When digging for records you often run across records you don’t know but which might be of interest. The first thing you do then is look for the label and year of release. Like when it bears a ‘Motown’ logo and is dated between ’59 and ’72, or ‘Blue Note’ from the 50s to early 60s, you know you can just buy it blindly. It’s certified dope. It might even be classic. In its rich history, hip-hop itself has gained a fair share of those signifiers as well. Catching a dud from one of these five labels is less likely than being caught by a snowstorm in summer.
Def Jam: 1984 – 1992
Although certainly not the first label to capitalize on rap’s growing popularity, Def Jam was the first that actually had a clue to what they were doing. Run by rap fans, for rap fans. Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons recorded and put out whatever they thought sounded hard as fuck and believed other people should hear. Not being overly concerned with money turned out to be a great strategy towards making money in the fledgling genre of hip-hop. Ironically, struggles for control and financial problems would eventually dilute the solid brand they’d created. Rick Rubin left the label in 1988 after several disputes with young staffer Lyor Cohen, but the label continued to put out classics by Public Enemy and LL Cool J in his wake. In 1992, financial troubles forced them to sell a 50% share to Polygram. The release of Warren G’s debut album would further replenish their coffers and Def Jam would continue to drop superb albums. Their winning streak of purely releasing quality albums, however, has been long gone.
Death Row Records: 1992 – 1996
Around the same time that the Def Jam armor was starting to show some chinks, frustration grew on the west side of their hip-hop not being accepted on the opposite side of the country. But the funk-fueled rap crafted by Dr. Dre and The D.O.C. would soon win over the rest of the world–they just had to get rid of what they perceived to be an unfair recording contract with Eazy-E and his manager Jerry Heller. Suge Knight used his well-documented strong-arm tactics to far from subtly resolve the matter. And with a monetary injection for the incarcerated Harry-O, ‘Tha Row’ was well on the way to redefining the landscape of hip-hop. When the debut of Dre protege Snoop came out, their dominance over rap was undeniable and would only be further solidified in the following years with Tupac Shakur’s addition to the roster. Still, frustrations over what they perceived as a lack of respect on the east coast culminated into the infamous east/west beef that led to the tragic death of Pac in 1996. With Dre leaving soon after, the label would never again reclaim its OG status.
Loud Records: 1993 – 1998
Steve Rifkind was a long-haired blond Californian who struck gold in marketing and promotion when he employed the now ubiquitous street-team to get word out about whatever he needed to promote. The approach was tailor-made for the hip-hop generation but hadn’t caught on with label suits yet, so Steve decided to try his hand at it himself and founded Loud Records in 1992. It wouldn’t take long before he met Prince Rakeem, who had released his debut “Ooh, I Love You Rakeem” on Tommy Boy Records to little fanfare. He had taken up the name ‘The Rza’ and was hard at work promoting a behemoth of a rap clan named Wu-Tang that would revolutionize both the artistic and business side of rap. Steve Rifkind and his young label were one of the very few people who saw a future in their unorthodox approach and took a chance on what they believed was worthwhile. Their gamble more than paid off and Loud would become home to many more gritty sounds from Wu solo albums to Mobb Deep, Xzibit, Sadat X and many others. It wasn’t until distributor RCA folded in 1998 and Loud was brought under the Columbia records umbrella that their brand disassembled. Columbia forced many of their urban acts that they had failed to successfully manage themselves into the hands of the Loud offices who were subsequently understaffed and faced with a dilution of the aesthetic they had built. Loud quietly disappeared not long after.
Rawkus Records: 1997 – 2001
Founded in 1996 by by Brian Brater and Jarret Myer, with financial backing from James Murdoch, son of Rupert Murdoch, the secret to the success of Rawkus was how little they actually seemed to know what they were doing. Their laisse-faire attitude gave the acts on the label a degree of creative freedom that was rare at the time and attracted freethinking acts like Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Hi-Tek, Company Flow and Pharoahe Monch to the label. Rawkus soon became a signifier of ‘real’ rap and the logo was emblazoned on many a backpack. When the success of Rawkus eventually reached it’s zenith it simultaneously became its downfall as expectations among fans started to box in the aesthetic while the management started demanding more involvement with each project. The creative pool at Rawkus fell apart and its artists became annoyed or even downright enraged by the label politics, with former Company Flow emcee El-P going as far as rapping “You’re signed to Rawkus? I’d rather be mouth-fucked by Nazis, unconscious” on his solo debut. MCA/Geffen bought the label in 2002, folded, left it to Geffen/Interscope, which split and left it to Interscope. You can still see the logo pop up on releases every now and then but it doesn’t really signify much beyond ‘remember this? You thought it meant it was good, right?’ anymore.
Stones Throw Records: 1999 – 2006
Initially a vehicle for DJ Peanutbutter Wolf to release the archived material he and rapper Charizma (who sadly passed away a few years before the label was founded in 1996) recorded, Wolf found out to his surprise he had as much fun promoting Charizma’s raps as he had recording them. Having fulfilled his obligation and tribute to the memory of his friend in releasing the album, he would continue on searching for talent to push, letting his own recording career move to the side in the process. A small but dedicated group of b-boys from Oxnard named Lootpack landed onto his radar in the late 90s, and their producer Madlib would grow to become an insanely prolific cornerstone to the label, cementing it’s reputation. Stones Throw not only has some of the best indie hip-hop records of the 00s in it’s discography, it has some of the best hip-hop records, period. Modern classics like Dilla’s Donuts and Madlib and DOOM’s Madvillainy stand alongside avant-garde pop records, jazz ensembles and soul ballads. The reason that the years mentioned here only run up to 2006 is not because the label ever fell off, but because the label grew into something far beyond a hip-hop label. Not everything among it’s eclectic sounds might be in accordance with your personal taste, but if you’re up for something adventurous there aren’t a lot of better places to rest your ears than at Stones Throw. They even have free tastes for you in their equally eclectic podcasts, so picking and choosing what you like in their catalog couldn’t be much easier. Welcome to digging in the digital age.