Halloween Throwback: When Freddy Krueger Sued Will Smith Over a Music Video

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Back in April 1988, when DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince released “A Nightmare on My Street,” the song was an immediate hit. A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 was set for release a few months later, and the song – which made obvious allusions to Freddy Krueger from beginning to end – eventually climbed to No. 15 on the Hot 100.

“Now I have a story that I’d like to tell/ About this guy you all know him, he had me scared as hell!” rapped the Fresh Prince, who later became better known by his real name, Will Smith. “He comes to me at night after I crawl into bed/ He’s burnt up like a weenie and his name is Fred!”

Just one problem: New Line Cinema, the owners of the A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, had already commissioned their own officially licensed Freddy Krueger rap track (“Are You Ready for Freddy”) by the Fat Boys – and, more importantly, they had specifically rejected DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince’s version.

Like a formulaic horror movie, you know what happens next. In July 1988, New Line took Smith, Jazzy Jeff (Jeff Townes) and Jive Records to federal court, arguing that “My Street” infringed their copyrights and trademarks to the Nightmare On Elm Street franchise. New Line also demanded an immediate injunction to stop MTV from airing the song’s soon-to-be released music video, which featured a look-alike Krueger and many other references to the movies.

What’s the origin story of this legal monster? According to legal filings from the case, New Line started thinking about commissioning a licensed hip hop theme song for “Elm Street 4″ nearly a year before the movie was released. Eventually, they settled on The Fat Boys, a pioneering rap trio who had released their breakout Crushin’ earlier that year. In March 1988, the group released “Are You Ready for Freddy” on their third studio album, Coming Back Hard Again.

But behind the scenes, an executive at Jive had been doing his best to convince New Line to use a theme song by DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince instead of the Fat Boys. According to legal filings, Smith and Townes recorded “My Street” in late 1987, and then Jive sent a copy of the track to the movie studio for consideration. Negotiations dragged on for months, but never culminated in a licensing deal.

In April, Jive released the song anyway, including it on DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince’s album “He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper.” The song told the story of the duo encountering the same haunting scenario as the movies, where Krueger kills people in real life by murdering his vicitms in their dreams

“It wasn’t a dream, man, this guy was for real,” Smith rapped. “I said, ‘Freddy, uh, pal, there’s been an awful mistake here’”

According to legal filings, as the August premiere of the movie got closer, Jive continued to get New Line to try to “change its mind” about licensing the song for the movie, including suggesting that MTV was interested in doing a music video for “My Street.” But the studio ultimately reached an official agreement with the Hot Boys to make their own licensed video for their song.

In July, New Line sent a cease-and-desist to Jive and owner Zomba Music, warning that the Fresh Prince song amounted to copyright infringement and demanding that the record be pulled from store shelves. Weeks later, New Line headed to court, accusing the Jive, Zomba, and the duo of a wide range of legal wrongdoing. Then in August, they went into overdrive after learning that Zomba had produced a music video for “My Street” and were planning to release it on MTV, demanding a preliminary injunction to block the video’s premiere.

In late August, a federal judge sided decisively with New Line. He ruled that the planned music video likely infringed the studio’s copyrights, citing the overwhelming similarities between them. And he rejected their argument that the video amounted to a legal “fair use,” saying it was instead simply an unauthorized competitor that was unfairly free-riding on New Line’s “massive promotional campaign.”

“The video exists solely as an vehicle to promote Zomba’s song,” the judge wrote, issuing the injunction banning the release of the video. “Thus, Zomba stands to profit financially by using Freddy without making the usual licensing arrangements, which in fact were made by the Fat Boys before they produced their video.”

Unlike the best horror franchises, there was no sequel to this legal fight. The case could have continued on to more litigation over the ultimate merits of the case, but after New Line won the injunction, the lawsuit quickly ended on a confidential settlement. The video was never released, and albums featured a sticker disclosing that the song was not affiliated with the movie.

But don’t forget, the killer is never quite dead: A version of “A Nightmare On My Street” is currently available on YouTube, where it now has 2.8 million views.

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