Last week, I wrote about how the FOX TV network drama “Empire,” a show about a fictional black-owned music company, has touched the collective nerve of a nation, particularly the 11 million or so viewers who have become enthralled with the network melodrama over its first seven weeks. The show’s increasing relevance was further illustrated by this week’s debut of one of the songs from the “Empire” soundtrack: “Keep Your Money,” recorded by Jussie Smollett who plays Jamal Lyon, the gay middle son of company owner Lucious Lyon. The song debuted at No. 99 on this week’s Hot 100 singles chart. Last week, I also drew a connection between the fictional label and real-life black-owned record companies, and took the opportunity to rank what I believe to be the one dozen most important black record labels in recorded music history. In Part I of the article, I began by listing numbers 12 through 8. This week, I complete the countdown beginning at No. 7. So here it is, Part II, and the rest of the countdown of the twelve most important black record labels, based on my own humble opinion.
For a recap, here were numbers 12 – 8 (see their stories in Part I, posted on February 14, 2015):
12. Tabu Records (founded by Clarence Avant, 1975)
11. SOLAR Records (founded by Dick Griffey and Don Cornelius, 1975)
10. LaFace Records (founded by L.A. Reid & Babyface, 1989)
9. Ruthless Records (founded by Eric “Eazy-E” Wright and Jerry Heller, 1986)
8. Bad Boy Records (founded by Sean Combs, 1993)
And now, for the rest of the list:
7. Cash Money Records (founders: Bryan “Birdman” Williams and his brother, Ronald “Slim” Williams, 1991). This label gets the edge over most hip-hop labels because of its endurance along with its many commercial successes. With subsidiary label imprint, Young Money Records, Cash Money has remained relevant in the rap music game longer than almost any record label before or since. The label was founded by Birdman and Slim at a time when rap and hip-hop had not yet risen to the level of success it would see only a few years later. And, unlike many others on this list, Cash Money continues to thrive today with Birdman still holding a principal role in the company. Lil Wayne was one of the earliest acts signed to Cash Money in the 1990s, when it enjoyed noteworthy success with such big name acts as Juvenile, Big Tymers, and BG. But it was during the late-2000s that the label really made big noise. Lil Wayne’s success as an artist exploded, which led to his founding of Young Money. His own historic record sales, along with the Young Money signing of Canadian rapper, Drake, and current multi-media rap Queen, Nicki Minaj, took Cash Money/Young Money to heights rarely seen by other rap labels. Currently, Cash Money/Young Money artist Drake has the Number One album in the country after pulling a Beyoncé with his latest, “If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late,” which was released unannounced on iTunes on February 12, 2015. Twenty-five years is a long time for a company of this type to remain so relevant, and, notwithstanding rumors of current feuding between Birdman and Lil Wayne (and his Young Money signees), Cash Money has done just that.
6. Vee-Jay Records (founders: Vivian Carter and James Bracken, 1953). Before there was Motown, there was Vee-Jay Records. Founded by the African-American husband and wife team of Vivian Carter and James Bracken (hence the V and J), it introduced the world to more superstar artists than any black-owned label had prior to Motown’s ascendancy to prominence in the mid-1960s. Vee-Jay was primarily an R&B, soul, gospel and jazz specialty label but also found success with its rock-n-roll acts, like The Four Seasons and The Beatles. In fact it was Vee-Jay that was responsible for bringing the Beatles’ records to America before the British Invasion in 1964 when Capitol Records ultimately acquired the band’s exclusive rights. The label’s undoing was financial mismanagement beginning in 1963, but its contributions to music history are undeniable. No further proof is needed than this list of artists who once graced the label’s roster (several of which ultimately became superstars with other labels): Jerry Butler, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Memphis Slim, John Lee Hooker, The Dells, the Staple Singers, and Dick Gregory, just to name a few.
5. Black Swan Records (founder: Harry Pace, 1921). You’re probably not familiar with this label. It started before all of those likely reading this article were born. Founded in Harlem, NY, in 1921, Pace Phonographic Corporation, Inc. was the first-ever record label founded and owned by a black person. As anyone might imagine at that time, Harry Pace would have to overcome monumental social obstacles to even sell records, much less own the label whose name they bore. By the time its name was changed to Black Swan, it was on the verge of enjoying success with such big African-American names of the time as Ethel Waters and Bessie Smith, the latter of whom was dubbed the “Queen of the Blues,” long before titles like “Queen of Soul” or “Queen of Hip-Hop/R&B” or the artists who claimed those titles were even thought of. Black Swan Records deserves props today for breaking ground for black recording artists at a time when white-owned labels refused to sponsor them. It was Black Swan that exposed mass audiences to black music styles, mostly jazz and blues at the time, which made bigger labels like Columbia and Atlantic take notice in future decades. Even without the huge record sales enjoyed by today’s labels, Black Swan deserves this top-five ranking for its historic significance alone.
4. Sugar Hill Records and predecessor, All-Platinum Records. (founder: Sylvia Robinson; Sugar Hill, 1979; All-Platinum, 1967, with husband Joe Robinson). This label’s importance cannot be overstated. Quite simply, it may be the sole reason that rap music and hip-hop have enjoyed the mainstream success they have for the past nearly 40 years. With “disco” music having been famously protested and declared “dead” only months earlier, Sylvia Robinson, a somewhat famous singer who had already started her own label – All-Platinum Records – over a decade earlier and enjoyed success on it with acts like The Moments (“Love On A Two-Way Street”) and herself (“Pillow Talk”), got the idea to record three rappers over a disco beat in late-1979. She and her son Joey chose the instrumental break to Chic’s “Good Times” as its basis and Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” was born. Later, the label’s roster included such rap acts as Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, Melle Mel, The Sequence, and The Treacherous Three, all of whom helped make rap and hip-hop a household name in the young African-American community. Many rap classics, like GMF’s/Melle Mel’s “The Message” and “White Lines,” The Sequence’s “Funk You Up,” and Sugar Hill Gang’s “Apache” and “8th Wonder,” bear the Sugar Hill label. Long considered the Mother of Hip-Hop, Sylvia Robinson broke ground for African-Americans and females alike, having birthed a label and bringing an underground art form from the streets of New York City to heights that no one could’ve imagined during rap’s first decade.
3. Def Jam Records (founders: Russell Simmons, Rick Rubin, 1983). Russell Simmons and Def Jam are perhaps the entities most responsible for the long-term success of rap and hip-hop music as we know it today. The sheer number of artists and longevity of this label speak for its success and its importance. With its humble (or maybe not-so-humble) beginnings in the early-1980s with acts like LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys, and later Public Enemy, Def Jam picked up where Sugar Hill Records left off and took rap to a whole ‘nother level. It provided rap’s first significant white rap act and the genre’s first number one album with the Beastie Boys’ “Licensed to Ill” in 1987. Def Jam also gave rap its first sex symbol in LL Cool J, who has gone on to continued success as an actor and awards show host. Public Enemy’s records in the late-’80s were among the first to give rap a social conscience.
Def Jam’s success continued into the 1990s as both an imprint and a distribution label. After being combined with Island Records to form the Island Def Jam Music Group, the label and its various subsidiaries thrived with acts like Dru Hill, Kelly Price, Christina Milian, and veterans who had previously attained stardom with other labels, like Montell Jordan, Case, and Patti LaBelle. Perhaps the biggest name associated with Def Jam has been rapper, Jay-Z, who is arguably the most commercially successful rapper of all time. His twelve Number One albums place him second only to the Beatles in the category of most Number One albums. Most of his releases have been distributed by Def Jam through his label, Roc-A-Fella Records, which itself was founded by Jay-Z and former business partners Damon “Dame” Dash and Kareem “Biggs” Burke. It’s the label that has launched the careers of such artists as Cam’ron, Beanie Segal, and media and awards show narcissist, Kanye West, who – despite his antics – has managed to produce some of the most critically acclaimed rap albums of the past eleven years. Most recently, rapper Nas has released three Number One albums on the Def Jam label after signing with the company in 2006.
It’s hard to separate Def Jam and Roc-a-Fella for the purpose of this ranking, since the latter was either owned or distributed by the former for the better part of two decades. However, with the monumental commercial and critically successful contributions from the artists I’ve named above, even if it ended today, the legacy of Russell Simmons (who has long since sold his share of the company) and Def Jam will live on in hip-hop history.
2. Philadelphia International Records (founders: Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, 1971). The great City of a Brotherly Love has always been known for the long list of amazing musicians it has produced. Names like Billie Holiday, Chubby Checker, Thom Bell, the Stylistics, Daryl Hall & John Oates, Sister Sledge, Stanley Clarke, Frankie Beverly, Will Smith, Boyz II Men, the Roots, Musiq Soulchild, Eve, P!nk and Jill Scott all come to mind. But none of those names are the reason that the label founded by legendary record producers Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff ranks at Number Two on this list of black-owned labels. No, that distinction would belong to super PIR recording acts like the O’Jays, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, the Three Degrees, Teddy Pendergrass, Lou Rawls, Patti LaBelle, Billy Paul, Phyllis Hyman, the Jones Girls, McFadden & Whitehead, and even soul great Jerry Butler (temporarily). This roster of artists were all accomplished in their own right but, more importantly, with the exception of Butler and LaBelle, they all owed their collective success and sound to the genius and musical stylings of the label’s founders, who, unlike many of the other owners on this list, created a sound that was immediately identifiable as their own. By extension, their sound was permanently linked to the great American city whose name the label bore and where their studios were located.
As the label’s phenomenal chart and commercial success grew in the 1970s, the smooth “Philly sound” or “Philly Soul” as it was called, became a genre in and of itself, a subset of the many different types of R&B music that thrived in the 1970s and early-’80s. By teaming with legendary producer and Philadelphia native Thom Bell to create Mighty Three Music, Gamble & Huff’s products usually contained lush strings wrapped around a drum line with unmistakable, crisp high hats and cymbals that kept the beat throughout. Whether dabbling in disco, like the classic dance tune created by the label’s house band MFSB: “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia),” which became the popular theme of TV’s “Soul Train” in 1974, or giving you sultry soulful ballads, like many of the O’Jays’ or Teddy Pendergrass’ hits, Philly International Records became a household name not only in the black community, but in homes worldwide.
I had the fortune of visiting the label’s offices and museum in Center City Philadelphia when I lived there a few years ago and could almost feel the spirits of the many musicians who so many decades earlier were creating their Philly magic there and at the famous Sigma Sound Studios a few blocks away. Without a doubt, PIR is easily the second most significant black-owned label in music history.
Which leaves us with the one and only label that could possibly rank higher…
But before I go there, here is another label that gets honorable mention, followed by some of the qualifying labels that did not make the list (in no particular order):
Honorable Mention: Chess Records (founders: Leonard and Phil Chess, 1950). Chess Records, while not black-owned or founded, was very instrumental in exclusively showcasing black artists, namely its own. Like Stax and Atlantic, it focused on R&B, blues, soul, and gospel, while also dabbling in early rock and roll. Its most notable stars included Etta James, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, the Moonglows and a session drummer named Maurice White, who would later found the group Earth, Wind & Fire, as well as his own label, American Recording Company.
Some of the black record labels not making the cut: T-Neck Records (founders: Isley Brothers), No-Limit Records (founder: Irv Gotti), King Records (founder: James Brown), Curtom Records (founder: Curtis Mayfield), Paisley Park Records (founder: Prince), ARC (founder: Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire), Death Row Records (founders: The D.O.C., Dr. Dre, Suge Knight and Dick Griffey), Sussex Records (founder: Clarence Avant), and Hot Wax/Invictus (founders: Eddie Holland, Jr., Lamont Dozier and Brian Holland)
And now, the biggie:
1. Motown Records (founder: Berry Gordy, 1959). Was there any question? I’d be guilty of stating the obvious just by mentioning how important Motown Records was to African-American music and music in general. The label’s story has been well-documented in literature, movies, TV anniversary specials, Broadway shows, and, of course, the record charts. What Berry Gordy and Motown did for music is without question the most impactful, most significant contribution any one man or company could make to the industry . The label gave us some of the most memorable artists and music of all time, with unprecedented international success and dozens of Number One singles on both the pop and R&B charts.
Consisting of four main label imprints: Tamla, Motown, Gordy, and Soul, along with several others, Berry Gordy’s Motown Records Corporation achieved the bulk of its worldwide astronomical success during perhaps the most tumultuous time in black history – the 1960s. Yet it overcame the odds of racial injustice, social disparity, and meager beginnings to produce what is easily the most identifiable set of associated artists any label before or since can claim.
I’ll list some of them here, even though you’re already familiar with them: Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, the Supremes, the Four Tops, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, Mary Wells, Martha & the Vandellas, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Jr. Walker & the All-Stars, the Jackson Five, the Commodores, Lionel Richie, Rick James, Teena Marie, Switch, DeBarge, and Boyz II Men.
So successful was Motown’s music that there were times when the label occupied the majority of singles in both the R&B and pop top ten charts. Even more astonishing was that it accomplished this without the benefit (or detriment, depending on one’s perspective) of a major label distribution deal or white co-ownership – unlike many of the other labels on this list. As another testimony to its stellar success, radio stations and other music outlets still to this day give Motown its own genre status with tag lines like: “we play R&B, Soul, Pop, Rock and Motown!” Music historians usually follow suit with the same accolades.
In 1988, Berry Gordy sold (or, more accurately, gave away) Motown Records for about $60 million dollars, after most of the above-listed artists had seen their heydays. When it occurred, that business transaction brought with it a sense of huge loss in the black community. However, the label continues to exist today under white ownership as a small imprint under distribution from other major label conglomerates. As a shell of its former self, it continues to serve as a platform for African-American musicians – albeit with far less success than it had in the 1960s, ’70s and early ’80s. I’ve devoted five paragraphs to this label but I clearly could’ve written many more. There may never be another Motown as we know it – and its Number One status on this list was likely a foregone conclusion by anyone reading this.
So here’s the complete list of what I consider to be the most important black-owned or founded labels in music history:
1. Motown Records
2. Philadelphia International Records
3. Def Jam Records
4. Sugar Hill Records/All Platinum Records
5. Black Swan Records
6. Vee-Jay Records
7. Cash Money/Young Money Records
8. Bad Boy Records
9. Ruthless Records
10. LaFace Records
11. SOLAR Records
12. Tabu Records
Do you agree? Would you change the order or add a different label? Feel free to provide comments.