Like many Black genres before it, Hip-Hop has a complex relationship with the music business. MCs and producers have earned more money than they could have imagined given the racial barriers within the United States. Some figures in Hip-Hop have even become moguls, entering unchartered territory when it comes to Black people’s roles in American industries. Yet, record labels have still taken advantage of artists and producers that are unfamiliar with the nuances of the business. With this dynamic in mind, as well as the history of Black music in American culture, “selling out” has been a fear of fans and artists for most of Hip-Hop’s existence. People have been weary that as more influence and power is given to big record companies, the music as it is presented to mainstream America and the world at large will become less authentic and less reflective of the genre’s diversity. This fear has become more and more of a reality as the business of Hip-Hop has progressed. At the moment, mainstream Rap is largely homogeneous in its sound and content. While listening to a major Rap radio station, you’ll be hard-pressed to hear a song that isn’t made for the club or laced with melodic flows. The lack of diversity reflects the habits of major record labels. In a time where the internet disallows the large revenue of the past gained from record sales, labels primarily invest in the artists that give them the best opportunity for return on their investment. To all but guarantee such a return, labels pay attention to the trends of the day and seek out artists that fit the mold – bypassing many artists of quality.
The quality of mainstream Hip-Hop is diminished even further by the fact that there are only three major record labels in all of America – Universal Music Group, Sony, and Warner Music Group. With only three major labels, artists have limited options when it comes to sustained exposure to the average music fan. Without major label support, it is rare to gain much national radio play in a radio system that seems tightly connected to what music major labels offer to be played.
Yet, Black artists today have found ways to succeed without the support of the larger music companies. Plenty of them make Hip-Hop that is different in sound, content, technique, and image than what dominates airwaves. The same goes for R&B. These artists tend to work with independent labels and/or place much effort into touring. In the process, they build respectable, dedicated fan bases and earn a living. Some of them even form independent labels and music groups of their own – a recent example being 9th Wonder, Pharoah Monch, and Talib Kweli’s Indie 500 venture that joins their respective music groups. However, such efforts often go unrecognized by the average listener as well as award committees and media outlets. This lack of recognition imposes a cap to artists’ acclaim and finances that just doesn’t seem right when juxtaposed with the overwhelming success of White artists with the use of Black music styles. It is hard to believe that, of the Black artists operating outside of the mainstream, none of them could be properly marketed to America and given more exposure and praise.
A solution to the dilemma of Black artists operating in/outside of a business that marginalizes them could be the formation of a fourth major record label headed by Black moguls from the Hip-Hop and R&B community. The ones that come to mind – yet are in no way the only ones that could contribute – are Diddy, Jay-Z, Dr. Dre, and 50 Cent. All of these men have successfully built their brands off of their music and made several deals that have made them wealthy. In the process, their endeavors have at times seemed to be efforts at outdoing the rest. These efforts prove to be benefits of capitalism for the men.
However, their effort displays an individual focus that tends to move them away from the music business. Granted, they all have delivered great music to fans and ran labels that spawned Black artists that have had great careers. However, one can’t help but wonder what they could accomplish if they took a break from their apparent competition to collaborate for the sake of the music community that gave them the platform for their success. The men could each invest money to form a label that would have the resources to compete with UMG, Sony, and WMG under their supervision. In addition, they could have the label run by people from the industry that have proven to be knowledgeable and trustworthy to them during their experiences as artists, producers, and executives.
As a result, they could pair impressive financial resources with insight and commitment to Black artists in an unprecedented way. The moguls would be able to test the notions of what is or isn’t marketable that at one point held each of them back. They could allow different identities to be represented in the music by signing a variety of artists. The moguls could also help the mainstream portrayals of Hip-Hop and R&B move closer to an adequate reflection of the different styles within each genre. The label wouldn’t have to only hire Black employees or only sign Black artists. However, it could serve as a more reliable option for Black artists that want to reach a larger audience than they reach at the moment. Ultimately, the moguls would be returning to the efforts of Barry Gordy with Motown and Russell Simmons with the early version of Def Jam, yet with more capital and record business experience than the mentioned entrepreneurs had at their respective starts.
Now, this idea is not meant to be a critique of capitalism or a call for the moguls to abandon their solo endeavors. However, it is a proposal that if the moguls align with each other simply when it comes to the record industry, rather than just compete for the most success, they can build a label that can support Hip-Hop and R&B more effectively. The pairing of major label resources, knowledge of the genres from those working at the labels, and the intention to help various types of acts while making a profit can help many artists.
Alliance rather than competition. Such a shift can help steer Hip-Hop and R&B off of the path traveled by Rock & Roll and Jazz.