A high court judge ruled yesterday that rap lyrics should be treated as a “foreign language” after admitting that he was unsure of the meaning of “shizzle my nizzle” and “mish mish man”.
Justice Lewison, who was ruling on a copyright battle between two British rap bands, even pondered the idea of inviting a drug dealer into the court as an expert witness to end the confusion.
The judge had been asked to rule on a case brought by the band Ant’ill Mob against a rival outfit, the Heartless Crew.
Andrew Alcee, the writer of Ant’ill Mob’s 2001 garage hit Burnin, was claiming that lyrics “laid over” the top of the Heartless Crew’s remix of the song constituted “derogatory treatment” of the copyright.
He claimed that terms like “shizzle my nizzle”, “mish mish man” and “string dem up” referred to drugs and violence and so “distorted and mutilated” his original tune.
The judge said the claim had led to the “faintly surreal experience of three gentlemen in horsehair wigs [himself and the two barristers] examining the meaning of such phrases”.
But he admitted that even after playing the record at half speed and referral to the Urban Dictionary on the Internet, he was unable to be sure of the meaning of the slang.
He said that although the lyrics were written in a form of English, they were “for practical purposes a foreign language”, and he had no expert evidence as to what they meant.
In his judgment, the judge said the Urban Dictionary gave various definitions of the phrase “shizzle my nizzle” and its variants, none of which referred to drugs.
Some definitions carried sexual connotations, but the most popular definition of “shizzle my nizzle” indicated that it meant “for sure”.
He said there were no entries for “mish mish man” and that the court had heard that Elephant Man, the rapper who uttered the disputed phrases, often made up words for their rhyming effect.
The judge went on to say that evidence on the phrases given by Richard Pascal, of Ant’ill Mob’s record company Confetti Records, was “not sufficient” and he agreed with counter claims made by Robert Howe, counsel for the defendants.
He said: “Mr Pascal did not himself claim to know what street meanings were to be attributed to the disputed phrases, but said that he had been told what they were by an unnamed informant conversant with the use of drugs.
“Mr Howe submitted, correctly in my opinion, that the meaning of words in a foreign language could only be explained by experts.
“He also submitted, again correctly in my opinion, that the words of the rap, although in a form of English, were for practical purposes a foreign language.
“Thus he submitted that Mr Pascal’s evidence, not being the evidence of an expert, was inadmissible. I think that he is right, although the occasions on which an expert drug dealer might be called to give evidence in the Chancery Division are likely to be rare.”
Justice Lewison said the fact that the lyrics were hard to “decipher” also mitigated against the case.
As for Alcee’s complaint that he had suffered prejudice from the rap’s violent invitation to “string dem up”, the judge said he had seen a video of Ant’ill Mob, of which Alcee was a member, dressed as 1930s gangsters.
As to whether “string dem up” — if those words were used on the album, which was unclear — was an invitation to lynching, the judge said a proponent of capital punishment who said murderers should be strung up would usually be taken to be advocating the return of the hangman rather than lynching.
The judge said a fundamental weakness in Alcee’s case was that the court had no evidence about his honour or reputation or of any prejudice caused.
He dismissed Alcee’s damages claim against East West Records, a division of Warner Music UK, which used Burnin on Heartless Crew’s album Crisp Biscuit.
The judge also rejected a claim by Confetti Records and Fundamental Records, owners of the copyright in Burnin, that the track had been used without permission.