Since its release in 2014 the global best-selling song Uptown Funk has been plagued with claims that it was based on many earlier songs. Here we chart the changing royalty picture for the song and ask whether the recent challengers' claims have substance or simply share with Uptown Funk elements that are common to the genre. In December 2017 the latest claim to surface was from late-1970s all-female US hip hop group The Sequence for their song Funk You Up.
Given a writer credit from the outset were Gallaspy and Williams for the Trinidad James 2012 track All Gold Everything, with its repeated mantra, "if you don't believe me just watch". This was reported by Billboard as being a 15% share to the writers, publishers and record label of All Gold Everything.
All Gold Everything (Gallaspy/Williams) © Sony/ATV Music Publishing (UK) Ltd/Songs Music Publishing LLC. Recording by Trinidad James ℗ 2012 Def Jam Recordings. https://activepixels.blob.core.windows.net/lostinmusicproduction/assets/uptown-funk-all-gold-everything.mp3
Uptown Funk (Hernandez/Bhasker/Williams/Ronson/Lawrence/Wilson/Wilson/Wilson/Taylor/Simmons/Gallaspy) © Warner/Chappell North America Ltd/Sony/ATV Music Publishing (UK) Ltd/Songs Music Publishing LLC/Imagem Music/Universal/MCA Music Ltd/New Songs Administration Ltd/BMG Rights Management (UK) Limited. Recording by Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars ℗ 2014 RCA Records. https://activepixels.blob.core.windows.net/lostinmusicproduction/assets/uptown-funk-dont-believe-me-just-watch.mp3
The Gap Band were first to the table with a claim post-release, which was accepted in April 2015, for a Billboard-reported 17% share in royalties for Uptown Funk's apparent appropriation of elements of Oops Upside Your Head. They claimed that the rhythm of the chant and its repetition were replicated in Uptown Funk. Compare the examples below, and marvel at the (current) writer credits above for Uptown Funk:
Oops Upside Your Head (Wilson/Wilson/Wilson/Simmons/Taylor) © Minder Music Ltd. Recording by The Gap Band ℗ 1979 Total Experience Records/Mercury Records. https://activepixels.blob.core.windows.net/lostinmusicproduction/assets/uptown-funk-oops-upside.mp3
Next in the queue, in August 2015 was Serbian 80s band Aska reported in The Independent The artist Snezana Miskovic told the Daily Star that Uptown Funk used “80 per cent” of her track Ulice Mracne Nisu Za Devojke, though she has not yet decided whether to take legal action to claim her song was infringed.
Ulice Mracne Nisu Za Devojke (writer and publisher unknown). Recording by Aska ℗ 1984, Diskos. https://activepixels.blob.core.windows.net/lostinmusicproduction/assets/uptown-funk-ulice.mp3
Ulice is chock-full of disco/funk elements which are common to the genre. Unlike Uptown Funk, this song is in C minor, but it alternates with the chord of F major, the same chord pattern as Uptown Funk when transposed into the same key. There are plenty of brass interjections here too between the vocals, but they don't mirror exactly those from Uptown Funk, and there are many earlier examples of similar scoring.
In October 2016 Billboard reported that 1980s funk band Collage had also lodged a claim against Uptown Funk, that it was infringing the copyright in their 1983 song Young Girls. This claim has not been reported further and is understood to be ongoing.
Young Girls (Peters/White/Wilkins) © Sony/ATV Music Publishing (UK) Ltd/Yours Mine Ours. Recording by Collage ℗ 1983, Solar Records.
Whilst the recordings both share the same key of D minor (much used in funk tracks), it is hard to identify anything of note in the Collage song that isn't commonplace elements of disco/funk songs before and after. There are synthesizer stabs using the minor 9th chord, a repeated semiquaver guitar note on the 7th note of the chord, brass stabs, a slap bass, rhythm guitar stabs, but no obvious single element that can be said to have been composed by the writers of Young Girls and reproduced in Uptown Funk.
More Bounce To The Ounce (Troutman) © BMG Rights Management (UK) Ltd/SAJA Music Company/Bucks Music Group Ltd. Recording by Zapp ℗ 1980, Warner Bros. https://activepixels.blob.core.windows.net/lostinmusicproduction/assets/uptown-funk-more-bounce-to-the-ounce.mp3
This is a slower song, with more reliance on electronic instruments, and vocoder-treated vocals. The rhythm guitar has echoes in Uptown Funk, but again this is a very standard syncopated riff, much used in funk records of the era.
Latest to hit the news was the December 2017 claim from Sugar Hill Records group The Sequence, the first all-female hip hop group to release a record. TMZ reported that the group were claiming Uptown Funk had "significant and substantially similar compositional elements" to their 1979 song Funk You Up.
Whilst the court papers have not yet been made available, it seems likely that the basis for their claim stems from the similarity between their chant "funk you right on up, we're gonna funk you right on up" and Uptown Funk's "Up town funk you up, up town funk you up". Bear in mind that The Gap Band settled on 17% for the appropriation of their "Oops upside your head" chant. It is interesting that Oops Upside Your Head and Funk You Up were both released in 1979. If The Sequence can prove that their song pre-dates Oops Upside Your Head, their claim will be stronger, though may precipitate a second action between themselves and The Gap Band.
Funk You Up (Cook/Brown/Robinson/Chisolm) © IQ Music Ltd. Recording by The Sequence ℗ 1979, Sugar Hill Records. https://activepixels.blob.core.windows.net/lostinmusicproduction/assets/uptown-funk-the-sequence-funk-you-up.mp3
Songs In The Key Of D Minor
In the eyes of rock legend Nigel Tufnel, D minor may have been "the saddest of all keys", but in the world of funk D minor is king. Countless James Brown songs, among which stand out Stone To The Bone, Brother Rapp and Think, The Commodores I Feel Sanctified, The Fatback Band Do The Bus Stop, The Average White Band Cut The Cake . . . it's a long list, to which Uptown Funk was added in 2014. And because funk is made up of many common musical 'ingredients', songs in the same key tend to sound very similar, without necessarily borrowing any significant copyrightable material from each other.
Below are four examples of earlier funk recordings from the 60s and 70s, all in D minor, and illustrating how commonplace many of these elements were, before the genre was 'electrified' in the late 70s with the addition of synthesizers. The examples also illustrate the fact that songs in the same key, tempo and genre can sound similar, regardless of their melody or lyrics.
Hot Pants Road (Brown/Bobbit/Pickney) © Intersong Music Ltd. Recording by The J.B.'s ℗ 1972, People Records. https://activepixels.blob.core.windows.net/lostinmusicproduction/assets/uptown-funk-hot-pants-road.mp3
Kool It Here Comes The Fuzz (Sparrow/Smith/Bell/Westfield/Bell/Thomas/Redd/Brown/Mickens) © EMI Music Publishing Ltd. Recording by Kool & The Gang ℗ 1970, De-Lite Records. https://activepixels.blob.core.windows.net/lostinmusicproduction/assets/uptown-funk-kool-it.mp3
Let A Woman Be A Woman (Christian) © Bike Music/Westward Music. Recording by Dyke And The Blazers ℗ 1969, Original Sound Records. https://activepixels.blob.core.windows.net/lostinmusicproduction/assets/uptown-funk-let-a-woman-be-a-woman.mp3
Pass The Peas (Brown/Bobbit/Starks) © Warner/Chappell North America Ltd. Recording by The J.B.'s ℗ 1972, People Records. https://activepixels.blob.core.windows.net/lostinmusicproduction/assets/uptown-funk-pass-the-peas.mp3
We should leave the final word to the genre's inventor - Soul Brother Number One, The Man With The Crown, James Brown: "I'm the most sampled and stolen. What's mine is mine, and what's yours is mine, too … I got a song about that … But I'm never gonna release it. Don't want a war with the rappers. If it wasn't good, they wouldn't steal it."
Is D minor really the saddest of all keys? - Guitar World article from August 2017
2 Oct 2017
Great post and love the examples. Its always interesting tracing a song's lineage and derivation. One of my favourite examples involves Beats International's 'Dub be Good to Me', see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-MnELifX3sQ. Now this is self evidently an interpolation of the Gap Band's 'Just be Good to Me', but also takes a bass line from the 'Guns of Brixton' by the Clash. This of course is a sample, as it takes the sound recording but it also takes the underlying musical work, the memorable bass line produced by Paul Simonon. Simonon came to an agreement with Norman Cook of Beats International for the use of this, but interestingly the song Guns of Brixton is itself influenced by the reggae scene that Simonon was immersed in, and also contains a knowing nod to Jimmy Cliff and the reggae gangster film 'The Harder they Come'. A great reminder that all works have their reference points and begs the wider question, 'is anything truly original'?
2 Oct 2017
The proliferation of similar examples here reveals something of a 'funk standard' emerging. It makes one wonder whether there is only a case because 'Uptown Funk' was outrageously commercially successful. Is the perceived theft of artistic IP the crime? Or the profit they made from it?
14 Jul 2023
testing the comments, very interesting article