Sean “Diddy” Combs touched off a firestorm during Grammy week when the mogul decided to take the academy to task for its marginalization of Black artists.
“So I say this with love to the Grammys, because you really need to know this: Every year, y’all be killing us, man,” he said as he ended his Icon Award acceptance speech during Clive Davis’ pre-show gala.
“Truth be told, hip-hop has never been respected by the Grammys. Black music has never been respected by the Grammys to the point that it should be.”
“I’m officially starting the clock. You’ve got 365 days to get this shit together. We need the artists to take back control. We need transparency. We need diversity.”
But Diddy’s words rang hollow for one of his former proteges. In the late 1990s, Ma$e was arguably the brightest star on Diddy’s Bad Boy label. But Ma$e departed Bad Boy in the early 2000s amidst conflicts with Combs, and the rapper posted on Instagram this week, blasting his old label boss for shady business dealings in the face of Combs’ rabble-rousing speech.
There are arguably more high-profile moguls in hip-hop than at any time in its history... but the game is still the game.
“Your past business practices knowingly has continued purposely starved your artist and been extremely unfair to the very same artist that helped u obtain that Icon Award on the iconic Badboy label,” read the caption. “For example, u still got my publishing from 24 years ago in which u gave me $20k. Which makes me never want to work w/ u as any artist wouldn’t.”
The Harlem native continued, revealing that he offered to buy back his publishing as recently as “a few days ago.”
“To add insult, u keep screaming black excellence and love but I know love isn’t free. So I offered u 2m in cash just a few days ago to sell me back my publishing(as his biggest artist alive) that always show u respect for u giving me an opportunity at 19 yrs old. Your response was if I can match what the EUROPEAN GUY OFFER him that would be the only way I can get it back. Or else I can wait until I’m 50 years old and it will revert back to me from when I was 19 years old. You bought it for about 20k & I offered you 2m in cash. This is not black excellence at all.”
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@diddy I heard your #Grammy speech about how u are now for the artist and about how the artist must take back control. So I will be the first to take that initiative. Also, before we ask of other ethnicities to do us right we should do us as black people better. Especially the creators. I heard u loud and clear when u said that u are now for the artist and to that my response is if u want to see change you can make a change today by starting with yourself. Your past business practices knowingly has continued purposely starved your artist and been extremely unfair to the very same artist that helped u obtain that Icon Award on the iconic Badboy label. For example, u still got my publishing from 24 years ago in which u gave me $20k. Which makes me never want to work w/ u as any artist wouldn’t after u know someone is robbing you & tarnishing your name when u don’t want to comply w/ his horrendous business model. However, people would always ask what’s up w/ Mase? So I would be forced to still perform to not look crazy when I was getting peanuts and the robbery would continue. So many great moments and people lives in music were lost. But again, I rode with u in the face of death without flinching & u still wouldn’t do right. I never said anything because I wanted to wait until I was financially great so I can ensured that I was addressing this from a pure place and not out of spite. To add insult, u keep screaming black excellence and love but I know love isn’t free. So I offered u 2m in cash just a few days ago to sell me back my publishing(as his biggest artist alive) that always show u respect for u giving me an opportunity at 19 yrs old. Your response was if I can match what the EUROPEAN GUY OFFER him that would be the only way I can get it back. Or else I can wait until I’m 50 years old and it will revert back to me from when I was 19 years old. You bought it for about 20k & I offered you 2m in cash. This is not black excellence at all. When our own race is enslaving us. If it’s about us owning, it can’t be about us owning each other. No More Hiding Behind “Love”. U CHANGED? GIVE THE ARTIST BACK THEIR $$$. So they can take care of their families
This is an era of high-profile “Black excellence,” as hip-hop’s elder generation of moguls and their younger counterparts bask in career achievement and upward mobility. There are arguably more high-profile moguls in hip-hop than at any time in its history. The biggest Black artists flaunt their acumen in the boardroom and their spots on the Forbes list. But the game is still the game; Black artists still seem to have the same grievances against the industry. Just as Ma$e had to air out his grievances with his old deal, a similar sentiment was recently echoed by singer Kelis.
The innovative alt-R&B artist was at her peak in the early 2000s, but she recently revealed how little she made from those early albums and work with superproducers The Neptunes.
“I was told we were going to split the whole thing 33/33/33, which we didn’t do,” Kelis said in a recent interview with The Guardian. She felt that she’d been taken advantage of.
“Their argument is: ‘Well, you signed it.’ I’m like: ‘Yeah, I signed what I was told, and I was too young and too stupid to double-check it.’”
There is a proud history of Black moguldom in the music business. Names like Berry Gordy, Russell Simmons, Sean Combs and Bryan “Birdman” Williams have come to symbolize all that can be achieved with a lot of drive, talent and ambition. But the music empires of iconic labels from Motown to LaFace all have the scars inherent to the music business—this “Black excellence” doesn’t take a backseat to big business. And the business is just as rough when you bet on Black.
Black excellence is hollow when achievements sit on the back of exploitation.
Berry Gordy’s Motown is arguably the most iconic label in music, built from former steelworker and aspiring boxer Gordy’s 1950s vision. The label would become home to everyone from The Temptations to Marvin Gaye, but their slick sound and aspirational image was also a testament to Gordy’s business model, as he ran each artist through a system of grooming, connected them with a proven stable of producers and songwriters, and guided their careers through his own perspectives. As time went on, artists like Gaye and Stevie Wonder bucked the system—while others like The Four Tops and producers Holland-Dozier-Holland and Norman Whitfield jumped ship.
The Funk Brothers weren’t credited on any Motown releases (save for Marvin Gaye’s famous shout out to bassist James Jamerson in the liner notes of What’s Going On), so most of them languished in obscurity for most of their careers, unable to even capitalize on the renown that should’ve come with playing on the most iconic hits of a generation. When the label celebrated its silver anniversary with Motown 25: Yesterday, Today and Forever in 1983, lore has it that Jamerson had to sneak in and quietly watch from the audience.
The Jackson 5 were the last classic stars born of Motown’s machine, but by the mid-1970s, the maturing teen act was feeling stifled by that machine. The Jackson 5 wanted a better royalty rate and creative control. When Gordy wouldn’t budge, it led to a legal standoff between the label and the group. Four members of the Jackson 5 (Jackie, Tito, Marlon and Michael) countersued Motown for unpaid royalties and to terminate any contractual obligations to the label.
And later labels propelled by Black moguls also ran afoul of their artists. L.A. Reid and Babyface Edmonds founded their LaFace label in 1990 and would subsequently launch the careers of superstars like Usher, OutKast, and TLC. The latter was managed by Reid’s wife Pebbles and became one of the biggest acts of the 1990s, but famously filed for bankruptcy at the height of their popularity—citing an exploitative management deal with Pebbles and they filed suit against LaFace.
That suit was settled in 1996. In 1998, fellow LaFace star Toni Braxton would also file for bankruptcy. She also sued LaFace and Arista that year to get out of her contract to the label; they would reach a settlement in 1999. In the original lawsuit, Braxton alleged that she’d sold more than 15 million copies of two albums and earned Arista “an estimated $170 million.”
Black excellence is hollow when achievements sit on the back of exploitation. Diddy’s sentiments absolutely have validity, but there also has to be an effort to change the way the industry does business. If there is room for everyone to take control, then it can’t just be lip-service. Business is business, but it’s also worth noting that we can’t preach progress while following the oppressor’s business model.