Lil Wayne’s ascent is the story of Cash Money. The Dirty South starts with LaFace Records. The east-coast/west-coast feud is Bad Boy vs. Death Row. In hip hop, the artist-label relationship isn’t just a business deal, but a commitment to an identity.

We wanted to surface the notable labels in hip hop’s history, so we measured every label by its artists’ chart performance. By highlighting the labels who produced the most hits at any given time, we’d understand who was wielding enormous influence on hip hop’s sound, distribution, and direction.

In 1989, regional independent labels dominated with superstar signings: Young MC and the Pharcyde are signed to Delicious Vynl. Biz Markie (Just a Friend), Big Daddy Kane (Smooth Operator), and Marley Marl are all on Cold Chillin. Ruthless, Eazy E’s label, has N.W.A. and The D.O.C. on its roster. Jive is crushing it with a roster that includes Boogie Down Productions, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, and Too $hort. And Tommy Boy presciently released both De La Soul and Queen Latifah’s first albums.

Let’s warp to the mid-90s, when labels began to play a new role in hip hop under the tutelage of Puff Daddy with Bad Boy and Suge Knight/Dre with Death Row.

Beginning in ’94, Bad Boy and Death Row began to compete with major labels for artists. Puff Daddy used his experience at Uptown and with artists such as Heavy D to launch Bad Boy, releasing rap albums with both underground and pop potential (e.g., Notorious B.I.G, Craig Mack).

Bad Boy’s growth was followed by its feud with Death Row (Dre, 2pac), forever changing the role of labels in hip hop. Labels were not only the business-side of rap, but now a regional collective of artists who represent an identity and philosophy towards hip hop.

During the mid-90s, a number of notable labels launched and gained notoriety:

Today, Young Money is dominating with a lineup of Nicki Minaj, Drake, Tyga, and Lil Wayne.

The weird thing is that it’s only Young Money. For the past 25 years, there’s always been mega-popular labels (e.g., Shady/Aftermath, Rawkus, No Limit, Bad Boy) – there were just more of them at one time.

This is the current state of hip hop: Young Money has been the top label for each of the past five years. For the first time in hip hop’s history, one label has had unprecedented influence. There’s one sound and identity dominating the zeitgeist of hip hop.

But Young Money’s success has more to do with the evolving music industry.

Artists don’t need the big-budget marketing and distribution of major labels – they start with a grassroots social media following. In 2013, Macklemore famously avoided the label game all together, only signing a distribution deal. Chance the Rapper is still unsigned. Fetty Wap recently signed a deal with 300 Entertainment, but it was only after he had a huge hit with Trap Queen. Instead of several, chart-dominating labels, hits are increasingly released by small, local labels (or even self-released).

So labels are experimenting, trying to figure out how to stay relevant in a world that needs them less.

Sometimes that means staying small. XL Recordings (Adele, M.I.A., FKA Twigs) is one potential model, who keeps its roster small and typically releases no more than six albums a year.

It means labels can focus on longevity rather than big hits. Without the gatekeepers for distribution, labels and artists make a living without money flowing through major labels. Rhymesayers’ model has sustained for 20 years, staying small and working with artists who have deep fan bases rather than the potential for massive commercial success. Tyler the Creator’s Odd Future Records, Fools Gold (Kid Cudi, Danny Brown, Run the Jewels), and Strange Music (Tech n9ne, Murs, MayDay) don’t operate as chart-dominating entities (a nice outcome, but not their focus) – in today’s music landscape, they can viably support themselves with a loyal, niche market.

All this means that Young Money might be the last commercially-dominating label in hip hop, an end of an era.

Giztzzz…                  mAdE t.V!



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