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15 legendary rap record labels that deserve docuseries

Preezy Brown

 // Jun 17, 2019

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.


Even in a culture as relatively young as hip hop, documenting its history is paramount to preserve the legacies of its most pivotal figures. Over the past four decades, a number of stories have been told about key events and contributors who have added context to the art -- via music, entertainment, fashion and more -- that has helped shape our lives. However, with so much ground to cover, fitting all of the pertinent information into one film or documentary doesn't always do its subject justice.

With the expansion of multi-media platforms and subscription services, the demand for content has increased, as well as the various forms in which it can be presented. This has resulted in a rise in projects documenting hip hop and urban culture, which takes casual and die-hard fans behind the scenes; and provide insight into how the biggest empires, trends and figures came to prominence -- or crashed in a burning fire. In television, various networks have joined the party of bringing hip hop to the small screen, most recently Showtime's docuseries "Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men."

Split into four episodes, "Of Men and Mics" covers the humble beginnings of each Wu-Tang Clan member, the group's rise to fame, and the internal conflict that put the Wu dynasty in jeopardy. Told from the perspective of Wu members, affiliates, and insiders, the special takes viewers behind the iron flag like never before. Since its debut, the show has gotten many people thinking about the other rap staples that deserve acknowledgement with docuseries of their very own for the strides they've made in the culture. Besides mere rap crews, entire rap labels have transformed hip hop and made it what it is today, and they deserve much love for it.

In honor of the TV, and entertainment industry overall, shedding light on pioneering hip hop entities, REVOLT highlights 15 iconic rap labels that deserve docuseries.



1. Cold Chillin'

One story that has yet to be documented on the small screen is the rise of Cold Chillin' Records, a record label based out of New York City that helped alter the course of rap history during the '80s. At the height of its popularity, Cold Chillin' boasted what was considered rap's hottest collection of talent including stars like Roxanne Shante, Biz Markie, MC Shan, Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap, Masta Ace and Craig G. Spearheaded by Tyrone "Fly Ty" Williams -- and with Marley Marl serving as an in-house producer -- the label dominated the latter-half of the decade with a succession of classic releases beginning with Shante's single "Roxanne's Revenge," which sparked the first true wave of response records in hip hop. In addition to the drama of the "Roxanne Wars," MC Shan's beef with Boogie Down Productions, Kane's emergence as a superstar and sex symbol, and Markie's legal battle over sample clearances; The Juice Crew story would be prime time viewing.

2. Ruff Ryders

When two Harlem hustlers -- brothers Joaquin "Waah" Dean and Darrin "Dee" Dean -- decided to invest their money into a management company named Ruff Ryders, little did they know that they would help change the sound of hip hop overnight. Evolving into a full-blown record label during the mid '90s, Ruff Ryders put its hopes on the back of a scrappy underdog named DMX, who closed the curtain on The Shiny Suit era with his wildly successful debut album, It's Dark and Hell Is Hot. With arguably the hottest new artist in rap on their roster, Ruff Ryders blossomed into a powerhouse with talents like Eve, The L.O.X., Drag-On, and producer Swizz Beatz all establishing themselves as major players. The central focus of a Ruff Ryders docuseries would likely involve DMX's ups and downs. However, the label's extrication of The L.O.X. from their contract with Bad Boy, Eve's own meteoric rise to stardom, and insight into the Ruff Ryders as not only a record label, but a movement, would be highly intriguing.

3. Roc-A-Fella

Prior to flirting with billionaire status, JAY-Z was struggling to make the transition from a life of crime into a rapper. That is until Harlemites Damon Dash and Kareem "Biggs" Burke partnered up with the Brooklyn don to form Roc-A-Fella Records, an imprint that would go on to become an industry giant and a standard of success. Founded during the mid '90s, Roc-A-Fella's flair for the extravagant and the dramatic -- along with Hov's otherworldly rap skills -- garnered the attention and respect of their peers. Aside from JAY-Z, The R.O.C. housed spitters like Memphis Bleek, Beanie Sigel, State Property, and Dipset, all of whom would leave their own imprint on hip hop. While many viewers would be well aware of how the story ultimately ends, seeing the inner-working of what led to the rise and eventual downfall of a legacy brand like this would be reason enough to tune in.



4. Loud

When Steve Rifkind first threw his hat into the CEO ring, Loud Records was a fledgling label devoid of any established talent. Within two years, it was considered one of the torchbearers for unapologetically raw hip hop. This was accomplished through the success of the Wu-Tang Clan, who helped put Loud on the map with multi-platinum releases like Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and Wu-Tang Forever. In addition to the Wu, Loud's roster included legendary acts like Mobb Deep, Big Pun, Tha Alkaholiks, Xzibit, and Dead Prez. This made the label a bi-coastal powerhouse with a reputation for allowing its artists to cultivate their own sound and image. However, Loud's overwhelming success would be its own undoing, as the label's attempt to further infiltrate the mainstream, along with Rifkind's own personal demons, would result in its fall from grace.

5. No Limit

Any story that involves betting on yourself is sure to resonate with the hip hop community, which was surely the case when Master P went out on a limb and founded No Limit Records after flipping an inheritance from his grandfather. Relocating to Richmond, California to open a record store, P returned to his hometown of New Orleans, Louisiana, where he built up an army of recruits to help him rewrite the rules of the music industry. Turning No Limit into a powerhouse with multiple successful indie releases, the mogul inked a monumental pressing and distribution deal with Priority Records, which afforded him an 85% return on all profits. These terms were unheard of at that time. Refusing to rest on his laurels, P expanded his empire to include a film division, as well as a sports agency, all of which helped stamp him as the south's ultimate hustler. With all of the moving parts involved in No Limit, an examination into P's strategy of molding the label into a well-oiled machine would be more than worthwhile.

6. Bad Boy

Few movements in music have had the impact on urban culture as Bad Boy Records' had, which helped bring sophistication and style to east coast hip hop and R&B. Reeling from being jettisoned from his executive position at Uptown Records; a young, ambitious mover and shaker by the name Sean "Puffy" Combs would use that move as fuel to build his new label, which would go on to become the preeminent label in rap music. Headlined by Brooklyn rapper The Notorious B.I.G., Bad Boy skyrocketed to the top of the food chain with additional signees like Faith Evans, Total, 112, Ma$e, and The L.O.X. all dominating the charts. Despite Bad Boy's success, the label endured various peaks and valleys, some of which became pivotal cultural moments that continue to reverberate to this day. With such a rich history, there's surely a few untold gems about the label's rise to power that would keep viewers glued to their seats.



7. LaFace

After enjoying success together as part of the R&B group The Deele, Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds and Antonio "L.A." Reid joined forces to form LaFace Records, which would introduce the world to some of the biggest talents in music over the next decade. Founded in 1989, LaFace caught its stride with the multi-platinum success of R&B stars TLC and Toni Braxton, as well as successful rap acts like Outkast and Goodie Mob. While the label began to lose its luster after being acquired by Arista and BMG, LaFace's legacy is one that deserves context, as it served as the breeding ground for various musical legends.

8. Rap-A-Lot

Prior to Andre 3000 proclaiming that the south "got something to say," Houston native J. Prince put his money where his mouth was by using funds from his businesses to launch Rap-A-Lot Records in 1985. By the end of the decade, the label's flagship group The Geto Boys became the first group out of the south to achieve gold status, thus becoming one of the most successful rap acts. Riding off the success of solo and group releases from The Geto Boys, J. Prince and Rap-A-Lot would continue to flourish with signees like 5th War Boyz, Seagram, Devin the Dude, Tela, and Yukmouth. In addition to its musical success, Rap-A-Lot was subject to an ample amount of drama with federal investigations involving J. Prince casting a dark cloud over the label.

9. Uptown

A former rap star takes a reprieve from the spotlight only to discover some of the greatest music minds in hip hop, while helping usher in a new sub-genre. This may seem like a plot for a movie, but it was the reality for Andre Harrell, the founder of Uptown Records, one of the most influential imprints in music during its peak years. After the disbandment of the short-lived, yet successful rap duo Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde, Harrell continued to take communications and business classes at Lehman College in New York, though ultimately dropped out to help Russell Simmons launch the earliest incarnation of Def Jam Records. However, the mogul would decide to add his own suave, flair and sensibilities to the music world by launching Uptown Records, which would go on to house acts like Heavy D & the Boyz, Al B. Sure, Mary J. Blige and Jodeci. Gaining success seemingly overnight, Harrell and Uptown became a dominant force by not only infiltrating the music world, but television, as well. A breeding ground for executive talent like a pre-fame Sean "Diddy" Combs, as well as classic rap, R&B and new jack swing, Uptown's story is highly intriguing and deserves to be examined in full.



10. G-Unit

If there was ever a story in hip hop that was tailor-made to be dissected from the vantage point of an insider, it's G-Unit's rise to prominence in the wake of tragedy. After 50 Cent was the victim of a drive-by shooting in his Jamaica, Queens stomping grounds, the embattled rapper linked up with longtime friends and fellow Southside natives Tony Yayo and Lloyd Banks to take on the rap industry. Armed with a bulletproof vest and a disregard for anyone blocking his path on the road to success, Fif parlayed his own success as a soloist into a distribution deal for G-Unit Records, which he founded in 2003. Adding rapper Young Buck into the fold amid the absence of Yayo, G-Unit reached multi-platinum success. This made the imprint a desired destination for artists like Mobb Deep, Ma$e, M.O.P. and Lil Scrappy. However, turmoil amongst the core members -- along with an ever-changing musical landscape -- impacted the label's output and standing with fans. To get each members' personal accounts of G-Unit's rollercoaster ride to the top would be required viewing for rap fans young and old.

11. Murder Inc.

Irving "Irv Gotti" Lorenzo was responsible for assisting several rap artists who would go on to become megastars by securing recording contracts with various labels. This gave him the reputation of being a power-broker who had his ears to the streets. The Hollis, Queens native would leverage his knack for spotting and developing talent into creating his own record label, which Gotti dubbed Murder Inc., in 1998. Riding off the strength of Ja Rule's string of platinum and multi-platinum albums, as well as the breakout success of R&B star Ashanti, Murder Inc. appeared primed for the upper echelon and ready to expand its reach even further. However, a federal investigation into the label's dealings with convicted drug kingpin Kenneth "Supreme" Griffith, as well as bitter war with 50 Cent and G-Unit Records, would prove insurmountable and lead to the fall of Gotti's empire. This story is among the most spellbinding in hip hop and would make for great television for any rap fan.

12. Death Row

In terms of infamy, Death Row Records is in a class of its own. Headed by Marion "Suge" Knight and Andre "Dr. Dre" Young, Death Row was not only a breeding ground for elite rap talent, but violence and controversy, as many of the label's biggest stars would be at the center of various scandals at one time or another during its tenure. Tens of millions of records sold, beef with Bad Boy Records, gang affiliations, and battles with law enforcement are just the tip of the iceberg of what made Death Row such a spectacle in its heyday. and a prime candidate to have its origins explored for mass consumption.



13. So So Def

Every now and then, a child prodigy comes along and grows into a titan. Given his pedigree as a music executive, producer and manager, Jermaine Dupri fits this bill with a resume as long as the list of artists who have benefited from his midas touch. After wetting his beak in the music industry as a teenager, Dupri ushered Atlanta rap duo Kriss Kross into superstardom, which opened the door for the young mogul to launch his own label, So So Def Recordings, in 1993. Striking pay-dirt with the platinum success of R&B group Xscape, So So Def kept the momentum going with commercially successful releases from Da Brat, Jagged Edge, Lil Bow Wow, and Dupri, himself. Extending its winning streak into the aughts and beyond, the label may not be the house of hits that it used to be, but getting an in-depth glimpse into how it was built would still be enticing to music fans.

14. Cash Money

The spirit of independence is one that has been celebrated in hip hop since its inception. However, no region in rap took this sentiment to heart quite like the south, as record labels like Cash Money Records forced the major labels to come to the table while playing by their own rules. Founded by brothers Bryan "Birdman" Williams and Ronald "Slim" Williams, Cash Money took the stairway to success by building its roster around local New Orleans artists and taking a grassroots approach to promoting, marketing, and selling their products. Their efforts paid off in 1997 when the label inked a monstrous $30 million distribution deal with Universal Records and put into motion a historic run of album releases by Juvenile, B.G., The Hot Boys, Lil Wayne, and the Big Tymers. However, dissension within the company regarding business dealings would weaken its foundation and leave Cash Money on the brink of obscurity. That's where Lil Wayne came in. As the run of the litter, he would elevate the label to heights unforeseen with the emergence of his own imprint, Young Money. While Birdman has faced allegations of shady business practices throughout the years, this has done nothing to halt Cash Money's dominance and the label's worthiness of a proper docu-series.

15. Shady

In rap, many record labels are born out of adversity or a lack of opportunity. But, the launch of Shady Records was a product of success. Founded by Eminem and manager Paul Rosenberg on the heels of the success of The Slim Shady LP, Shady Records hit the ground running with flagship group D12, who struck platinum with their own 2001 debut, Devil's Night. However, Shady's biggest signing would come via free agency when 50 Cent inked a deal with the company the following year, which culminated with the release of his historic debut album, Get Rich or Die Tryin'. The success of the rapper garnered the bulk of the attention. But, projects from Obie Trice, as well as the 8 Mile soundtrack, would also garner commercial and critical acclaim, and established Shady Records as a force to be reckoned. With a top-heavy roster and having shown the inability to develop additional stars makes the inner-workings of Shady's biggest wins and losses a curious case study.


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