy Records nightmare is finally behind them.
"That's family,” he tells ROCK THE BELLS. “I just came from performing in Europe with De La.
"I perform with them probably a good, maybe 50 times a year, probably for the last five or 10 years, 10. It’s about time they got something that was rightfully theirs. I'm happy for them, and I want everybody to make sure they update their personal playlists and catalogs. De La Soul is big. They're the Levi's of Hip-Hop.
“Sometimes things like streaming are taken for granted by others, but for them, that was their music not being for sale. To deny the world as much De La as possible is fucking crazy. But I don't know, it seems like so many things are in front of music that matters. It's like, finally. There was just a feeling like cats who had something to say or some artistic integrity, were just having such a hard time just having a platform to be heard.”
But Dres is currently embroiled in a fight of his own. Last week, Dres and fellow Black Sheep alum, Mister Lawgne, announced they were suing Universal Music Group to the tune of $750 million. They claim the label accepted cash and company stock from Spotify as part of a “sweetheart” deal, so the streaming giant would gain access to UMG’s roster of artists. They also allege UMG only counted the cash when it distributed royalty payments.
“There's a couple of things going on with me; we’re just getting back on publishing as well,” he says. “So the lawyer I've been working with, Brian Levinson, he's really a whiz. He used to work for Universal. And us talking about that, we just started having different conversations about different things that exist inside the inner workings of being an artist. It just presented itself and was just something that we felt we should move on. Really, we’re just letting the lawyers do what they do. That's really where I'm at with it.”
With the outcome hanging in the balance, several of Dres’ peers have shown their support on social media, including Diamond D, Hieroglyphics’ A-Plus, Chino XL, The Furious Five’s Scorpio and Buckwild.
To Dres, a “victory” would look like a $750 million judgment that could be dispersed among other former UMG artists who suffered financially as a result of the Spotify snafu.
“A victory would definitely look like that,” he adds. “I'm honored to be the tip of the spear of a reckoning. This is what I've been doing for 30 years. And it's bad enough the deals that we find ourself having accepted. If they’re not doing anything to make that better, then they're not doing the right thing. I'll leave it at that.”
The idea was birthed after Dres was introduced to Dilla’s mother, Maureen “Ma Dukes” Yancey. He explains: “I didn’t have that relationship with Dilla that the rest of the Native Tongues did. I had only met her once in passing. So it was kind of cool to really get to know her. She was telling me about her son and I got a deeper understanding than the average person of who Dilla was. We got cool, her and her husband. They offered me the opportunity to put a project together after they got some rights back under the umbrella of the estate.”
Dres recruited Bun B, Chuck D, Del The Funky Homosapien, Freeway and Sauce Money, to name few, for the initial project, but it soon blossomed into much more.
“I was approached by a company called Versus to shoot a documentary about it,” he says. “We started filming. I went back to Puerto Rico and to Detroit to kick it with Dilla’s childhood friends and have conversations about Dilla. The project itself got green-lit by Paramount+.”
The film, which will also focus on Dres’ life, won’t arrive until the end of the year or early 2024, but it’s another step in getting the pioneers, architects and OGs the spotlight they’ve earned. With Hip-Hop's 50th birthday officially landing in August, there’s no better time than now, although Dres recognizes there’s still a ways to go.
“I still don't feel like it's getting the recognition it deserves, but I don't feel like it's not being heard, either,” he says. “It’s like you'll take what's given, but what's given sometimes doesn't necessarily line up with what the compensation should be, or even what's even best for the culture itself. There's just so much music that we wind up forsaking, be it classic or even current. This current music that we're allowing what's been purchased, so to speak, in literally and relatively to proceed."
“We're at a point now where I hope that we're seeing what the results of that are. The results of that are the culture. They mirror each other. Right now, if you happy with where we are as a people, then you're probably happy with where music is, too.”
Dres is essentially saying Hip-Hop is at a crossroads: we can keep going down the same destructive path or start to rebuild the damage that has cost so many young rappers their lives in recent years.
“The communities reflect that,” he continues. “I hope we finally seeing that, ‘Yo, right now what's going on in the street is all a reflection of the things that we're choosing to allow to be premiered. It's just dumbing down of a community that can't afford to be dumbed down. It’s insane. People are letting paper forsake real fucking value in life. It's tough because we've allowed ourselves to let them make it the rule. I think it became a place where we started the ‘stop hating’ rule. Sometimes hate is just logical sense.”