Atlanta's rap/R&B labels discover inventive ways to do business
In February, 2 Chainz introduced the press to his new independent label, T.R.U. (The Real University) Records, housed inside the relocated Street Execs Studios in Downtown Atlanta. Down the main hallway, past the resident barber station, a private chef filled displays of steak kabobs and miniature cupcakes. In one room, the members of youth rap group Travis Porter nodded their head along to tracks from their then-forthcoming mixtape, 3 Live Krew. To drive home the titular reference to the X-rated Miami hip-hop group, three lady dancers in booty shorts shook their asses to songs with titles such as "Hittin Like" and "Faster." In another room across the lobby, 2 Chainz spoke about the label's founding. He yells "2 CHAINZ!" to announce himself in songs, but that day, his indoor voice was so low that he could barely be heard over the flashing cameras.
"I want to give up-and-coming artists from Atlanta an opportunity to be heard," 2 Chainz said, motioning to two of his three founding signees, rappers Cap 1 and Skooly.
Fre$h couldn't make it.
T.R.U. Records is one of several new Atlanta-based R&B/hip-hop labels either to be founded or rise to prominence over the past year. Each was born with the same basic goal that 2 Chainz articulated for his venture. And each one is executing it slightly differently.
From Janelle Monáe's Wondaland to Awful Records, these new label heads and signees want the artistic freedom of an indie, paired with the reach of a Universal Music Group. Striking a deal while maintaining creative control isn't a new ideal. Recently, though, it's not the "why" that has changed, but the "how." Indies are finding inventive ways to work with majors to the benefit of their individual artists.
Artist-run hip-hop labels have a long history in Atlanta. When 2 Chainz was still rapping as Tity Boi and as one-half of the duo Playaz Circle, he was signed to Ludacris' Disturbing tha Peace (DTP). The label started as an independent, but partnered with a major, Def Jam South, and became nationally known. Had the trap rap-minded T.R.U. been founded a decade ago, 2 Chainz would have likely taken that same approach. It's what Gucci Mane did with 1017 Brick Squad (Atlantic), T.I. with Grand Hustle (Atlantic), and Jeezy with CTE World (Def Jam).
After releasing seven solo mixtapes in five years, 2 Chainz ditched the Tity Boi moniker and reemerged as 2 Chainz, a Def Jam superstar in his own right. He expects his new signees to take just as much initiative with their own street releases, and in return he treats them like up-and-coming heavyweights. The names and faces of Cap 1, Skooly, and Fre$h, all failed by-products of the traditional major-label system, have appeared on billboards across the Atlanta area, as if they were major-label artists.
"I'm doing some of my own shows right now. Skooly is doing his own shows. Fre$h is doing his own shows, versus a year ago, we coming out doing a guest verse on a 2 Chainz set," Cap 1 says. "I definitely see the perks of being signed and being a part of the T.R.U. foundation, period."
Janelle Monáe's Wondaland Records drops its debut compilation EP, The Eephus, on June 23 after striking a joint venture deal with Epic in February. While Monáe sounded like Anita Baker-gone-David Bowie on her first two albums, 2010's The ArchAndroid and 2013's The Electric Lady, Wondaland's debut releases seem to imagine an alternate-universe Hot 100. First came the debut single by rapper Jidenna, who typically appears in a three-piece suit. "Classic Man" sounds like his ultra-suave answer to Iggy Azalea's "Fancy" with its sparse, Bay Area-indebted mix of 808s and chants. Then came "Yoga" by Monáe, who recently ditched her once-signature tuxedo. In the sly club banger featuring Jidenna, Monáe's call to flex holds a double meaning.
Monáe has been a household name for years, but she's still on the shy end of superstardom. Having sold 455,000 albums to date, it's tough to imagine Wondaland promoting these songs via "Tonight Show" and "American Idol" performances without that deal with Epic.
Still, the majority of Atlanta's new rap/R&B labels have learned that major-label imprints aren't the only answer. The song that opens Migos' third mixtape, 2013's Young Rich Niggas, goes, "Nigga, I'd rather be rich, then famous." Quality Control Records, founded by Kevin "Coach K" Lee and Pierre "Pee" Thomas, has found an innovative way for the hooky pop-rap trio on its roster to achieve exactly that — and solely with mixtape cuts so far. In 2014, Quality Control struck a distribution deal with 300 Entertainment, the company that landed $5 million in investment capital from Google and a data sharing agreement with Twitter, according to FADER magazine. The company is run by Lyor Cohen, the record executive who used to work with Jay Z while overseeing Def Jam. This allows Quality Control to see which regions are responding to singles and schedule tour dates in those areas. Thanks to this agreement, Migos scored its first Top 20 entry last summer on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs with "Fight Night" and now gets $40,000 each time they play a show, according to FADER. The group's debut album, YRN: Tha Album, doesn't arrive until July 31.
Ben Washer co-founded the independent Reach Records with Lecrae in 2004 and relocated the label to Atlanta in 2009. Musically speaking, Lecrae is a modern-day LL Cool J. The slick, hard-hitting rapper has performed at hip-hop festival Rock the Bells and had mixtape impresario Don Cannon host one of his free releases. Because Lecrae discusses his Christian faith in his music, though, he's often overlooked. "We had the No. 1 album in the country last year with Lecrae's release, and that was zero radio play," Washer says.
He's referring to 2014's Anomaly, which topped the Gospel Albums, Christian Albums, and Billboard 200 charts all at once during its first week. Soon after, Lecrae made his "Tonight Show" debut, rapping before and after commercial breaks while backed by house band the Roots.
Washer attributes another part of Reach Records' success to its 2014 distribution deal with Sony's independent marketing arm RED Distribution. Washer says Reach has considered the idea of partnering more closely with a major. "We've entertained everything over the years. Especially as we got more successful, people knock on your door, telling you they want to be a part of it," he says. "We talked with and had meetings with everybody. But we always loved being able to define who we are."
Alfredo Luciano Capote, who goes by Co, is open to partnering with a major for his own rap/R&B label, Brilliant Mind Brothers (BMB), which transitioned from a Macon-based club promotional company to an Atlanta-based independent label last year. Co grew up in New Orleans and watched Cash Money rise from the ground up as an independent force before it partnered with Universal in 1998. For now, hiring staff with major-label experience is more than enough.
BMB is mastering the art of buzz. The label's signees — all newcomers — made their debuts in major music publications including the FADER, NOISEY, and Complex before the compilation mixtape Change the Game's May 13 release.
"I don't want to say it went fast, but I will say it's coming together pretty quickly," Co says of BMB's progress. "If another label started at the same time that we started, I would say that we're probably doing a lot more with our movement because we got the right people involved."
Last year, Atlanta rapper Father started gaining notice thanks to "Look at Wrist," an aggressively minimal banger that skewers trap rap's ubiquity in a single line: "Never had to whip a brick, but I get the gist." The song has been played 5 million times on SoundCloud and 3.4 million on YouTube, drawing attention to his independent label, Awful Records, and its DIY ethos. Each member of its 16-person crew shoots and edits video, among other things. At a March 18 event for NPR interview series Microphone Check at Terminal West, Father opened for Organized Noize. When an audience member asked how hands-on Father is with marketing, he said that if he isn't the one drawing a promo logo, he gets a friend to do it.
"I just want the marketing to be very close to how I'm living, so it's believable," he said. "I don't want to be Rick Ross with the big fake mansion and the Lamborghini that I don't own."
Father says that Awful Records still has more marquee power than the names of individual signees, though he is actively trying to reverse that. The announcement for his Father Cry$$$ summer tour, which launches July 5 in Miami and features signees Slug Christ and KeithCharles Spacebar, doesn't mention Awful Records anywhere.
"You don't see a flier that says, 'Universal Records Performs,'" Father says. "That doesn't make sense. So I'm trying to stay clear of that. It might seem good and helpful in the beginning, but it will hurt everyone on the label in the end."