How Can Hip-Hop Hold Record Labels More Accountable?

BET’s essay series, Uncomfortable Conversations, dives into the ongoing, difficult topics that have dominated and plagued hip-hop for decades. Here, we explore the long-standing challenges Black artists face with record labels and how hip-hop can push for pivotal change in the industry.

Historically, there are a few terms in hip-hop that are particularly insulting. “Hater” is one of them because unwarranted jealousy is as bad as it gets in a genre defined by confidence. Being called a “biter” is just as bad because so much of hip-hop is rooted in coming up with your own style instead of taking someone else’s. But one of the most significant terms of the past decade has been “culture vulture.” It’s a phrase used to describe people who profit off hip-hop — or Black culture, writ large — but have little to no investment in the well-being of the people who create it.

No one has made the term more ubiquitous than Damon Dash, who founded music industry powerhouse Roc-A-Fella Records with friends Jay-Z and Damon “Biggs” Burke. Dash had a run of interviews in the late 2010s where he used the term to accuse record executives like Lyor Cohen, Steve Stoute, and Joie “IE” Manda of exploiting Black creators. “They make money off us and then try to erase our true history and act like the real ones never existed,” Dash reiterated in a since-deleted 2018 Instagram post.

Dash may have popularized the term, but the sentiment has been in hip-hop for decades. Q-Tip’s lyric on A Tribe Called Quest’s 1991 classic “Check The Rhime” is still gospel: “Industry rule #4080: record company people are shady!” But for what exactly should record labels be held accountable?

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There’s a long, sordid history of record labels manipulating, mismanaging, and flat-out mistreating Black musicians, and it goes back further than the birth of hip-hop. As early as the 1950s, labels were paying white musicians to perform and record songs that were created by Black artists, stripping the originators of all credit and ownership.

Artists these days have higher standards, especially when it’s more feasible than ever to commandeer your own ship on your own terms. They’ve listened to their elders’ advice to retain ownership of their master recordings, demand creative control, and publicly rebuke the dreaded “360 deals” that give labels a share of all their income.

What about accountability beyond the pocketbooks? Should labels be held accountable if their artists commit real-life transgressions outside of music, such as domestic violence or sexual assault? Or to provide legal support if they’re charged with crimes? Do they need to provide health services for their artists? Better yet, should content itself be a factor in what labels are held accountable for? If they never promote "positive" artistry, does that deserve criticism? Plenty of employers provide benefits packages that include health insurance, life insurance, retirement benefits, and more. Why not record labels?

Holding labels accountable for artists’ transgressions can be a slippery slope. Black people are criminalized disproportionately compared to their white counterparts, and empowering labels to further penalize artists through such terms could lead to more harm than good. Top Dawg Entertainment CEO Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith expressed this concern in 2018, when Spotify announced a “Hate Content & Hateful Conduct policy,” which planned to remove music by R. Kelly (before he was convicted of child pornography and sex trafficking) and XXXTENTACION (who battled domestic violence charges before he was murdered later that year) from Spotify’s programmed playlists.

“How come they didn’t pick out any others from any other genres or any other different cultures?” Tiffith said in an interview with Billboard. “There [are] so many other artists that have different things going on, and they could’ve picked anybody. But it seems to me that they’re constantly picking on hip-hop culture.” Spotify retracted the policy.

But as pressure mounted from the docuseries Surviving R. Kelly, Sony/RCA Records did appropriately end up dropping R. Kelly from its roster. And last year, after Ye (formerly known as Kanye West) spewed a string of antisemitic comments, the New York Times reported that Def Jam was no longer affiliated with his label G.O.O.D. Music. Meanwhile, other artists accused of crimes like sexual assault and domestic violence remain signed to their labels as long as they can still profit and the seats don’t get too hot.

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Labels may be held accountable for artists’ transgressions, but only when the audience demands it — and fans don’t expect the most out of their artists, especially in hip-hop. As writer Andre Gee reported for Complex, recording contracts often avoid referring to artists as “employees” so that labels can avoid such responsibilities (and legalities).

Black execs are presumed to know better. It’s one thing for white execs to take advantage of Black artists, because racism is expected — it stings more when the integrity of Black moguls is questioned. Sean “Diddy” Combs’ Bad Boy Records made him a titan in the industry, but he’s the subject of a book by former signee Mark Curry titled Dancing With the Devil, and ex-Bad Boy artists like Mase have called Diddy out for apparently shady business practices. Cash Money Records co-founder Bryan “Birdman” Williams was the subject of a whopping $51 million lawsuit by flagship artist and mentee Lil Wayne in 2015 that was eventually settled. And as Ye publicly fought for ownership of his catalog in 2020, he vowed to return his 50 percent share of the masters he owned to G.O.O.D. Music artists. Signee Big Sean said in a 2021 Drink Champs appearance that Ye owed him millions of dollars.

For what it’s worth, some of the aforementioned Black execs have moved to do right by their acts since then. In January 2022, Pusha T claimed that Ye made good on his word and posted a photo of a contract. “Some people call you their brother, other people show you you’re BROTHERS,” Pusha wrote. And ahead of the release of his 2023 solo album, news surfaced that Combs was reverting ownership to all of Bad Boy’s artists.

The artists themselves, though, have reacted in varying ways. Mase’s longtime friend Cam’ron congratulated him on signing the paperwork, but Danity Kane member Audrey O’Day was critical of terms that included an NDA. Both she and Mark Curry said Combs should’ve returned the masters years ago, when they were worth more. “Ever had somebody owe you 50 dollars, when you needed it back they didn’t pay you. Then by the time they do pay you, the 50 dollars doesn’t mean the same as it did when you needed it?” Curry wrote on Instagram. “That’s how I feel. I wanted that when it was making money, not after it’s all gone.”

Still, just as we do in the trends regarding the art, Black execs will lead the way. In summer 2020, during protests after the police murder of George Floyd, an organization called the Black Music Action Coalition was formed to “address long-standing racial inequities in the business, the financial impact of those inequities for both black artists and executives, and ways we can work with you urgently to solve these problems.” The coalition includes Quincy Jones on its advisory board and respected music execs like Burke, Cortez Bryant, Nas’ and Future’s manager Anthony Selah, and Live Nation CEO Shawn Gee on the leadership council. In June 2022, they put together their second Music Industry Report Card to hold labels’ feet to the fire. The report grades labels in four categories: corporate commitments, partnerships, and giving; company representation on a senior level; internal company culture and business practices; and company transparency and public accountability. Grades are as high as A and as low as C in the latest report, and only time will tell if they’ll continue to do the right thing as public demands die down and DEI initiatives receive public blowback.

In April 2020, Love Renaissance (stylized as LVRN) — a Black-founded record label, management team, and creative agency whose artists include 6lack and Summer Walker, among others — launched a psychological wellness division for its staff and artists. Kevin Liles, CEO of 300 Entertainment, created a similar range of financial assistance and mental therapy resources for artists and employees, and Sony Music has done the same. Following suit is exactly what LVRN Co-Founder Tunde Balogun had in mind when speaking about the initiative in 2020. “This is not us putting ourselves out there and saying we’re the first. This is us saying, ‘Reach out to us if you want some advice on how we did it, and if you’re already doing it, let’s help do it together,'” Balogun says. “This needs to be more of a community thing. This is us being human beings trying to get our minds better and stronger.” One artist at a time.

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