LOS ANGELES (CN) – Rapper Jay-Z and producer Timbaland took the stand in court Wednesday to defend against claims that they failed to clear rights to use the decades-old Egyptian song “Khosara, Khosara” in their hit “Big Pimpin’.”
Dressed in a black suit and tie and white shirt, the 45-year-old rapper and entrepreneur covered lots of ground during his testimony – talking through his life and career, his creative process and the origins of “Big Pimpin'” – the 2000 hit at the center of the legal dispute.
Producer Timbaland, 43, real name Timothy Mosley, was also present in court dressed in a white button-up shirt.
In 2007, Egyptian Osama Ahmed Fahmy claimed Jay-Z did not ask for permission when he sampled the composition “Khosara, Khosara” written by Fahmy’s uncle Baligh Hamdi. His lawsuit sought damages for violation of federal copyright laws.
The length of the litigation and what Jay-Z, real name Shawn Carter, knew and when he knew it were the focus of much of attorney Peter Ross’ examination on Wednesday morning and afternoon.
Ross asked Jay-Z, over the objections from the rapper’s attorney Andrew Bart, if he had been “lax” and “reckless” in making sure that he had the rights to music he sampled.
Jay-Z admitted at his deposition last year that he did not know who had composed “Khosara, Khosara,” even though the lawsuit was seven years old.
“Timbaland is known for not using samples,” Jay-Z said by way of explanation in court, admitting that he left it to other people to clear rights.
“That’s not what I do; I make music,” the rapper said, adding that he did not know there was a sample in the song when he recorded it.
During a tense exchange, Ross asked Jay-Z how many times he had performed the song live.
“I have no idea how many concerts I did with or without it,” Jay-Z said. “I don’t keep track.”
Ross also asked the rapper if he would be concerned if he had learned that someone had bootlegged or used his music without permission.
“Yeah, I wouldn’t like that,” Jay-Z said.
Though the rapper generally kept his answers short and to the point, he expounded a little when Ross asked him if he agreed that the lyrics to “Big Pimpin'” were sexually explicit or vulgar.
“It depends on your definition of vulgar,” Jay-Z said. “Art can be vulgar. Photography can be vulgar. The statue of David can be vulgar.”
Jay-Z also gave a glimpse into the making of “Big Pimpin,'” a track from his 1999 album “Vol. 3… Life and Times of S. Carter.” Other versions of the track appear on the albums “Jay-Z Unplugged,” a Jay-Z and Linkin Park mash-up album, the “Fade to Black” documentary and “Jay-Z Hits Vol. 1.”
The rapper said he had been teasing producer Timbaland when they sat down to make the track, joking that he had not come up with anything good lately.
“We challenge each other. He tells me his beats are better than my raps. I tell him that my raps are better than his beats,” Jay-Z said to laughter from Timbaland and the audience in the gallery. “It’s an ongoing battle that I keep winning.”
Bart probed Jay-Z about his career which, in addition to success as an executive producer and rapper, includes other business interests – a clothing line, label, sports agency, restaurants, clubs and his music streaming service, Tidal.
Jay-Z noted that after his demo was rejected by the major labels he had decided to kickstart his career by founding Roc-A-Fella Records and selling his recordings from the trunk of a car. The rapper said that eventually he honed his craft to a point where he no longer had to write down his lyrics in notebooks.
“My whole career making music, I didn’t write anything down. I would just go into the booth and record the music,” he said.
The rapper said that his lyrics were influenced by his real life experiences. But inspiration has also come from Richard Pryor, blaxploitation movies, Quentin Tarantino, the movie “Scarface” and the artist Michel Basquiat, Jay-Z told the eight members of the jury.
He also lauded Timbaland, his co-defendant in the case.
“He’s a genius,” Jay-Z said. “In any genre of music, he’s considered one of the best producers of all time.”
Timbaland also gave some insight into the making of “Big Pimpin'” when he took the stand as a witness in the afternoon.
He said that contrary to Fahmy’s lawsuit, he had laid down the “Khosara, Khosara” sample on top of a beat that he had already created, after finding the song on a CD he says was marked “license free.”
Fahmy’s lawyer Keith Wesley pressed him on whether the distinctive Arabic flute melody in “Khosara, Khosara” and “Big Pimpin'” was the most important element of the track.
“It was cool. It wasn’t the thing that made the track,” said Timbaland. “The beat always makes the track.”
Timbaland said he only learned that the track “Khosara, Khosara” was copyrighted when music company EMI claimed ownership of the song and asked for $100,000 to clear it.
“I said okay, let’s pay the 100 grand and we are free and clear,” Timbaland said.
Timbaland’s attorney Christine Lepera asked Timbaland to demonstrate the creative process behind the making of “Big Pimpin'” on an Ensoniq ASR-10 sampling keyboard, which Timbaland said he had used his whole career. Timbaland explained that he typically starts a song by beatboxing into a microphone and sampling it. He will then add up to five more elements including bass, drums and samples.
Timbaland got as far as sampling some beatboxing before Lepera asked the world-renowned producer to cut the demonstration short because of technical difficulties.
She asked him how reacted when he learned that Fahmy had decided to sue him.
“I didn’t have a reaction. I was like, ‘So who did I pay 100 grand to?'” Timbaland said.
The copyright for “Khosara, Khosara” is split between Hamdi’s family members. In the mid-2000s, Fahmy authorized a third party named Ahab Nafal Joseph to file claims on behalf his relatives.
But the claims were thrown out of court because Nafal was a nonexclusive licensee. Fahmy’s suit followed.
The jury trial in U.S. District Judge Christina Snyder’s courtroom is scheduled to last two weeks. The trial began Tuesday with opening arguments. During a break on Wednesday, Ross declined to specify how much his client is seeking in damages.
Because Fahmy resides in Egypt he will not appear in person as a witness. Instead, the jury will hear his video testimony, Snyder said.
The story was updated to include Timbaland’s testimony on Wednesday afternoon.
The story was updated to reflect the preferred spelling of the songwriter’s name, which is incorrectly spelled as “Hamdy” in court documents.
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