In the two thousandth and fourteenth year of our lord, the U. S. of A is turning two hundred and thirty eight years old. And we’re not all barbeque and baseball, we’ve defended freedoms abroad while stealing the souls of our very own citizens at home; we’ve fought a war in every US generation since the signing of the Constitution; and we’ve created some of the most enduring and hotly contested musical art forms in the history of the modern world.
At the forefront of our minds today is Hip Hop. A disparate blend of every type of African-American music made up to this point. It has taken many forms since its inception, and had more than a few golden ages and subsequent “deaths,” but it has endured through it all to affect the world’s consciousness in a way not seen, arguably, since Jazz or Rock and Roll. It’s been both a central figure in the changing of opinions on what goes on in the American ghetto, and has covered topics like police brutality, political corruption, American hypocrisy, and the prison industrial complex with the same aplomb it’s made you get-off-your-behind and dance, speak, think, protest and fall in love. It’s created a culture that will outlast the art form, and, just like America, continues to thrive throughout its ups and downs, working toward a singular vision that has become apart of the fibers of a large amount of those who live here.
So what’s better than kicking back on a holiday wherein we celebrate that particular idea of American independence, than paying homage to those labels within this business that have found a way to stay just that? It’s the American dream incarnate. Independently run labels battling against the money, connections, and manpower of the major label system and somehow finding a way to win. Somehow, through straight up dreaming and hard work, staying true to a singular vision that defines them. If that’s not American, shoot, if that’s not Hip Hop, then what is? So, in anticipation of Independence Day, we bring you 10 independent labels that are staying calm in the middle of the storm and finding a way to seriously impact Hip Hop culture despite the odds.
Label: Duck Down Music Inc.
Highest Profile Project: For the People - Boot Camp Clik (#15 Billboard 200)
Location: New York, NY
Marquee Artists: Buckshot, Sean Price
On “Don’t Front,” a bonus track on Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP 2, which samples Black Moon’s “I Got Cha Opin,” Em’ rhymes, “Before I signed with the Doc, I almost signed with Duck Down / ‘Cause Rawkus didn’t make no offers, so mothafuck Loud.” It’s almost impossible to imagine a world where Eminem “forgot about Dre,” but it’s also hard to imagine Duck Down Records signing anyone outside of Brooklyn in the ‘90s. In 1995, rapper Buckshot and CEO Drew “Dru Ha” Friedman founded Duck Down Records and with releases from Heltah Skeltah, O.G.C., Boot Camp Clik, and Cocoa Brovaz in the label’s first years, a hyper-loyal fan base for the Brooklyn emcees were quickly established. Nearly two decades later, Duck Down Records has retained its Brooklyn sound (most recently with Buckshot & P-Money’s Backpack Travels), while expanding to include legends like B-Real, De La Soul (as First Serve), and Pharoahe Monch. Duck Down is also always an early adopter. As Buckshot told HipHopDX, he built a Duck Down Records website back when computers were still on Windows 95. He’s also voiced his concern about the current state of the dreaded “360 deal,” saying, “Getting signed [to a major label] now is so much worse because the labels give you a small amount of money and then they’re taking all your stuff.” While America seems to be one big “360 deal” lately, Duck Down has somehow managed to stay out of the fray, which makes their constancy while remaining independent even more impressive.
Label: Suburban Noize
Highest Profile Project: Long Live the Kings - Kottonmouth Kings (#26 Billboard 200)
Location: Burbank, CA
Marquee Artists: Kottonmouth Kings, Potluck
Kottonmouth Kings describe their music as “psychedelic Hip Hop Punk Rock.” So it comes as no surprise, then, that this may be the most accurate way to describe the eclectic collection of artists on Suburban Noize, the label founded by Kottonmouth Kings’ Brad “Daddy X” Xavier and former manager Kevin Zinger. Conceived in 1997, Suburban Noize is home to Jada Pinkett-Smith’s Nu-metal band (which, for the uninitiated, is an alchemy that combines Metal with Hip Hop), Wicked Wisdom, along with other artists who fuse Hip Hop and Rock sensibilities, such as Big B and Hed PE. But Suburban Noize is no stranger to more traditional Rap acts. It’s proven itself to be a safe haven for folks like Saigon, who released his well-received The Greatest Story Never Told on the label after years of delays and creative differences with Atlantic Records. Kottonmouth Kingz 2010 release Long Live The Kings, which carried on the tradition of having more lyrics about pot than there are jokes about it in a Seth Rogen movie, is the label’s highest profile project to date. Despite Xavier filing a $15 million lawsuit against Zinger last year, 2013 still saw the release of eight projects on Suburban Noize, and while 2014 has only seen the release of one album so far, we know the Kottonmouth Kingz will never trade quality for quantity.
Label: Jamla Records
Highest Profile Project: The Wonder Years - 9th Wonder (#76 Billboard 200)
Location: Raleigh, NC
Marquee Artists: Rapsody, 9th Wonder
In 1959, a young man named Berry Gordy started a record label named Tamla Records in Detroit, Michigan. That label would go on to become Motown Records. Fifty years later, producer 9th Wonder began an odyssey named Jamla Records, an imprint of his It’s a Wonderful World Music Group (IWWMG). While the label is still quite young, in the past five years it has steadily set out “to restore integrity and [a] positive impact to the Hip Hop industry through music, culture, [and] social preservation.” The Academy (another imprint of the IWWMG) was later folded into the Jamla label making its final roster that of only nine artists if you don’t count The Soul Council. Rapsody sets the tone for the label, but she’s followed up by The Away Team and Add-2, which is mirrored by an equally tight group of in-house producers, the aforementioned Soul Council, which includes 9th Wonder and Khrysis. Let us not forget Patrick Douthit himself, who, though he’d like to remain behind the scenes, is the label’s most recognizable and consistently lauded face. Nevertheless, the label has seen over 50 releases in its short time, including Rapsody’s debut album, The Idea of Beautiful. In 2012 HipHopWired asked 9th Wonder about the possibility of doing a major distribution deal to which he responded, “I maybe only have two or three artists that actually make it on TV. The rest of us want to travel the world and make money. That’s the plan. That’s the biggest plan. And controlling your own destiny and controlling your own life. Because you never want to sell your creativity and your art to somebody who doesn’t understand it. And I think majors know that about me.” So it looks like for 9th and company independent isn’t just a label distinction or motto, but a lifestyle.
Label: Strange Music
Highest Profile Project: Something Else - Tech N9ne (#4 Billboard 200)
Location: Lee’s Summit, MO
Marquee Artists: Tech N9ne, Murs
Strange Music is the modern standard for independent labels. Founded by Tech N9ne and Travis O’Guin in 1999, the label is a household name and the snake and bat logo is a Hip Hop icon. The label’s roster consists of 12 artists. Last year, Strange Music set fire to the charts with eight projects including, Tech’s Something Else, Stevie Stone’s 2 Birds 1 Stone and ¡Mayday!’s Believers. In an October, 2013 interview with Homegrown Radio, Top Dawg Entertainment’s president Terrence “Punch” Henderson said Strange Music was the blueprint for TDE’s label’s business plan. Strange Music uses INgroove/Fontana for distribution but otherwise, does everything in-house at Strangeland Studios in Lee Summit, MO. Fans of Strange Music are fiercely loyal. According to a September 2013 Forbes profile, the label’s merchandise reportedly brings in upwards of $6 million per year.
Label: Reach Records
Highest Profile Project: Gravity - Lecrae (#3 Billboard 200)
Location: Atlanta, GA
Marquee Artists: Lecrae, Andy Mineo
Reach Records was founded in 2004 powered by a business strategy they referred to as “working out of closets and selling CDs out the trunk.” Since then, Reach has expanded its vision while making good, inspiring music. Founder and emcee Lecrae leads the five-man roster that has made waves this year with Andy Mineo’s Neverland, KB’s 100 and Tedashii’s Below Paradise, which peaked at #2, #4 and #17 on the Billboard magazine Rap Album charts respectively. In 2012, Lecrae’s Gravity, was #1 on the Rap Album chart and peaked at #3 on the Billboard 200 chart. The album won a Grammy award in 2013 as the Best Gospel Album. Lecrae is slated to drop his seventh studio album in August. Reach artists have made appearances at the BET Hip Hop Awards and MTV’s Rapfix Live among others despite remaining strictly independent. This is what happens when Hip Hop lets the saints in.
Highest Profile Project: When Life Gives You Lemons Paint That Shit Gold - Atmosphere (#5 Billboard 200)
Location: Minneapolis, MN
Marquee Artists: Atmosphere, Brother Ali
Rhymesayers keeps Minnesota hot through even the most brutal winters. Starting in 1996 with Beyond (now Musab)’s Comparison, the label now hosts over 30 rappers, groups and producers including Aesop Rock and Brother Ali. Don’t think Minnesota is an artistic wasteland. Prince himself claims the North Star State as his throne. CEO Brent “Siddiq” Sayers told HipHopDX in 2012 that being from Minnesota is a blessing and a curse for Rhymesayers because it’s been the ideal spot for a truly independent label to grow and develop. But at the same time, because of its proximity from big music markets, it’s tremendously difficult to get media attention. The label prides itself on touring to cater to its diehard fan base. Though, Rhymesayers artist Jake One has produced for many artists including De La Soul, 50 Cent and J. Cole and released his own White Van Music in 2008. Despite not being geographically nestled in with the coastal heavyweights, Rhymesayers has made its mark on the independent scene by creating quality music and connecting with fans on a personal level.
Label: Hiero Imperium
Highest Profile Project: Both Sides Of The Brain - Del The Funky Homosapien (#118 Billboard 200)
Location: Oakland, CA
Marquee Artists: Del the Funky Homosapien, Hieroglyphics, Casual, Souls of Mischief
Hiero Imperium has made its place in the underground Hip Hop scene and helped create the rich history of Rap in the Bay area. Motorcycle Mike released “Super Rat” in 1981 and was the West Coast’s first challenge to New York’s dominance in Hip Hop. In 1988, Too $hort released Life is…Too Short and in 1995, E-40 released In A Major Way. Then, in 1997, a group of friends officially founded Hiero Imperium. The Oakland label is led by Del the Funky Homosapien who has had three projects on the Billboard 200 chart. His project Eleventh Hour peaked at #23 on the Rap Albums chart. The Oakland collective—essentially a group full of groups and soloists—entered mainstream Hip Hop’s collective consciousness while signed with Jive records. But in subsequent years, they’ve found independence and maintained the brand equity of their trademark three-eyed logo. In 1994, beef between Casual and Saafir of Hobo Junction resulted in an epic Rap battle on The Wake Up Show. This battle set the tone for today’s Battle Rap scene. A voicemail from Del to Q-Tip dropping f-bombs to all labels epitomizes the Hieroglyphics do-it-yourself attitude.
Label: Stones Throw
Highest Profile Project: A Strange Arrangement - Mayer Hawthorne (#147 Billboard 200)
Location: Los Angeles, CA
Marquee Artists: Peanut Butter Wolf, Homeboy Sandman
In 1986, Chris Manak penned an essay in high school about founding a record label. Manak, aka Peanut Butter Wolf, worked as a duo with his best friend Charles “Charizma” Hicks. They signed with Walt Disney’s Hollywood Basic, but were frustrated that their creativity was stifled. In 1993, Charizma was tragically shot and killed. Three years later, Stones Throw was born when Peanut Butter Wolf independently released My World Premier in memory of his friend and the deejay/producer completed his dream of a record label. Stones Throw thrived through the early 2000s despite not wading those warm 360-deal waters. But it's their ability to find and cultivate non-mainstream talents that makes them legendary. Aloe Blacc is just one of its alums to make fantastic tunes no one saw coming. His post Stones Throw album, Lift Your Spirit reached the #4 spot on the Billboard 200 chart and featured the song “The Man,” which was #8 on the Hot 100. Stones Throw also worked closely with two of Hip Hop’s most legendary producers in Madlib and the late J DIlla. In addition to Dilla’s contributions to the immaculate sounds of A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and Slum Village, the label released his Donuts album on February 7, 2006. Just three days later, arguably the greatest producer of all time passed away after a long battle with lupus. His death upended Stones Throws’ momentum, but the label’s enduring independent legacy lives on.
Label: Humble Beast Records
Highest Profile Project: Excellent - Propaganda (#184 Billboard 200)
Location: Portland, OR
Marquee Artist: Propaganda
Humble Beast describes their collective as a family of creatives, pastors, writers, theologians, and musicians, who leverage their talents to see the Gospel go out into the community and transform lives. The roster hosts a dozen artists who not only rap and sing, but also perform spoken word. Founded by Bryan “Braille” Winchester and Thomas “Odd Thomas” Terry in Portland, Oregon, the label set out to use Hip Hop as a way to bring hope to a bleak urban culture being destroyed by negative influences. To make its music available to those who need it most, Humble Beast releases every project for free on its website. But fans that want and can support the movement financially can pick up the music on iTunes. Propaganda’s Excellent peaked at #19 on the Billboard magazine Rap Albums chart, and his latest project Crimson Cord beat Last Winter by Dreamville artist Bas on the iTunes charts. Humble Beast gets its name because of the artists’ intense work ethic makes them “beasts” but their faith and call to service makes them to be “humble.”
Highest Profile Project: Until The Quiet Comes - Flying Lotus (#34 Billboard 200)
Location: Los Angeles, CA
Marquee Artists: Flying Lotus, Thundercat, The Underachievers
The eclectic artists who comprise Brainfeeder are often described as “New Age,” but their approach is based on an age-old formula: high quality music matched with stunning visual presentation to challenge the status quo. Whether it’s Thundercat’s overture to “go to LACMA and clean one of the mummies” or Flying Lotus’ ability to compose soundscapes and drop 16s as Captain Murphy with equal superiority, few labels are as pleasantly mind bending as Brainfeeder. Fly Lo may have permanently transitioned from an obscure auteur to a commercial force in 2012. After his own Until The Quiet Comes peaked at the #34 spot on Billboard magazine’s Top 200 albums chart, he popped up alongside Mac Miller, Earl Sweatshirt and others from SoCal’s slightly less trippy Hip Hop scene. Add in the likes of Jeremiah Jae, The Underachievers, Daedelus, Samiyam and Gaslamp Killer, and it becomes clear why future Brainfeeder releases are being met with anticipation.
Victoria Hernandez is a journalism student at the University of Miami. She started listening to Hip Hop in high school and has been obsessed ever since. Her music news career began at the South Florida Arts Review. She has also written sports for CaneInsider.com and The Miami Hurricane amongst others. Follow her on Twitter @vrhernandez116.
Christopher Cole is a native of Rancho Cucamonga, CA (Yes, from Next Friday), and he studies Film and Television Production at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. He is an aspiring screenwriter, Kanye West defender, Netflix binge watcher, and has written for Washington Square News. Follow him at @ChrisCole95.