The Time a British Judge Called Hip-Hop a 'Foreign Language'

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Hip-hop was a somewhat late arrival in the UK, and the genre didn't develop a cultural foothold until decades after its emergence in America. Given hip-hop's newness across the pond, it might be understandable that three British judges were confused when hearing a legal dispute between two artists in 2003—so perplexed that one of them declared that, for the sake of the law, hip-hop should be considered a “foreign language.”

As with so many legal battles involving hip-hop, this conflict revolved around a sample. In 2000, electronica group Ant'ill Mob released a song called “Burnin’.” Two years later, London hip-hop trio the Heartless Crew used it as the basis for a single on their album Heartless Crew Presents Crisp Biscuit, Vol. 1. Their track was also titled “Burnin’.”

In 2003, Ant'ill Mob’s label Confetti Records sued the Heartless Crew's label Warner UK over the sample. According to Digital Copyright and the Consumer Revolution by Matthew Rimmer, the three-judge panel heard arguments about how too much was taken from the original—a similar argument to the ones used in cases involving The Verve's “Bittersweet Symphony” or Biz Markie's “Alone Again.” Confetti’s lawyers also argued that the Heartless Crew damaged the reputation of Andrew Alcee, the Ant’ill Mob member credited with writing the song, by using references to drugs and violence in their version of “Burnin’.”

It was on this point that the three judges were stumped. Justice Kim Lewison remarked that the case “led to the faintly surreal experience of three gentlemen in horsehair wigs examining the meaning of such phrases as ‘mish mish man’ and ‘shizzle my nizzle’.” He told the court that they had listened to the song at half speed but still could not understand its lyrics and had also tried looking up phrases on websites, including Urban Dictionary. He concluded that the slang was “for practical purposes a foreign language." Lewison pondered aloud the option of bringing a drug dealer to court as an expert witness to testify because "the meaning of words in a foreign language could only be explained by experts."

While the judges decided against bringing a drug dealer to the stand ("the occasions on which an expert drug dealer might be called to give evidence in the Chancery Division are likely to be rare," Lewison said), they ruled that Confetti Records had failed to show damage to Alcee’s reputation. The notion that he’d been defamed by references to illicit activities inserted onto one of his tracks took a hit beyond any perceived language barrier when the justices found a music video of Alcee and his Ant’ill Mob bandmates dressed as 1930s gangsters.

The court also rejected the claim that the track had been used without permission because a valid licensing contract had in fact been signed. (It was not signed in a foreign language.)