I seldom rent videos, and I never rent music videos. I generally abhor hip-hop, so it’s a certainty that I’d never have seen the Up In Smoke DVD if Greg Bowens had not filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court over it.
Bowens, former spokesman for Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer, and four other current and ex-city officials are suing Andre Young — aka Dr. Dre — and more than three dozen other individuals and corporations over the aforementioned DVD.
The DVD was produced in the wake of the 2000 Up In Smoke tour, which featured Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eminem and Snoop Dogg. But by the time Up In Smoke hit Joe Louis Arena on July 6 of that year, Bowens and several police officers were up in arms. They met backstage with the tour organizers to dissuade them from showing a video that they believed to be obscene. The exchanges were caught on video and some of that footage is included as a bonus track, dubbed “Detroit Controversy,” on the DVD.
It will come as no surprise to you that Bowens and other officials are made to look like colossal jerks. The tour promoters are getting hassled by The Man. Cops threaten to close the show down or file criminal charges if the video — which allegedly contains nudity, marijuana smoking and a dramatization of a violent shoot-out — is aired to those younger than 17.
Interspliced with the backstage footage are narrative comments from tour managers. I am shocked — shocked! — that once again, none of it is flattering for the heavies from City Hall.
Dr. Dre’s minions say on the DVD that they convinced him to go on with the show because they feared a riot would ensue if it were canceled. A tamer version of the offensive video was shown prior to Dr. Dre’s set.
Eminem is shown backstage, bemoaning the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
“They’re talking about not letting us grab our dicks, no lewd comments, we can’t bring our blowup dolls,” he spews. “I look forward to coming to my fuckin’ city and this is the way I get treated. My first song is ‘Kill You’ and I can say ‘Slut, you think I won’t choke no ho until the vocal cords in her throat don’t work no more,’ but I can’t show a naked blowup doll.”
But it’s not the footage of the rappers that is in contention, it’s the city hirelings — people who were performing official duties in a publicly owned building.
Bowens — who is now employed by a PR firm, Shaun Wilson & Associates — is a familiar face. His smooth-talking visage was ubiquitous during the Archer administration. He’s a savvy guy, so this lawsuit comes as a bit of a surprise. He declined to comment, referring me to his attorney, Glenn Oliver.
Oliver says his clients expect to win a judgment that could amount to $3 billion. The DVD has sold more than 2 million copies.
“Plaintiffs’ likenesses were stolen, included in a gangster rap concert DVD … and rented and sold worldwide as part of a conspiracy,” Oliver wrote in his complaint.
You’d think the whole tour and DVD were planned to make Bowens and his entourage look like morons. In fact, the “Detroit Controversy” is a digital afterthought.
The plaintiffs allege invasion of privacy, “violation of the right of publicity” (whatever that is) and fraud, among many, many other things.
“It’s a stupid lawsuit — about the most stupid I’ve ever seen in 30 years of representing media and others,” says Herschel Fink, the Detroit barrister who represents Dr. Dre and who is named, along with his firm, as a defendant.
“I liken this lawsuit to the bank robber who gets caught committing a crime on the bank’s camera, and then sues the bank for invasion of privacy because his picture was taken. You have public and police officials who were in effect caught committing a violation of the U.S. Constitution. It’s called prior restraint, trying to censor Dr. Dre’s performance. A federal judge ruled that that was unconstitutional.”
Indeed, Dr. Dre, represented by Fink, sued the city a couple weeks after the standoff at Joe Louis. The city wound up paying $25,000 for Fink’s fees and issuing Dr. Dre a letter of apology.
Those developments do nothing to deter Oliver. He says his clients asked for a private meeting, that the tape of the confrontation was made “in secret” and that the images of Bowens and his compadres are being marketed without their consent.
“There are all kinds of hidden cameras out there,” Oliver says, noting that such devices can resemble pagers or be disguised in baseball caps. “Certainly they were hidden from my clients, and my clients were not aware that there were cameras in the room that were recording them.”
I’m no expert, but based on the scenes on the DVD, I find it hard to believe that the officials didn’t know there were cameras present and rolling.
In any case, the fact that someone asks for a private meeting does not mean that the other parties must consent. Michigan courts have generally held that such recordings are actionable only when a transmission is intercepted by a third party. The Michigan Supreme Court, however, ruled in 1999 that participation in a conversation “may not unilaterally nullify other participants’ expectations of privacy” and that the overriding issue should be whether the parties “intended and reasonably expected that the conversation was private,” according to the Reporters Committee on Freedom of the Press.
If Bowens has a case, it may be his fraud claim — the allegation that the tour people promised an off-the-record conversation, then reneged. There is precedent for such a claim. If that did, in fact, occur, I hope he gets a bundle. As someone who frequently speaks with people who are hesitant to divulge information, I know that a promise is a promise.
But I can’t help thinking that the plaintiffs are just embarrassed at being portrayed as hip-hop party poopers.
“If it were you, and your likeness was stolen and put on a T-shirt or some other commercial product and sold around the world, and the sellers made millions of dollars and didn’t pay you a dime and didn’t ask your consent, what would you do?” Oliver asks.
Well, I wouldn’t make a federal case out of it.Jeremy Voas is editor of Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org