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Two summers ago, New York–based rapper Jadakiss climbed the charts with his questionable single “Why.” Famously panned by Fox News pop-music critic Bill O’Reilly because of a controversial lyric—“Why did Bush knock down the towers?”—the song received repeated radio play (albeit sometimes stripped of the Bush comment), and the video aired incessantly.
Perhaps no one noticed the heavy rotation more than D.C. hip-hop artist Marcus G. Rhodes: “Turn on the radio, you gotta hear ‘Why,’” says Rhodes, a 31-year-old annuity analyst. “Turn on the tube, what pops up on MTV? ‘Why.’ You gotta see [Jadakiss] walkin’ up the street, T-shirt with ‘Why’ across it, actin’ like he’s this supersocial dude. People come visit me, their phone rings, what’s their ring tone? ‘Why.’ I’m sitting out on the stoop of my building, people are riding by with their windows down, music blastin’. What’s blastin’? ‘Why.’”
Heck, even his mom mentioned it. “For her to have called me one day after seeing the Jadakiss video on BET and being like, ‘Baby, I heard your song on the TV today’—it was torture,” he says.
That’s right. His song. Rhodes claims to be the original author of “Why,” having penned its lyrics, as he tells it, “in my apartment on Kansas Avenue, sitting on the toilet,” and recorded a rough version of the song back in 2002. Both Rhodes’ version and Jada’s smash hit have the same title and share a similar three-verse, three-chorus structure, with most phrases beginning with the word “why,” as well as a soulful R&B-style singer wailing in the background. Both songs also reference 9/11 and name-drop the blunt brand Dutch Masters.
Coincidence? Rhodes thought not. On Aug. 24, 2004, the little-known local rapper and his lawyers filed a federal lawsuit alleging copyright infringement on the part of Jadakiss and his label, Ruff Ryders Records. And the backup singer. And the producer. And various record manufacturers and distributors, among others. The long list of defendants also included various hip-hop celebs, such as Mobb Deep and Sean “Diddy” Combs.
When first contacted by the Washington City Paper in 2005, Rhodes declined to discuss his beef with Big Rap on the advice of legal counsel. One year later, however, he’s having trouble getting those lawyers to return his phone calls. “At this point,” says Rhodes, who now lives in Oxon Hill, “I feel like I gotta break my silence.” So last month, he finally released his own version of “Why,” posting a downloadable MP3 on MySpace and a written request for listeners to “tell a friend to tell a friend” that “UM the original WHY writer got dammit!!”
The artist is encouraging people to listen, compare, and come to their own conclusions. Seeking vindication from a few hundred so-called friends on an Internet networking site, the first and last refuge of scores of fledgling musicians, probably wasn’t the solution that Rhodes had hoped for. His lawyers sure seemed confident that a more amicable and potentially financially rewarding outcome was possible through the courts. At least at first.
To win a copyright-infringement case, his attorneys theorized, Rhodes needed to prove two things: (a) “[t]hat the song the other artist made is similar to his song” and (b) “[t]hat the person or label that made the song had access to the artists [sic] original song.” To accomplish this, his lawyers drew up a chart comparing and contrasting the two tunes (see our own analysis on the next page), and they lined up various witnesses, including Rhodes’ former manager, Kristie Cameron, who claims to have provided copies of the song to a Ruff Ryders rep at D.C.’s Cada Vez club on the night of Jan. 11, 2003.
“It’s real strange how [the Jadakiss song] came out, ya know, a year after they got it,” says Cameron, who adds that Ruff Ryders reps were also present when Rhodes performed the song at Alexandria’s Mex Lindo Restaurant in February 2003. “I was kinda skeptical at first because a lot of songs sound alike,” she says. “But I had other people listen to it, people who had heard [Rhodes’] song. And they’re like, ‘You know what? That’s his song.’”
Granted, the Jadakiss tune sounds more polished. Rhodes’ effort was produced with inexpensive PC software. Then there are the competing choruses: Whereas Jada’s backup singer, Anthony Hamilton, croons, “Tried to make it my way/But got sent up on the highway,” Rhodes’ version simply consists of the word “why” repeated over and over again by himself and his own background wailer, Ron “Dikenya” Davis Jr.
“You can tell there are differences between the two songs,” says Rhodes. “But the similarities are uncanny.”
Calls to Ruff Ryders regarding the song were not returned, and a Universal Music Group spokesperson declined comment. Lawyers for these and other record companies named in the suit never formally denied Rhodes’ allegations. They didn’t really have to. The supposed ace in Rhodes’ hand was a collection of three CDs, said to include his own “Why,” which the songwriter had filed with the U.S. Copyright Office back on Oct. 15, 2002. But when attorneys for Universal and Ruff Ryders–affiliated Interscope Records went to inspect the discs on file, they “found no musical composition on those CDs by the title ‘Why,’ nor any musical composition that resembled in any way the song described by Plaintiffs in their Complaint,” according to court papers.
“I thought that I had everything copyrighted correctly,” Rhodes explains. “Come to find out I sent in two of the same CDs instead of the third one, which had ‘Why’ along with about 16 to 17 other songs.”
At first, his lawyers didn’t seem too distraught by the blunder, he says. “They were like, ‘OK, don’t worry about it. This is just a setback. We can do a retroactive copyright because you have so many other ways to prove that you did the song beforehand.’” Rhodes still has the computer containing his original recording, he says, as well as documents kept by Urban Scene Radio, a Landover-based Internet radio station that aired his “Why” prior to the Jadakiss release (it’s now URSCENE.com). “I didn’t even like the song,” says Urban Scene founder Jay Bee. “But when I heard Jadakiss’ version, I was like, Damn, that sounds familiar. Sure enough, I looked it up, and [Rhodes] was a year ahead of Jadakiss.”
But the burden of proof was still clearly Rhodes’. Economic and computer experts were needed to verify the damages and timeline, his lawyers informed him, according to e-mails. And that meant money far beyond the $3,000 that Rhodes had scrounged up for his ambitious legal fight.
Communications with his lawyers became increasingly infrequent—and often curt. “You really need to work on your organizational skills Marcus,” lashed one lawyer in an e-mail this past June. “If you had been organized…your copyrights would have been properly filed and you wouldn’t be in the position you’re in today.”
“We can’t help you without REAL evidence,” the message goes on, “hearsay and speculation don’t cut it in a court of law.”
This past February, U.S. District Judge James Robertson dismissed Rhodes’ complaint. “It still fucks with me,” he says of the whole debacle. “I just wanted my just due. I just wanted it to be acknowledged. I ain’t have to get rich off of it. It’s something to me that could’ve been easily rectified. I didn’t rush the story out to the media. I tried to handle it quietly and respectfully and not damage that man’s career.”
Rhodes did, however, attempt to confront his alleged intellectual-property violator in person, he says, after learning that Jadakiss would be making an appearance at now-defunct D.C. venue Club U back in 2004. It’s about the closest he’s come to attaining vengeance.
“Now, I’m not what you’d consider a gangsta dude,” he says. “But I’m still born and raised in D.C. And I’m not no sucka. And I’m angry. And I’m not thinking. So my mentality was, ‘You know what? I’m going down there and confront this nigga.’ And my boys was like, ‘Aiight, we comin’ over to your house. And we’re gonna get ready. And we’re gonna go down there.’ Of course, they were thinking more rationally than I was. And their intention was to basically get me as fucked up as possible so that I don’t go anywhere. And they did.”CP
Listen to the local “Why” at washingtoncitypaper.com
Artistic Differences “Why” vs. “Why”: Varied takes on the same subjects
Jadakiss: “Why is Jadakiss as hard as it gets?”
Marcus G: “Why I continuously shell out the great brown sausage?”
Jadakiss: “Why do niggas push pounds and powder?/…And why do niggas lie in eighty-five percent of they rhymes?/Why a nigga always want what he can’t have?/…Why all the young niggas is dying?”
Marcus G: “Why um still black as ever matta fact I feel blacker.”
Items for “tobacco-use only”
Jadakiss: “…if you don’t smoke why the hell you reachin’ for my Dutch?”
Marcus G: “Why I got this Dutch prepared and um looking for the fire?”
Jadakiss: “Why did Bush knock down the towers?”
Marcus G: “Why I feel like the day before the Pentagon shook?”
Jadakiss: “Why my buzz in L.A. ain’t like it is in New York?”
Marcus G: “Why my city never had no one truly come out?/Why we only D.C. not up north or down south?”
The recording industry
Jadakiss: “Why is the industry designed to keep the artist in debt?”
Marcus G: “Why the industry gonna get wrecked?”
The retail industry
Jadakiss: “Why sell in the stores what you can sell in the streets?”
Marcus G: “Why I should be in yah CD stores?”