Over the years, Hip-Hop has evolved and the greatest rappers have grown to become the greatest curators. Even though a rapper can find the next big artist and give a fat co-sign, a smart few tend to sign and nurture these very acts into full-on superstars that dominate the game for the next couple of years. Rapper-owned labels are usually a gray area in hip hop, but sometimes, and more recently very often, they bring the best talent. Ignoring the rappers who own labels and barely push their acts or sign one-hit wonders instead, here are the best rapper-owned labels that truly changed the game:
BAD BOY RECORDS
Nowadays Bad Boy Records is known for the signings of French Montana and MGK, but back in the 90s, it was the house of heavy hitters such as 112, Lil Kim, Faith Evans, and "The King of New York", The Notorious B.I.G. All thanks to Sean Combs himself, Diddy, Puff, the guy who smacked Drake and fought Cole at a party, whatever you want to call him. Other than Diddy wishing to be Floyd Money Mayweather, Bad Boy has dropped multiple hits time and time again while being led by someone who wasn’t even a rapper first, yet managed to release his own rap music in the process.
CASH MONEY RECORDS
Besides hustling his artists for their royalties, Birdman seems to always know what the streets need and has been providing it since the early 90s. He's had it figured out from the beginning, from dropping hits with Mannie Fresh and Juvenile, all the way to kickstarting the legacy of Lil Wayne who holds even greater weight than Birdman himself. This would eventually show as Baby himself decided to keep Wayne around as long as possible while even having his shooters make sure he dies Cash Money. The beef was squashed as Wayne was able to dip from his contract and be on good terms with the man who demands respect for his name. Cash Money of course, went on to sign contemporaries such as Young Thug, Blueface, and Jacquees, but the extension of Cash Money, YMCMB, is what truly continued the legacy.
Jay-Z started Roca-A-Fella Records with Dame Dash and Biggs Burke, but as we all know it wouldn't have gone anywhere without the label’s frontman and one of the greatest rappers of all time, HOVA. Of course, you got Cam’ron, Memphis Bleek, and Beanie Siegel… but the Roc also gave us Yeezus, Kanye West! As if Jay wasn’t a beast alone, his bars would only elevate over Ye’s beats, and when Dame Dash signed the young pink polo-wearing producer as a rapper as well, they never expected him to go on to be a rap star, it was just so they could keep getting beats from him. All of this culminated in an era where Ye would transition the music industry from Gangster Rap to more creative throughout projects. This statement was solidified in 2008 when Kanye’s Graduation outsold 50 Cent’s Curtis in an intense match-up with both albums releasing the same day.
This label later evolved into RocNation, however, the most noticeable act that was directly signed to the new Roc is J. Cole. The label ended up catering more to the management of artists, producers, athletes, and more. When it comes to the argument of Rihanna being part of the Roc… Jay actually signed her over at Def Jam while serving as President of the label.
YOUNG MONEY RECORDS
Besides creating the Carter series which redefined hip hop, Wayne built the innovative Young Money Militia with Drake and Nicki Minaj who made a huge impact on the 2010s. Nicki showed that a young woman from Jamaica, Queens could spit harder than the majority of her contemporaries while Drake showed there was more to him than being a teen actor on a Canadian drama show. Nicki then developed a cult following known as “Barbs” while Drake opened up a sweatshop known as OVO and decided to break 8-year engagements in the process. The team also held Curren$y and Tyga, and a few other lesser-known artists that kept the team floating while Wayne was away.
Maybe not so much now, but the early 2010s were a different time for Kanye’s label and pushed some legendary acts that have come to defined today's superstars. Kid Cudi, Big Sean, Pusha T (Post Clipse Era), Common, CyHi The Prynce, Charlie Wilson, John Legend, Teyana Taylor, the list goes on. With this stacked team, Ye proved he could do right with his own label, even when Sway didn’t have the answers.
A big part of the success that was conjured with G.O.O.D. Music was timing. In 2010, Ye was coming off of his critically acclaimed album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, a Kid named Cudi was building his own cult following, and Big Sean's debut album, Finally Famous, was already in the works. The culmination of these 3 figures, the addition of Pusha T, and the ghostwriting of CyHi The Prynce created a beast that roared for a solid 5 years. Going on to even strongly affiliate with Travis Scott and 2 Chainz during their rise to stardom.
Maybach Music Group
After the Teflon Don himself realized he was laying hit after hit from the early 2000s into the 2010s, Ricky Rosé realized it was time for him to boss up and lead his own pack of heavy hitter rappers. Whether it was saving Wale from Mark Ronson’s label after his hit 90210, or finding a young Meek Mill in Philly as a Dreamcasher, there’s absolutely no doubt that Rick Ross the Boss has an ear for elite artists that developed their own legacies instead of relying on their label head for everything.
Meek definitely gained recognition early on with his "House Party", and even though his beef with Drake didn’t turn out as he thought it would, Meek has rebranded himself and become a certified legend. Let’s not sleep on Wale either as he still holds his own as a wordsmith with the pen game of a true master over lush samples and prying 808s.
So yeah, there are the OVO sweatshop rumors… and they are not just for the sweatshirts ya favorite IG girl be rocking with her weekly man. However, if it’s true then the label indeed has the talent to help put its label head on the map while knowing which artists will lead the way in the next couple of years.
Drake decided to start the label with his manager Oliver El-Khatib and ended up signing hot acts such as PartyNextDoor, DVSN, Majid Jordan, Baka Not Nice, Roy Woods, and many more. They’ve even given heavy co-signs, nearly signing these acts before other major labels swooped in to get them such as The Weeknd and Bryson Tiller. The names alone show what a powerhouse this label truly is, all jokes aside.
Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE)
When it comes to TDE, the first name you think of is Kung-Fu Kenny, yet its creator, Punch, is sometimes forgotten to be a rapper himself. This label has nothing but beasts as everyone carries their own whether it’s Schoolboy Q with intense psychedelic raps, SZA with the lush and heavy riffs, Jay Rock putting on for the streets, Isaiah Rashad with his reclusive appearances, and Ab-Soul with the cutthroat lyrics he’s known for.
The definition of a label seems to change with the ever-evolving landscape of music and entertainment. Rapper-owned labels are seen less and less, and for reasons that revolve around ego. It’s noticeable that the biggest labels with the biggest acts are sometimes when the creator is focused on their acts instead of their own craft. All in due time as we can only wait and see which label can keep putting out heat while wondering which artists even decide to stay with the label they started off with.
Off the bat, Dreamville packs a punch even if all their acts are not the most mainstream, there's no denying the amount of talent at this powerhouse. Being led by J. Cole who recently dropped, The Off Season, there really is no denying that the Dreamville roster carries their own weight. From Ari Lennox who gained a massive following by having her single Shea Butter Baby featured in Creed 2, EarthGang being seen as the next coming of OutKast, or JID’s storytelling leading to him hosting a listening party at Leonardo DiCaprio’s house, J. Cole has an ear for long-lasting art.
The latest rapper label, believe it or not, is Travis Scott’s Cactus Jack Records. Officially brewing when Sheck Wes came into the scene with "Mo Bamba", dominating the charts in 2018, Travis's new label came at the perfect time for the release of his highly anticipated album, Astroworld. Then after signing Don Toliver, the label only grew stronger with tracks such as "After Party", "Lemonade", and "No Idea". The hype is real as the label even dropped a compilation album for all its members, Jackboys, which packed hits such as "Out West" and "GATTI".
Travis has followed in the steps of former superstars by now using his platform to catapult the next stars.