Last week HipHopDX spoke with Liza Rios, the widow of legendary Latin lyricist Christopher “Big Pun” Rios, to get her response to the statement released by the man who discovered Pun, Fat Joe, last Wednesday (August 5th) responding to statements made by Liza in a recent interview with Ms. Drama TV regarding royalties due to Pun that she claims Joe has yet to account for.
In response to Joe’s claim in his subsequent statement that he gave Liza the entire advance monies allocated by Loud Records/Sony Music for the posthumous Pun project, 2001’s Endangered Species, and that no one else, including Joe, made any money off of that album, Liza told DX, “For the Endangered Species, [Joe] did create a album – not that I asked him to do a album. I don’t know if anybody else made money off of it. But I can show you proof that I received [from Sony] a [total of] $125,000 off the Endangered Species [album]… It was broken down in pieces. It was like I think $50,000 up front, and then [subsequent payments of] $25,000 [and] $50,000. When they first started doing the album I got an advance, and then after the album was done I got the rest.”
As for Joe’s additional claim in his statement that he also donated to Liza the entire advance that would be due to Pun for publishing, Liza acknowledges that she did in fact receive a check from Jelly Jams Music (operated by John ‘Jelly Bean’ Benitez) sometime following the release of Endangered Species. However, according to Liza, Joe may not have played a part in her receiving the advance for half of the publishing proceeds.
“Fifty percent [of Pun’s publishing] was owned by Jelly Bean Benitez, and then the other 50 was split between Pun and Joe – meaning 25 [%] for Pun, 25 for Joe,” she explained. “When Pun passed, there was a check that Jelly Bean had to give Pun. Now, he made the check out to the estate, which was for a $116,000. This was back in 2001, 2002. So the check was made out to the estate. Jelly Bean…he had no idea that Pun had signed a separate deal on the side giving [Joe] a portion of [his 50%] publishing [stake]. Once Jelly Bean gave me that check under the estate of Christopher Rios, then Joe was automatically cut off that deal if they had any deal.”
Liza is unsure if Joe and Pun’s publishing arrangement was still in place by the time Endangered Species was released a year after Pun’s passing, as Pun had renegotiated his deal with Joe before his sophomore release, Yeeeah Baby, and per Liza under the terms of that new agreement Joe was supposed to give up his 25% stake in Pun’s publishing.
“But, soon after that [Pun] passed,” she noted. “And then once I got [that] advance for the publishing, Jelly Bean automatically gave it to the estate… He said that he didn’t trust anyone, and he wasn’t sure if I was gonna get that money, so he put it under the estate of Christopher Rios. And me, as his wife, I had to go and do the administration paperwork – go to the county courthouse and become the executive administrator of Pun’s estate, which I am presently today.”
So, according to Liza, the monies she received for the recording and publishing advances for Endangered Species totaled $241,000. And that total take for the album was bumped up slightly, to $256,000, a few years later.
“I only received one royalty check in my whole life, which was for Endangered Species back in 2004 for almost $15,000,” she revealed. “Pun’s old lawyer called me like, ‘Oh my God, I thought you would never, ever, ever see a check again.’ [And so then I told him] I need all Pun’s contracts because I wanna… ‘Cause I know when someone passes on there’s certain legal things that you have to do… [And] the lawyer told me basically that he had no contracts. He had no idea where the contracts were at… He looked at me dead in my face and he held my hand and said besides his mother I’m the strongest woman he’s ever met.”
While a quarter-million dollars is arguably a handsome payout for one album, the dispute between Liza and Joe seems to stem not from the funds received for Endangered Species, but from the funds that according to Pun’s widow are still due her deceased husband for sales of his first two albums, 1998’s platinum-certified classic Capital Punishment, and its gold-selling follow-up, 2000’s Yeeeah Baby, which was released less than two months after Pun’s passing on February 7, 2000.
All three of Big Pun’s albums Liza claims have been recouped for various costs (album advances, video expenses, etc) undertaken by the label (a fact she says was unintentionally leaked to her by an employee at Sony), but she has still yet to receive any royalties for those albums that continue to sell stateside and worldwide. The royalty department at Sony told Liza any issues regarding royalties needed to be taken up with Fat Joe, who according to Liza continues to refuse to provide an accounting for anything regarding Pun. So according to Pun’s widow, as of today it remains a mystery as to who is receiving those royalty checks made out to Christopher Rios.
“I don’t know who gets the money,” said Liza. “I know the kids don’t get anything. Pun doesn’t get paid. And had he been alive, it would not have been happening this way. But, people took advantage of the situation.”
On the surface it would seem the person who has taken the most advantage of the situation caused by a wife with limited legal recourse demanding the royalties due her deceased husband is Big Pun’s onetime manager, Fat Joe.
“Any monies that would go to Pun would go to Joe’s hand first, and he would break Pun off,” Liza explained of the “Twinz” rather unique business relationship. “[Joe] was getting 50% of everything. So if [Pun] got X amount of money [from] the advance [from] the record label, [Joe] would get half of that. And…whatever he was getting from Jelly Bean [for publishing], Pun would give [Joe] half of that. And [Pun was] also paying [Joe] manager fees. And then while [Pun] was on the road, [Pun] was paying the guy who was booking up the shows. And also while he was on the road, [Pun] was paying the road manager. So he was paying a lot of people out.”
But even with the alleged greedy business practices on Joe’s part, Liza doesn’t see her husband’s former partner as the sole source of her now almost decade-long struggles in dealing with Pun’s affairs since his passing.
“I don’t put 100% blame on Joe; I put a lot of blame on Pun,” she said. “He shoulda been smarter. He shoulda been wise with the business. And he wasn’t. He swore that these people were gonna take care of me, that I was TS, Terror Squad. Before he passed, I didn’t believe him. I stressed him like, ‘Make sure your affairs are in order…’ I didn’t wanna be bothered with him passing on and everybody now is stressing over the money. I just wanted to be left alone with my kids… And we even got into an altercation, a little fight, because he swore that I was Terror Squad and nobody would ever do me wrong. And that is not the case.”
While the debate continues as to how much wrong has been done to Pun’s estate by Joe’s alleged refusal to pony up any proceeds earned from Pun’s first two albums, in Joe Crack’s defense it should be noted that in addition to the $125,000 for Endangered Species directed to Liza, per an interview Liza gave to Forbez DVD last year, Joe at one point, around 2002, also cut her a personal check for $20,000. Liza revealed to DX that she received an additional $44,000 check from ASCAP for Fat Joe’s seemingly gracious gesture of giving Pun co-writer’s credit on Joe’s gold-certified 2001 single “What’s Luv?”
And aside from Joe, responsibility for providing royalty statements for Pun’s albums on Loud Records should arguably also fall to that label’s founder.
“I honestly can say that the last time I spoke to Steve Rifkind [click to read] was the day that Pun died,” Liza revealed. “I spoke to him on the phone in the hospital, and he was asking me if he could give permission to Angie [Martinez of HOT97] to let the world know that Pun had passed. I have not seen or heard from Steve Rifkind ever since.”
Whoever is ultimately responsible to ensure that Big Pun’s royalties are accounted for and are paid to his estate is irrelevant to many spectators to this situation who believe that Liza is somehow out-of-line for even demanding that royalties for Pun’s work a decade ago be documented and distributed to his estate. While the mothers of several fallen Hip Hop luminaries – Tupac Shakur, The Notorious B.I.G., J. Dilla, etc – have not been scrutinized for their efforts to collect royalties from their son’s works and maintain income for estates that they operate, a deceased Rap legend’s widow, and mother of his three children, is considered to have an illegitimate claim on her husband’s royalties.
Most of the scrutiny that’s been directed towards Liza can be summed up in one question: How the hell do you blow off $300,000-$400,000? If totaling up all of the aforementioned funds, along with the additional $75,000 Liza earned from signing off onetime Pun discoveries Remy Ma and Tony Sunshine from his Foundation Records imprint to Joe’s Terror Squad label, in the minds of many Liza has already received more than her fair share of monies from Pun’s music.
And even having explained in previous interviews that after taxes the money she received was used to pay legal fees along with the monthly mortgage, utilities and other household expenses for five years on the home she shared with Pun prior to his passing (and was forced to eventually sell), there are those that still believe that Liza is a lazy freeloader attempting to live off of her dead husband’s decade-old recordings.
“I do work,” said Liza. “I do go about doing other things… I also braid hair in a barber shop in the Bronx… Manage a tattoo shop… Do I have a nine-to-five like normal people? No, I don’t. Will I ever get a nine-to-five? No, my husband didn’t raise me that way. If you listen to his rhymes [he said], ‘I’d rather sell crack than do pizza deliveries.’ I’m not gonna get a regular nine-to-five job. Do I hustle, and I make my own money and I make my own way? Yes I do. Have I asked anybody for anything? No I never have. I never asked a soul – no one in the industry, no one in the streets. I’ve never asked for a handout. And I’m not gonna start today. If I ever ask for donations it’s always for, and it will always be for, the Big Pun Foundation, which I’m excited about that it’s up and active – found that out about two, three weeks ago… I’m bringing that back up again and getting that in order, and hopefully raising money for that. That’s gonna go straight back into the community.”
Liza made it a point during her discussion with DX to make it clear to fans that those who make their donations to Pun by purchasing a CD or download are unfortunately not seeing their contributions make their way back to Pun’s estate.
“Pun doesn’t get paid for anything [that his songs are used on],” she reiterated. “Any iTunes, ringtones, Pun does not get paid [for those purchases]. There’s an album that they wanna put out now, Sony [does]… Pun is not getting paid [for that].”
Billed as the soundtrack to the docu-DVD, Big Pun – The Legacy, Liza is releasing in conjunction with director Vlad Yudin, The Best Of Big Pun (a collection of previously-released Pun album tracks and guest appearances) is due for release the same day as the DVD’s retail release on September 15th. But according to Liza, she had no involvement in the CD that is being marketed as a companion piece to her DVD. And per Liza, her lawyers have already informed her that she has no rights to contest the soundtrack’s release since Loud is apparently still operating under the original contract Pun signed a dozen years ago. If Loud continues to not provide any royalty statements to Pun’s estate, this means The Best Of Big Pun won’t earn a dime for the man who made the music it contains.
“[Loud/Sony/Legacy is] giving me the option of putting a [Big Pun Foundation] logo [on] the album, and also a few thank you notes [in the credits],” Liza revealed. “And that’s all [the estate’s] getting.”
While the CD clearly isn’t sanctioned by the Pun estate, the DVD boasting never-before-seen footage of Pun (as well as a never-before-heard Pun track, “BX Niggaz”), along with commentary from Hip Hop heavyweights Snoop Dogg, Prodigy, Xzibit, Raekwon and many more, is definitely Liza Rios approved.
“[The featured artists on there are] basically talking about [their] interesting moments [with] Pun – when they first met him, how they thought he was as an artist…just what [impact] Pun left on their lives,” Liza explained of The Legacy. “And also they spoke about his demise, as far as the weight gain and how they felt about it. And they also expressed their loss once Pun passed on. So it’s a very touching film. It’s educational and entertaining as well.”
A percentage of the sales of the DVD will go to Pun’s estate. That money is obviously needed, even if pride prevented Liza from revealing to HipHopDX her current financial status and living arrangement (failing to confirm her claims of living in a shelter that were made during her interview with Ms. Drama). But Liza made it clear that she is still struggling, even nine-and-a-half years since Pun’s passing, with life without her husband.
“A while ago somebody asked me what I wanted to do with my life, and what did I want, and it was hard for me to answer,” Liza candidly revealed. “And that was sad for me. I’m 36-years-old, and I should already know what I want and who I am at this point in life.”
Getting on with her own life for now includes writing her autobiography, aiming to get a Notorious-style biopic on Big Pun to the big screen, and most importantly raising her three kids, who all are interested in following in their famous father’s footsteps and entering into the realm of entertainment in one way or another.
“My daughter Vanessa sings,” Liza noted. “Baby Pun, he raps. My oldest daughter Amanda Star, she’s very well-rounded and she does photography, she does web designing. There’s a lot of things that she’s involved in. She also wants to be this TV personality… So, there’s a lot in their future.”
Taking care of her family, and her own health (“I’ve been hospitalized a couple of times [due to] asthma,” Liza revealed), are priorities. And for now, as it has been for almost a decade, seeing to it that Pun finally sees his royalties also remains at the top of Liza’s to-do list in defiance of those that believe she should be content with the monies she’s already received and move on.
“At the end of the day,” she began, “whatever my current status is at this point in life, it doesn’t change the fact that Pun worked hard, and there’s money due to him and he should get that regardless of my situation.”