How the Big Sound of Hip-Hop Went Indie

Daniel Sternkopf


Since its origins, rap music was monopolized by major labels that packaged rappers in a manner that they believed to yield the most gain and garner the most appeal. In Jay-Z’s book Decoded, he talks about how the career of a close friend, the rapper Jaz, was nearly destroyed by a major label. Jay-Z describes how Jaz recorded his debut album with a lot of artistic control and for the most part, it sounded like the music he was making before he was signed.


However, the label insisted that a pop-sounding song be his lead single. Jay-Z goes on to state “That single was nearly a career suicide for Jaz” (Jay-Z, 78). Countless others have shared the same fate as Jaz and it’s impossible to delve further into this issue without discussing race. Bakari Kitwana, author of Why White Kids Love Hip-hop: Wankstas, Wiggers, Wannabes, and the New Reality of Race in America, discusses how the business side of hip-hop seeks to appeal to young whites. Kitwana also talks about how some labels have veteran black artists at their helm, but that they aren’t the ones making important label decisions. Kitwana quotes from Wendy Day, who has spent the past 13 years fighting against what is often described as a sharecropping system, and states “It’s very much an industry dominated by white men in their fifties… That’s who’s empowered, that’s who’s running things, that’s who’s saying yea or nay to signing checks. And the music industry is still run 100 percent by white corporations”


To be clear, sharecropping in this sense takes the previous notion of African-American tenant farmers giving a portion of their crops for rent and as a result do not make much in terms of money or earn the full benefits of their toil, and applies that to the music industry where the majority of rappers are African Americans and a portion of their profits are taken by the white men they work under. Needless to say, these white corporations are focused only on making the most money and as a result, what suffers? The music. 


However, with the rise in independent labels in rock and pop music, rap is beginning to follow suit. Ironically, some of the most influential rap albums of all time were independent. lists some notables as Boogie Down Productions’ “Criminal Minded” (1987), Eric B. and Rakim’s “Paid In Full” (1987) and N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton” (1988). Though independent rap labels such as Wild Pitch, Rawkus Records, Rhymesayers and Definitive Jux have produced a slew of critically acclaimed albums, unfortunately, only Rhymesayers has been able to stay in business.


Now new waves of independent rap labels are emerging with some of the most acclaimed and anticipated rappers at the forefront. A lot of new rappers are showing that they are willing to take chances with independent labels, which was largely unheard of 10 years ago, in an effort to remain totally in control of their music and maintain their artistic integrity.


Most prominent is the Southern California-based label of Top Dawg Entertainment. This label houses the Black Hippy collective whose members include Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul, ScHoolboy Q and Jay Rock. Kendrick’s most recent album is platinum-certified and was recorded with Top Dawg and then shopped to Interscope, a major label, already finished. This process of recording an album independently and then marketing it to major labels is also beginning to become more popular. Most importantly, it allows artists to remain entirely in control of their work. This blueprint is soon to be followed by ScHoolboy Q, whose album Oxymoron is heavily anticipated and is set to be released before the year ends. This process can also be seen similarly in the Los Angeles collective Odd Future. Their leader, Tyler the Creator, founded Odd Future Records in 2011. His most recent album titled “Wolf” was released jointly with Sony Records and has sold over 100,000 copies and peeked at #3 on the Billboard 200 chart. On the other hand, there are certain independent labels that do not associate with major labels at all and do not release their albums jointly.



In addition to Kendrick Lamar and Tyler, the Creator, the rapper Macklemore has had two #1 Billboard Hot 100 singles, both platinum, and a platinum album that came out in 2012, all of which was released independently on his own label.


At the forefront of independent rap labels is the Brooklyn-based Fool’s Gold Records. This label, like other prominent independent rap labels gets their artists exposure by releasing tons of free music and free mixtapes over the Internet that give music junkies their fill.  All of the free music released makes it very hard for major labels to compete when they only release singles that you have to buy on iTunes.


Fool’s Gold and other independent rap labels use social media extensively to give their artists exposure. Each rapper signed usually maintains constantly updated Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook pages. The label’s newest album set to drop was Danny Brown’s “Old,” which sites as the number 4 most anticipated album of 2013 and had a release date of September 30th on Spotify and October 8th to buy.


In 2010 Danny Brown was close to signing with G-Unit Records, which is distributed by Interscope, a major label. However, the head of the label, rapper 50-Cent, who had only previously heard Brown’s music, saw what he looked like in person (for those who don’t know what Danny Brown looks like, please do a quick image search on a search engine of your choice) and decided not to sign him. This experience pushed Brown as far away from major labels as he could go and eventually landed him with Fool’s Gold later that year. Danny Brown cites that he can talk to his label head at any time and that he feels like a human being and not just some number, which can go back to the sharecropping system described earlier by Wendy Day. And this is all in addition to complete control of the creative process.


Though independent labels tend not to stay in business as long as the majors, the works that are put out will always appeal to a growing fan base of hip-hop heads who constantly crave the new, groundbreaking and alternative sound that you will rarely find on major labels.



Author Bio:
Daniel Stenkopf is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.




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