Hip-Hop Wars: A Fort Worth Rapper and a Producer Fight over Album Rights

Hip-Hop Wars: A Fort Worth Rapper and a  Producer Fight over Album Rights
Screenshot by Christian McPhate
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Clay Perry had never heard of Oscar Wilde’s comment, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” An aspiring hip-hop artist from Fort Worth, Perry found his poetry in the words and rhythms of street poets like Dr. Dre from N.W.A., Snoop Dog and local street legends D.O.C. and Six 2.

Perry had never given much thought to Wilde’s saying until after he released his debut album Lyin’ King a couple of weeks ago, without his former producer’s permission. Now his art is no longer available to purchase on streaming services after his producer took steps to have it removed, and Perry is calling him the “lyin’ king” on social media.

Hip-Hop Wars: A Fort Worth Rapper and a Producer Fight over Album Rights
Screenshot by Christian McPhate

"Things are because we see them, and what we see and how we see it depends on the arts that have influenced us,” Wilde wrote in his 1891 essay "The Decay of Lying."

Perry's producer, Deion Gabriel, is a fairly well-known street poet in North Texas. He went by “Erotic D” when he appeared onstage in the '90s and still uses the name today. Once a member of Life Afta Death, he dropped one album, The Death Penalty, with the group and a solo album, The Black Bruce, in 2007. He also became associated with Tracy “The D.O.C.” Curry, a Dallas native who was a former member of Fila Fresh Crew and one of the founders of Death Row Records, a record label with some of the most famous West Coast hip-hop artists, including Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur.

Some of Gabriel’s producer credibility comes from his claims that he helped Dr. Dre finish Niggaz4life and The Chronic in the early '90s, as the Observer reported in a Sept. 15, 2015, story. But it’s a difficult claim to verify since Gabriel didn’t receive producer credit. He’s also not mentioned in any of the news articles about D.O.C. and Death Row Records. Nor did his character appear in the 2015 hit biopic Straight Outta Compton.

Gabriel did receive credit for producing tracks for Fila Fresh Crew, according to Hip Hop Wiki, a fan-run website, and for Curry’s second album Helter Skelter in the mid-’90s. Gabriel founded E-World Multimedia in the late ’90s and today manages several North Texas artists.

Gabriel never did seek an elected position on the Keller City Council, as he mentioned he was considering in the 2015 Observer story, but he did finally open the Fort Worth studio he mentioned, christening it the “War Room.”

Located off Lancaster Avenue in Fort Worth, the War Room appears to be a place where some serious beats have been spun. An artist can get eight  hours of mixing for $200, 10 hours for $300 and 10 hours of mixing and mastering for $500.

Perry started recording his debut album there in March. A Saginaw hometown boy, he’d worked with a couple of producers in the past but never anyone like Gabriel, who had not only worked with Perry’s street poetry gods but also owned a real recording studio with the capabilities to make Perry’s dream a reality. He could offer the beats that Perry’s lyrics needed and bring Perry’s words to life.

Gabriel never charged Perry to record his music nor did he offer him a contract. He told the Observer that he was thinking about offering him one when Perry’s album was finished. Instead, Gabriel says, they had what’s known in Texas as a “handshake deal.” 

Hip-Hop Wars: A Fort Worth Rapper and a Producer Fight over Album Rights
Screenshot by Christian McPhate

“Artists think that success is due to their hard work,” Gabriel told the Observer a few days later by phone. “But they don’t see the hard work you add.”

Brent Turman, a Dallas entertainment and trial lawyer, co-authored an article about handshake deals in October for The Texas Lawbook. Turman, who is not involved in the case, pointed out that when there is no contract, parties may be vulnerable when it comes time for litigation, especially after a California judge’s recent decision in Johnny Depp’s case against his former attorney, Jake Bloom, one of Hollywood’s top deal-makers, according to a Sept. 6, 2018, Hollywood Reporter article.

In the lawsuit, Depp claimed that his 1999 oral agreement with Bloom was voidable at the actor’s discretion, entitling him to the $30 million that he had paid his former attorney over the years. Judge Terry Green agreed and found that their handshake deal was a contingency fee agreement and based on the actor’s success. California and Texas both require this type of agreement to be in writing, Turman wrote.

“A lot of people operate this way and do things on a handshake,” Turman says.

Turman says that under Texas law, oral agreements can be enforced. In a copyright issue, which seems to be the case with Perry’s album, when there isn’t a written agreement, Texas law recognizes what is known as joint authorship. Under joint authorship, each joint author has the right to release the material without the other party’s consent, but they’re still required to share the profits or else risk finding themselves in court.

It’s what happened in the case of the Fifty Shades of Grey book series. Turman represented an Arlington elementary school teacher, Jennifer Pedroza, who operated an e-publishing business that originally produced the Fifty Shades of Grey novel with Amanda Hayward of Australia. Turman says that Pedroza and Hayward had an oral agreement regarding their e-publishing business. When the novel became an international best-seller, Pedroza wasn’t receiving her share of the royalties and sued Hayward in 2014 in Tarrant County, claiming that she had been defrauded out of royalties for the first novel and its sequels — which made the partners at least $40 million, according to a Jan. 28, 2016, Fort Worth Star-Telegram report.

Tarrant County District Judge Susan McCoy agreed with Pedroza and awarded her more than $11 million. Hayward appealed the decision but settled out of court for an undisclosed amount during the appeal, Turman says.

Perry argues that his case is similar to the joint authorship clause under Texas law. “From my experience in the industry, you don’t have to ask for permission since you didn’t sign,” he says.

The problem with his case against Gabriel is that it has become a "he said/he said" dilemma. Perry claims that Gabriel told him he could self-release the album, and Gabriel verified that this information is true, adding that indeed “God told (him) to let the kid walk,” but, Gabriel says, Perry then told him that he didn’t want to release the unfinished work and wanted to continue working with Gabriel to perfect the album.

“Clay was wanting to rush music out,” Gabriel says. “The whole staff and every other artist said his album wasn’t ready."

Perry disagrees and says that he wasn’t trying to rush the album and that Gabriel never said that he changed his mind about releasing the album.

“I set up the publishing for every single song,” Perry says. “I gave credit and standard writing portion for each person who worked on it, to show them that I’m not doing anything foul. I went to each label mate and asked if I could release it. I feel like this is the right thing to do. Everybody that worked with me, I gave them credit.”

Perry claims that he also gave publishing credit to Gabriel, who told the Observer that he didn’t believe him because Perry didn’t know the name of his publishing company. Perry shared several screenshots of songs he had uploaded to BMI, one of four performing rights organizations in the U.S., that seem to verify his claims. He registered the songs in September and gave 100 points publishing credit, which is industry standard, to Gabriel and split the other 100 points with his co-authors. For example, the “Lyin King” registration shows that Perry received 66 points while his co-author Vincent C Arnold received 34 points and Erotic D ended up with 100.

Of course, according to BMI’s rules, the registration is subject “to all the warranties as to authorship and/or ownership of the publisher’s share of performance rights set forth in the applicable contracts between the writer(s) and publisher(s) claiming rights in the works.”

Gabriel points out that Perry quit being an E-World artist when he decided to release the album outside of the E-World label, and Perry doesn’t just get to keep the music that Gabriel and his team made for free.

At this point, the streaming services seem to be agreeing with Gabriel and pulling Perry’s music from the platform faster than Trump can write a tweet.

“You stay with the guys who brought you in and made you who you are,” Gabriel says, “or you will kill your career.”

Now Perry has a dream album that can only be heard from online bootleggers on the dark web, unless he hires an attorney like Turman and takes Gabriel to court.

“This music is so good that I don’t really care what happens,” Perry says. “I don’t really have any regrets because all I wanted was for people to hear it.”

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