On Fox's hit show Empire, family patriarch Lucious Lyon rose from dealing drugs on the mean streets of Philadelphia to become a superstar rapper and build an enormously successful record label, the appropriately named Empire Entertainment. It’s a case of art imitating life — rappers launching their own labels has been going on since hip-hop revolutionized music more than 30 years ago.
From Eazy-E’s Ruthless Records in the ‘80s to Sean Combs’ Bad Boy imprint and Dr. Dre’s Aftermath in the ‘90s, a true sign of hip-hop success has been the clout to create a label from which to distribute their music.
Today, a who’s who roster of superstar MCs own and operate some of the most successful labels in the game. Rick Ross’ Maybach Music, T.I.’s Grand Hustle, and Birdman and Lil Wayne’s presently embattled Cash Money, among others, represent a sea of chart-topping and award-winning rap releases over the past decade.
Like those labels, the following six rapper-owned imprints have been the source of a bevy of hit records, iconic artists, the occasional risky signing that may or may not have paid off, and even the first rap track to ever take home the Academy Award for Best Original Song.
The Story: Jay Z penned the legendary line, “I’m not a businessman/I’m a business, man,” during his verse on the remix of Kanye West’s “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” back in 2005, but he’s been living that life since the mid-‘90s. That’s when he launched Roc-A-Fella Records with then-partners Dame Dash and Kareem "Biggs" Burke. Now he helms Roc Nation, a successful entertainment company that houses everything from a record label to a sports management division.
The Hits: While still a relatively new label (it was founded in 2008), Roc Nation boasts such heavy-hitters as Rihanna, who released her 2016 full-length, Anti, on the imprint after years with Def Jam. The label also is also home to J. Cole, who’s released a series of albums on the imprint, including 2014 Forest Hill Drive, which famously went double platinum without any features.
The X Factor: Roc Nation’s management division allows the company to work with an impressively diverse range of artists, including Grimes, HAIM, Nick Jonas and Demi Lovato.
The Story: Drake season marches on, with the pride of Canada officially launching the OVO Sound label in 2012 with producer and partner Noah “40” Habib to release his massive third studio effort, Nothing Was the Same, the following year.
The Hits: While Drake’s own releases on OVO are the label’s biggest hits, he’s built up an impressive stable of acts including PARTYNEXTDOOR, Majid Jordan and dvsn.
The X Factor: The label already has its own annual music festival, OVO Fest, which happens every year in his beloved hometown of Toronto. The event happens at the same time as Caribana, a huge yearly street celebration of Caribbean culture that routinely attracts more than a million people.
Mass Appeal Records
The Story: After 20 years as one of hip-hop’s most influential rappers and a true pioneer, Nas got into the label game by starting the Mass Appeal record label in 2014 with the media company of the same name.
The Hits: The independent imprint is fully loaded with releases from an impressive roster that includes the latest full-length from DJ Shadow and posthumous projects from J Dilla and Pimp C. The label’s current kings, however, are the rap supergroup Run the Jewels, featuring El-P and Killer Mike. The duo’s highly-anticipated third full-length is set for release in early 2017.
The X Factor: Even though he’s the label head, Nas has yet to release music on Mass Appeal. He has teased that he’ll issue the long-awaited sequel to The Lost Tapes on the imprint, intimating that there could be even more editions in the future.
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The Story: After shaking up the rap world with his debut album, Kanye West founded his label GOOD Music in 2004, followed by the releases of such powerhouse projects as John Legend’s Get Lifted and Common’s Be. From Kid Cudi’s legendary Man on the Moon albums to Desiigner’s debut full-length, GOOD Music continues to be a major player in the world of hip-hop.
The Hits: GOOD Music is all about the hits, from the bevy of bangers on the label’s 2012 compilation album, Cruel Summer, to the massive crossover success of Desiigner’s chart-topping smash, “Panda.”
The X Factor: The label’s stable of in-house producers is well stocked with such marquee hit-makers as Travis Scott, Q-Tip, Mike Dean and Hudson Mohawke.
The Story: Eminem quickly capitalized on his breakout sensation status after the triumph of his debut album, The Slim Shady LP, by launching Shady Records with longtime manager, Paul Rosenberg, back in 1999.
The Hits: Shady has been enormously successful, with a majority of the label’s full-length releases reaching platinum status. Among those albums: 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’, D12’s Devil’s Night and compilation album, Eminem Presents: The Re-Up. More recently, Shady has become the home to Alabama rapper, Yelawolf, who released his 2015 album, Love Story, on the imprint. Last year also saw the label release the soundtrack to Jake Gyllenhaal movie, Southpaw, which featured two new Eminem songs alongside tracks from the Weeknd and 50 Cent.
The X Factor: The soundtrack to Eminem’s massive biopic, 8 Mile, was released on Shady Records. The lead single, “Lose Yourself,” has the distinction of being the first rap song to win the coveted Academy Award for Best Original Song.
Odd Future Records
The Story: Los Angeles hip-hop rebel Tyler, the Creator formed the Odd Future label in 2011 as a way to showcase music from the extended OF crew as well as his own solo releases.
The Hits: With a panoramic roster that includes thrash-punks Trash Talk and hip-hop soul outfit the Internet, it’s Tyler himself that continues to be the label’s most popular act. His most recent solo albums, Wolf and Cherry Bomb, both debuted near the top of the Billboard charts.
The X Factor: While longtime OF members Frank Ocean and Earl Sweatshirt never signed to the label, both have maintained a presence among the crew, making appearances on Tyler’s albums and at live shows.