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IN HONOR OF

20TH ANNIVERSARY

The Most Successful Labels in Hip Hop

Every hip hop record label, since 1989, sorted by their artists' chart performance on Billboard

Matt Daniels – Polygraph, Kevin Beacham – Rhymesayers

In hip hop, so much can be explained by the rise and fall of record labels.

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 on Billboard (collaborating with Kevin Beacham of Rhymesayers to call out insights). 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.

Here’s the stats for 600+ labels over the past 25 years:

The Most Successful Labels in Hip Hop

Hip Hop Labels, sorted by their Artists' Performance* on Billboard's Rap Chart (1989-present)

All

NY

LA

ATL

NOLA

SF

MIA

LABEL

# OF CHARTING TRACKS

# OF CHARTING ARTISTS

CUMULATIVE WEEKS ON CHART

YEARS CHARTING

Weeks on Chart by Year

1989

2015

*Using the Billboard "Hot Rap Songs" chart. We weight a label's tracks based on its chart rank (#1 - #50) and weeks charted. Note that the label-to-artist assignment is very difficult and complex, and in general assigned an artist to whatever label he/she would call out at the start of a track.

The top ten list reads like a history of hip hop. Def Jam, the pioneer label in hip hop, is properly at #1. Young Money has only been active for the past six years, and it’s at #2, exemplifying the current state of hip hop and its concentration in one place.

Let’s look at just 1989, the launch of Billboard’s “Hot Rap Singles” chart:

Hip Hop Labels in 1989, sorted by their artists' chart performance on billboard

Circle size indicates Billboard performance of Label’s artists.

Scroll down to start

YEAR

'89

'90

'91

'92

'93

'94

'95

'96

'97

'98

'99

'00

'01

'02

'03

'04

'05

'06

'07

'08

'09

'10

'11

'12

'13

'14

'15

SCAN YEARS

1989

National Labels

LA-based

NY-based

Hip Hop Labels in 1989, sorted by their artists' chart performance on billboard

Circle size indicates Billboard performance of Label’s artists.

In 1989, regional independent labels dominated with superstar signings: Young MC and the Pharcyde are signed to Delicious Vinyl. 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:

#8 in the ranking of labels by success on Billboard, Ruffhouse was a joint venture with Columbia, signing Fugees, Cypress Hill, Kris Kross, and Wyclef Jean.

Big Beat began as a house music label, but shifted to hip hop in the 90s, signing Junior M.A.F.I.A., Lil’ Kim, and RZA.

Loud Records was started by Steve Rifkin in ’91, represented street-themed music, including Big Pun, Xhibit, Wu Tang, and Mobb Deep.

Started by Jay Z, Dame Dash, Kareem Burke in '95, Roc-A-Fella consisted primarily of Jay Z releases until the late '90s and early '00s, when the label signed Memphis Bleek, Beanie Sigel, and Cam'ron (and eventually Kanye West in '04).

Let’s look at the current state of hip hop over the past five years:

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.

Quality over Quantity

Distribution of Labels, Sorted by their Billboard Success*. Each Bar Represents a Label.

Label Success*

100
50
0

Hip Hop Labels

YEAR:
10 years ago, success was spread-out among large to mid-size labels.
Today, hits are concentrated among a few major labels, with the remaining distributed among smaller labels.
YEAR:

*Success = weighting of label's tracks based on its chart rank (#1 - #50) and weeks charted. The y-axis is indexed to the best performing label depicted. Years 1993 - 2001 are excluded; Billboard increased the chart ranking from 30 to 50 tracks during this time period.

Or 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 (who helped on this article) 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.

Want more hip hop analysis? Kevin Beacham of Rhymesayers wrote an extended piece on the label data too.