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Wednesday, May 29, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Hip-Hop Copyright Spat Over ‘Made in America’

MANHATTAN (CN) - In an ironic form of poetic justice, a Kanye West and Jay-Z song titled "Made in America" has inspired a federal copyright lawsuit by a self-described "humble musician of modest means."

Joel Mac, the humble street artist, filed the federal complaint Tuesday against the hip-hop icons, rapper Frank Ocean, producers Mike Dean and Shama Joseph, and labels Roc-a-Fella Records and Def Jam Music.

Short for McDonald, Mac claims that he recorded the inspiration for Kanye and Jay-Z's song in his apartment in 2008. The "powerful and reflective" tune got released on iTunes the next year and hit YouTube in 2010, his lawyers at LoPrestie & O'Reilly say.

Saving his proverbial pennies, Joel Mac personally pressed CD copies of his album and hawked them in front of plush Mercer Hotel in SoHo, according to his lawsuit.

"After long hours on that corner, he became known among many for his music, including guests at the Mercer Hotel," the complaint states.

That is where Kanye West, Jay-Z, Frank Ocean and others allegedly heard his work when they rented more than a dozen rooms at the hotel to work on the album "Watch the Throne" between 2010 and 2010, Mac alleges.

"In fact, a significant part of the 'Watch the Throne' album was recorded at the Mercer Hotel, where the individual defendants lived and worked," the complaint states.

Mac even claims that he sold an album to Kanye's frequent collaborator Mike Dean there, and that the two chatted "almost on a daily basis."

When "Watch the Throne" dropped on Aug. 8, 2011, the 11th track also bore the title "Made in America," and the opening lines of both songs paid homage to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

The album tour reportedly grossed $48.3 million, and its 11th track inspired a "Made in America" tour and documentary.

Throwing Kanye's words back at him, Joel Mac quoted the artist telling MTV about the importance of "biting" in hip-hop culture nearly a decade ago.

"In hip-hop we always talk about, you know, 'You bitin'' 'You bitin' my stack,'" Kanye said in the video. "But hip-hop itself is based off of bitin'. It's based on taking segments of people's music, and then taking something that someone said on the street, and taking this pattern right here, and then taking this."

Although the block quote of the complaint cuts off there, a video of the interview on YouTube shows Kanye adding: "We'll let the lawyers clean up the mess, but we need to be creative."

Mac's attorney Anthony LoPresti says Kanye was biting the "compositional, rhythmic and lyrical elements" of his client's song.

Other than the references to King, Malcolm X and the title, the similarities have been harder for other listeners to spot.

Hecklers have swarmed the comment section of Mac's YouTube page jeering the lawsuit.

"LOL Bruh, you're about to be responsible for lawyer fees for no reason," one wrote.

"Frivolous lawsuits... Made In Ameeeeerica," another snarked.

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