Take My Picture -- Please!

If you've been following the papers, you may already know about the flap caused by Houston rap group Trinity Garden Cartel's recent release of Don't Blame It on Da Music on Rap-a-Lot Records. The CD's cover features a photograph -- allegedly obtained without permission -- of two uniformed HPD officers spliced into the background of a scene that also includes several models dressed as Houston's finest, three black men on their knees under arrest, and a presumably dead black man on the ground.

On March 29, the day the album was released to stores, attorneys representing one of the officers contacted Rap-a-Lot president James Smith by fax to demand a halt of the image's distribution and a recall of all materials using the officer's likeness. Smith -- who declined to be interviewed for this article -- claims, through a publicity firm hired to provide damage control, that he ordered that some 18,000 cassette J-cards and 10,000 CD booklets be scrapped upon the lawyer's demand. A Rap-a-Lot in-house memo obtained by the Press and dated March 31 supports Smith's claim.

Nonetheless, officers James E. Sobota and Stephanie Gaithe filed suit April 22 against Rap-a-Lot Records, Trinity Garden Cartel and others to halt distribution of the artwork and to seek punitive damages for, among other things, placing the officers and their families in jeopardy. A Houston Post article quoted plaintiffs' attorney Richard London: "He [Sobota] could stop someone, and they could have the CD on the dash. They could recognize him and blow him away."

Well, perhaps -- but Rap-a-Lot's Smith feels that there's more going on than a simple effort to protect the officers. For one thing, the initial fax indicated that the officers were aware of the image through posters prior to the release of the album, which might lead one to wonder why the presumably threatened officers didn't file a complaint directly with Rap-a-Lot before the album hit the streets. London's response, in a phone interview with the Press, is tellingly legal: to wit, that it helps his case to have the album in the stores. For another, Smith claims that, upon notification, he immediately moved to stop distribution of the artwork in question. London, on the other hand, says Rap-a-Lot didn't cooperate: he claims that the company didn't respond to his initial request to cease distribution and, that as of Wednesday, May 4, he was able to walk into Cactus Records on South Shepherd and purchase Don't Blame It on Da Music with the original cover art, thereby calling into question whether Rap-a-Lot cooperated to get the album off the street. Cactus confirmed that cassette and CD versions of the album were in stock at press time, and Rene Foster, the local record buyer at regional distributor Southwest Wholesale, claims no knowledge of any attempt by Rap-a-Lot to halt its distribution of the album.

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Of course the entire brouhaha is probably out of hand by now, what with the officers' lawyers making claims of jeopardy, damages and "severe emotional distress," and Rap-a-Lot's spin control ignoring the basic question of whether it was legal to use the unauthorized photograph. But however it all shakes down, it seems quite possible, from the timing of the lawsuit -- not to mention the way the publicity has turned the relatively obscure and supposedly dangerous album art into a collector's item -- that, as Smith is quoted in a recent press release, "There was a conspiracy to build a lawsuit, rather than an effort to protect the officers and ensure their safety, just the opposite of what the officers' attorney claims."

Local Stuff... Friday, there's yet another benefit concert for locals Bleachbath, who, if you'll remember, were recently relieved of approximately $5,000 worth of musical equipment by some thug with a bad attitude and a dubious karmic future. Show starts at 9 p.m. with Color of the Sky (with HK from Buddha on the Moon), Clover, Black Leather Jesus, Sugar Shack, the Dave Dove/Paul Winstanley Duo, The Mike Gunn, Rolling Stone chartmongers Charalambides and Mike Gunn wet dream Dry Nod. Eight bands, five bucks, worthy cause, everything goes to Bleachbath. At Harvey's Club Deluxe.

Saturday afternoon, Ricers Bee Stung Lips celebrate the release of their eponymous CD debut with an in-store appearance at Cactus Records on South Shepherd.

Come Sunday, another benefit, this one to help cover medical costs recently incurred by insurance-less veteran Houston drummer Orville Strickland. Ten groups, including Luvenia Lewis, The TestosterTones, Jerry Lightfoot, Kenny Codray and Bert Wills, play from 4 until midnight at the Satellite Lounge, with the gate and a percentage of the bar going to Strickland. Minimum donation is five bucks at the door.

And if you're not benefited out, the local lineup of the week is doing its thing over at the European Tavern on Sunday, where Public News hosts its annual PN Music Awards showcase with an all-star lineup of, in no particular order: Joint Chiefs, Planet Shock!, Taste of Garlic, Carolyn Wonderland and the Imperial Monkeys, D.R.U.M., Keenlies, Woody's Jukebox, David Rice and tentatively (if they're not all benefited out) the TestosterTones. Doors open at 3, music starts at 4, beer, barbecue, and music on two stages. Tickets cost $8. See ya there.

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