The Most Successful Labels in Hip-Hop: A Detailed Analysis

Examining Billboard Rap Chart data from 1989–2015

Kevin Beacham
Oct 8, 2015 · 36 min read

I wrote this in support of “The Most Successful Labels In Hip Hop” project that was done in collaboration with Matt Daniels with myself and Skye Rossi over at Rhymesayers.

When Matt Daniels first shared this Billboard Data and some of his initial discoveries with me I was very intrigued to see what digging deeper would find. In my excitement over the project and the information it presented, as well as the theories it helped form or further shape, I wrote a lengthy analyst of the data, which you can explore in full below. — Kevin Beacham

As the story goes, in 1979 when rap music first became a marketable commodity via the 12” single, there was arguably as much resistance as there was celebration. Within the hip-hop culture where the music emerged, there was a sense of dismissal by many aimed at the first two rap records, as they were recorded by artists that weren’t recognized as being part of the heart and/or start of the culture; Fatback Band “King Tim III” and Sugarhill Gang “Rapper’s Delight” respectively. Plus, within the industry, many musicians, music executives, media outlets and parents in general considered rap to be noise, which was being made by kids with no musical training, who were just talking to music. Early reports suggested rap would be a fad that would likely burn out as quick, if not quicker than disco. However, “Rapper’s Delight” sold enough records and received enough radio play that some of those non-believers who were in positions of power — and surely some believers as well — to jump at the opportunity to at least make some fast cash. And with that, the rap record trend caught on pretty fast.

One of the problems with determining sales and radio charting stats on the earliest rap records is that the industry at large didn’t believe that these records were going to sell enough to justify paying attention to. And while that may have been true for the majority of very early rap releases, the few that snuck through and became hits were largely unexpected and for the most part, poorly documented. It took some time for the industry to fully embrace the idea that rap could infiltrate the mainstream and an even longer time to trust that it had staying power. That said, between the years of 1979-85, rap was focused on the 12” single. A handful of groups did albums, but those releases were arguably not rap albums. Artists like Kurtis Blow, the Sugarhill Gang and the Sequence, all who did albums in that time period, would generally have a couple rap songs on the album, which were usually the singles, and the rest would be filled with R&B songs and ballads. I suspect this was the action of record labels trying to appeal to their older, built in R&B fan bases, as well as grooming these rap artists to be ready for R&B careers when rap died off after a couple of years, as they fully expected to happen. Evidence suggests that it was the Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin led Rush Management and Def Jam Records that created the blueprint for the rap album, first with the successful self-titled debut album from Run-DMC on Profile Records, releasing in March of 1984. It was arguably the first proper full rap album, shortly followed by the Fat Boys’ debut on Sutra Records (May 1984) and later in the year by Whodini Escape on Jive Records (Oct 1984), followed by LL Cool J’s Radio in 1985.

However, even before the arrival of the official rap album, rap artists were enjoying some pop-like success. Artists like Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five and Kurtis Blow were touring with some of the hottest R&B, funk and reggae bands of the time, such as Rick James, Cameo, and Bob Marley. Meanwhile, the Funky Four Plus One More broke rap into the TV market with their now-classic Saturday Night Live appearance on Valentine’s Day, 1981, courtesy a personal invite from Deborah Harry of Blondie. Plus some early rap songs found their way onto Billboard charts, such as the Billboard Hot 100 and Hot Black Singles (now known as the “Hot R&B/Hip Hop Songs” chart). But rap still had a long way to go before radio stopped treating it as a novelty and sales charts recognized it as a powerhouse, realizing its potential to make a mark on the pop charts.

Ultimately, that’s the basis of this study, taking a look at the history of Billboard’s Rap singles chart, which is called the “Hot Rap Songs” chart, originally known as the “Hot Rap Tracks” and then the “Hot Rap Singles” chart. I will refer to it by its current name throughout. In many ways, the evolution of this chart lends to the idea of looking at rap’s potential and successes as pop music, sometimes exclusively and other times while it is still rooted in and embraced by hip-hop culture. The data for this study is based on 26 years of the “Hot Rap Songs” Billboard chart. While record sales and chart positions, or lack thereof, don’t necessarily reflect the full scope of the artistry and creativity within hip-hop culture, those things were and/or are still often instrumental in effecting those very factors, as artists seek to try and remain relevant, chase a hit, or just hold on to a record deal. Immediately upon glancing at this data some things jumped out at me, many of which gave credence to theories I’ve long had in my head, but without any data to support it, until now. But there were also a handful of things that caught me off guard or that I wasn’t fully expecting, specifically in terms of the magnitude of what songs/labels started to dominate the charts over time.

Billboard launched its “Hot Rap Songs” chart in 1989. According to their website, which has a pretty comprehensive history of their charts, the first recorded “Hot Rap Songs” chart is on March 11, 1989 with the KRS One led project, Stop The Violence Movement’s “Self Destruction” in the top position. I suppose the most immediate question that came to my mind was, what was it about 1989 that caused Billboard to give rap its own chart? As I looked through extensive lists of rap records chronologically between 1979-88, one logical factor took precedence over any other theories. But that idea was the result of a few different paths merging into the same road. From 1979-81 rap records were made like most any other record at the time. Either the artist had their own band or the record label they were affiliated with had a crop of session musicians whose job it was to fill this role. It was the latter case that most applied to rap records in this time period. Furthermore, these session musicians were largely tasked with the job of reimagining or duplicating the sounds of the popular records that you might hear the DJ play at a hip-hop party, records such as Chic “Good Times,” Tom Tom Club “Genius Of Love,” Queen “Another One Bites The Dust,” or Taanya Gardner “Heartbeat.” This fits with the idea of record labels likely seeing rap as a way to use the MCs to reel in a young audience, while the R&B musical backdrops might intrigue their older crowd, including the R&B radio stations for airplay.

However a significant change in sound came into existence due to the introduction of the programmable drum machine in the early 80s, courtesy of the LM-1, Linn Drum, Oberheim DMX, and the Roland TR-808. By 1982, a dramatic change could be heard taking place in the sound of rap records. There was also a notable increase in the range of tempos of songs — from slower to faster — than what had been the norm. Also in ’82, thanks largely to Grandmaster Flash, the sound of the turntable scratch made its way unto rap records. That abrasive sound, along with the gritty beats of these early drum machines led to MCs altering their vocal tones to fit the new style. Additionally, the new tempos, textures, and tones also opened the doors to explore new subject matter or shift focus to topics that had only been lightly touched on before, but got lost in the ambiance of the party rap sound that had previously dominated.

These changes essentially were a few steps in the right direction of putting the sound of hip-hop back in the hand of the artists, at least in many cases. Programming a drum machine, letting the DJ scratch and adding some basic keyboard playing skills gave the opportunity to be more self-contained than depending on a band. Perhaps the main drawback in that evolved formula is my final point. Not every producer at the time had the musical talents of Ted Currier — who produced the Boogie Boys — or Larry Smith, who was responsible for the sophisticated sound of Whodini’s second record, Escape. In contrast, once rap artists moved further away from using seasoned studio musicians, a lot of the keyboard playing or other musicianship on the songs was often rudimentary. One can only guess that is what led to rap songs adopting riffs from show tunes and themes. The show tunes were catchy, generally easy to play and gave the listener a ring of familiarity to draw them in. But at the same time it took a step back in re-labeling rap music as a novelty. Between the years of 1985-87, rap records started to become sprinkled and then plagued with the sounds of many cartoons and TV shows, including Gilligan’s Island, The Pink Panther, I Dream Of Jeannie, Batman, and of course, Inspector Gadget.

Brooklyn’s Bad Boys released their self-titled single in 1985 using the Inspector Gadget theme music — creating a huge underground hit in the process — and then not long after Doug E. Fresh and the Get Fresh Crew (featuring the debut of Slick Rick) dropped “The Show” making use of the same music and also producing a hit. In fact, Bizzie of the Busy Boys told me that when their single first released they were doing shows with Doug E. Fresh. They were performing “Bad Boys” and Doug & The Get Fresh were performing “The Show,” but it didn’t have the Inspector Gadget music in it yet. He claims that’s something Fresh added later when “The Show” was officially released as a single.

The next couple of years saw artists and labels trying to chase a hit of their own by utilizing the same formula, but with extremely limited results. Pulling the opposite direction, right around this same time in 1984-86, you had the emergence of MCs who were beginning to push the limits of the art form. Artists such as T La Rock, Kool G Rap, Big Daddy Kane, KRS One, Rakim and a handful of others were staring to redefine what MCing and lyricism could be. Also of note, at this same time you saw the shift in popularity from large groups into solo artists. One reason that is important to the development of lyricism is that the large groups of the past limited microphone time for every MC. It also meant there was a need to create songs that fit within the ideas of the group. If you go back and listen to live shows from the time right before this shift, you’ll find MCs like Treacherous Three, Grandmaster Caz, Masterdon Committee and others doing some of their technically best lyricism on stage, displaying skill levels they rarely expressed on their records, which were usually concept based songs. So evidence exists that it’s not as if the early generation lacked the skills, but it’s arguably that being in large groups, as well as following record label’s plans to mimic R&B records, suppressed their ability to fully showcase it.

1986 also saw the rise of sampling technology, which helped move rap music from the gimmicky sounds of show tunes. Producers like Marley Marl, Ced Gee, Hurby Luv Bug, and Paul C were shaping the future of what rap music would sound like. Additionally I would also at least partially credit the sound of sampled production for helping evolve the styles and writing of the MCs, the same way drum machines did just a few years earlier. The more exciting and refined the music became, the more sophisticated the accompanying lyricism was in many cases.

That leads us to the merging of these different paths. By 1986-87 the industry had to rethink the idea of rap dying off as a fad. The prediction of rap’s demise had come and gone. Thanks to changes in the music inspired by the programmable drum machine and even further by the evolution in sampling technology — with equipment like the SP-1200 and Akai S900 — the sound of rap evolved and became more refined. All of that led to better music, which is why most consider the start of the Golden Era of Hip Hop to coincide right around the advent of sampling as a new standard. And what did all of that lead to? Bigger hits more often, all coming to a head around 1989.

Notable breakthrough successes came in 1986 with the Beastie Boys’ Licensed To Ill and Run-DMC’s Raising Hell albums. I would guess if it hadn’t been a consideration before then, that might have been the time when Billboard started to think about where rap fit in on their charting system, particularly with the commercial success of Beastie Boys’ “Fight For Your Right To Party” and Run-DMC’s “Walk This Way”. In particular, Licensed To Ill is noted as the first rap album to reach #1 on the Billboard album charts. From there, the rest of the 80s would continue to see an increase of the number of rap songs that would become pop hits of varying degrees. Salt-N-Pepa dropped their debut album in 1986, but it started to pick up steam in ‘87 with “Push It” taking off. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince hit the scene in a big way in ‘86 with the rising popularity of “Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble.” Plus 1987 gave us LL Cool J “I Need Love” and Kool Moe Dee “How Ya Like Me Now,” two rivals with two of the bigger rap hits of the year. 1988 saw an increase in big hits with Rob Base & DJ EZ Rock “It Takes Two,” L’Trimm “Cars With the Boom,” JJ Fad “Supersonic,” DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince “Parents Just Don’t Understand” and LL Cool J “Going Back to Cali” (released in ’87).

But there are a few artists with 1988 releases that are probably most responsible for the explosion of pop rap. In September of ‘88 MC Hammer dropped his second album, Let’s Get It Started on Capitol Records, after releasing his debut album independently. Let’s Get It Started produced the hit song “Turn This Mutha Out,” setting Hammer on a path to go 10X platinum with his follow up album, Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em in 1990. LA’s Tone Loc released “Wild Thing” (as a B-side actually) in 1988 and it exploded as a pop hit. He quickly followed that up with another sure shot chart climber, “Funky Cold Medina.” Both of those tracks were co-written by a label mate of his by the name of Young MC. Young MC was signed to Delicious Vinyl in ‘87 and first dropped a couple singles showing off his fast raps, punchlines and humor, before dropping massive hit, “Bust A Move,” which earned him a Grammy, an American Music Award, and Billboard Award for the Best New Pop Artist. And while those are likely the biggest Pop Rap hits of ‘89, there was also notable chart action on Digital Underground “Humpty Dance,” De La Soul “Me Myself & I,” Heavy D & the Boyz “Somebody For Me,” and LL Cool J “I’m the Type Of Guy.”

Additionally, at this same time you had MTV becoming more and more supportive of rap music videos, which lead to the launch of an all rap music video show, Yo! MTV Raps, debuting in August of 1988. BET followed suit by launching their all rap music video program, Rap City, exactly a year later in August of ’89. Both shows were instrumental in exposing rap music to a wider audience and helping increase sales of rap albums. All of those factors point to 1989 being a perfect year to launch a rap chart.

First and foremost, I’d like to take just another second to point out that the first song to hit #1 on the “Hot Rap Songs” chart was BDP’s “Self Destruction,” a positive song that assembled an all-star cast of MCs to speak out about violence in the community, racism, and black-on-black crime. It’s certainly one of the rare times that a song focused on such a positive message sat at #1. In the #2 slot of that first chart, you have Tone Loc’s “Wild Thing,” followed by Boogie Down Productions’ “Jack of Spades,” so that’s two BDP tracks in the top 3. The rest of the chart is a nice mix of East and West Coast hits with Kid N Play, MC Hammer, Rob Base, Too Short, Slick Rick, Ice T, Cash Money & Marvelous, N.W.A, Eric B & Rakim, K-9 Posse, and Mamado & She sharing in the spotlight.

Looking at that first chart and the 1988-89 songs that were the likely key hits to lead to the existence of this chart, something of note comes to mind. It wasn’t that rap’s time had come and therefore the hits just started to pour in automatically. Sampling technology was a huge part of this growth and with it the rise of the rap producer as a more important figure. Previous to sampling, knowing who the producer was for a rap record didn’t mean the same thing. Furthermore, most rap records didn’t really tell you who was behind the music. The credit usually went to whoever owned the label and/or paid the studio session bills. Sampling caused a shift in that, yet some labels still failed to give the actual producers credit, but eventually that practice started to take place. When you look at many of those early rap songs that became hits after sampling came into prominence, a lot of those producers have something in common; they were young, loved hip-hop, had a musical background, and they knew and understood how to make a pop record.

In contrast, producers like Ced Gee and Paul C were technicians, interested in being as innovative as possible with sampling and sound engineering. It doesn’t seem like they were trying to make pop hits by any means. Pioneering Juice Crew producer Marley Marl had experience as a studio engineer and a mobile DJ, so he had a keen understanding of music and a great ear. But he was still producing a lot of his earliest records in his Queensbridge apartment with the primary goal to sound far removed from party rap records of years before. Marley wasn’t much of a fan of how those records sounded, he saw drum machines and specifically sampling as a way to give rap the sound it was supposed to have. It was a sound that matched with what he heard when a DJ was cutting up two raw, stripped-down break beats at the park jams, as opposed to the live jam band sound that rap had grown into in the early 1980s. Of course later on Marley Marl chose to tap into his ability to mix a gritty sound with his musical understanding. When he did, he finally started making the biggest hits of his career.

However producers like Hurby Luv, Teddy Riley and the L.A. Posse had a great musical sense and understanding of pop music and the proof is in the charts. Hurby Luv Bug — who never really gets his deserved props for his innovative mix of musicality and creative programming — produced hits for Kid N Play, Salt N Pepa, Dana Dane, Sweet Tee, and Kwame. Not many producers of the time had his level of pop success with such a variety of artists. Teddy Riley, spent the mid to late 80s giving many underground rap songs a unique sound that was somewhat rugged, but also sophisticated, producing a lot of those early Kool Moe Dee hits, before pretty much helping reinvent R&B in the late 80s/early 90s with new jack swing.

There is one non-rap song on the first “Hot Rap Songs” chart, Milli Vanilli’s “Girl You Know It’s True” and that also speaks to some industry influence on the definition of rap. Soon we started to see a lot of R&B music that used the hip-hop look and/or sound to their music labeled as rap. At that time, a lot of hip-hop fans rebelled against the idea, myself included. It seemed offensive to call most of these things rap, even if you enjoyed them for what they were; R&B or dance records. But, it became standard. Almost immediately artists like Technotronic, C&C Music Factory, TLC, Bell Biv Devoe, and many more got labeled as rap. Looking back, it was bound to happen. As rap got more and more comfortable sampling pop songs and producing rap records with R&B sensibilities, it was only a matter of time before that resulted in R&B music doing just the opposite; using the rising popularity of rap music to widen their appeal and audience. Simultaneously as many rap artists tried to be more R&B, many R&B artists —both young talent and R&B legends — tried to sound and look more hip-hop. Both sides had the goal of making bigger hits and ultimately that formula worked.

“Self Destruction” stayed #1 on the chart for five weeks in a row, which makes a KRS quote from his following album seem a bit out of place, at least in some regards. On “House Ni**a’s” from his Edutainment album (1990) he says:

“Let me see, let me see, how shall I start? / If I ‘Stop The Violence’ I won’t chart / Maybe I should write some songs like Mozart / Cause many people don’t believe rap is an art.”

Granted, his statement is addressing some real concerns that artists and even some fans were having at the time. Although “Self Destruction” did chart at #1, it was specifically on the Billboard Rap chart. It appears it didn’t see any placement on any of their other charts, which I’m guessing is at least partially what KRS One is speaking of. Although artists such as Tone Loc, Milli Vanilli, and MC Hammer were lower on this rap chart, they were all seeing positioning for their songs on other Billboard charts as well, getting bigger attention overall in the grand scheme of things. Additionally, over those five weeks of “Self Destruction” at being at #1, you slowly start to see a shift in the diversity of the chart. It’s not dramatic, but six weeks later, on the May 20th 1989 chart when De La Soul’s “Me Myself And I” becomes #1 and knocks “Self Destruction” to #2, the chart is dominated by songs that were made with pop sensibilities; strong hooks, danceable beats, and playful lyrics. Besides “Self Destruction,” the only track standing out as clearly set apart from that formula is Public Enemy’s “Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos,” which is pretty much the antithesis of all those things. It’s safe to say that formulaic trend stayed the course and the diversity of the type of artists and sounds that filled it became lacking. Eventually, one could look at the Billboard charts and get an idea of what the formula was to have a better chance at making a hit. That brings two things to mind; 1) How did/does record label influence affect charting? and 2) Is content the only charting obstacle for more positive-minded or culture based records?

For the first question, I think looking at “Self Destruction” one last time is a perfect study. What put this song at #1? For Hip Hop fans that answer can be easy; it was a great song. But obviously that alone doesn’t put songs on the top of charts or make them sell millions of records. Certainly one part of that record’s success is the star power involved. You had BDP (KRS One, Just-Ice, D-Nice, Ms. Melodie), Kool Moe Dee, Public Enemy, Heavy D, MC Lyte, Doug E Fresh, and Stetsasonic, who all had a great buzz at that time and enjoyed some hits of their own, some big, some small. Along with the artists involved, you have an additional layer to the story, they were also donating all proceeds from the record to the National Urban League in an effort to help programs that would target focusing on “Black on Black crime and youth education.” That gave it a story that the media could latch onto and help create talking points for radio, press, etc. Also, the record followed some basic pop principles. The root part of the beat has a danceable, bouncy sound and there is a strong hook. Taking a quick glance thru time, the positive-minded songs that followed that formula were the ones that were more likely to find some chart position, which is true from Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power” up to Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks” and beyond. Though it’s also historically true that when many of those same artists that had chart success with positive-minded songs, they actually found their biggest hits with songs that were not focused on thought-provoking topics. This is true for most charting rap songs in general.

What does seem clear is that labels and many artists look at charts and record sales and use that information when trying to shoot for commercial success. The evolution of the chart over those few short weeks and how it continued to evolve is proof of that. In 1989, major labels were still figuring out which type of artists to sign and invest the most money in. There was also one noticeable game of perception that major labels seemed to be playing throughout the late 80s and early 90s. Labels who were not really known for hip-hop acts, started to launch rap departments, signing a bunch of artists and buying ads in rap magazines. For instance, Atlantic launched their Atlantic Street department and signed a handful of talented rap artists. Prior to that, Atlantic’s release of rap records was extremely limited and mostly underwhelming and gimmicky. Their first real go at it was partnering with First Priority Music in 1987, to be the parent label for releases by Audio Two, MC Lyte and others. Then in 1988, Atlantic signed Miami Bass female duo L’Trimm, who had a hit with “Cars That Go Boom.” The label also formed another partnership with Ruthless Records to release JJ Fad’s massive single and album Supersonic.

I’m guessing the just-above underground success of Audio Two’s “Top Billin’” and MC Lyte’s debut album hype — combined with the commercial success of L’Trimm and JJ Fad — greenlit the funds for their Atlantic Street department. The use of the word “Street” in their marketing campaign suggested that they were trying to appeal to the hardcore hip-hop fans or something to that effect. Atlantic Street did a rather nice job with their initial signings, starting off with a good balance of artists, who all released debut albums in 1989; Breeze (of L.A. Posse), Craig G (of the Juice Crew), Kwame, the W.I.S.E Guyz, The D.O.C and Cool C. I would say that most all of those artists were great lyricists who also had impressive flows. They were the type of artists that most hardcore rap fans would love or at least appreciate. But they also worked with producers with the ability to make music that was accessible to a broader base. Not fully pop, but all of them either released an underground hit or certainly had the potential to.

The exception to most of those rules is Cool C. He wasn’t the greatest lyricist and didn’t have the degree of flow possessed by the others, but he had a unique voice and was a good songwriter. It also helped that Cool C was affiliated with Jive Records’ Steady B and his Hilltop Hustlers crew. Those signings show that whoever was running the A&R for the rap department seemed to really know what they were doing (Shout Out to Sylvia Rhone, Merlin Bobb, Darryl Musgrove). Their signings were strategic for many reasons, but for one they were essentially introducing a crop of new talented artists to the world or at least greatly broadening their potential fan base. But all of the signings were connected to a proven formula that Atlantic could bank on. Breeze & The W.I.S.E Guyz came under a production deal for the L.A. Posse (Muffla & Big Dad) who had produced the groundbreaking album for LL Cool, Bigger And Deffer, so they were some of the most buzzworthy rap producers at the time. Craig G was produced by Marley Marl and Kwame was produced by Hurby Luv Bug, both hot producers on the East Coast. The D.O.C was part of the partnership Atlantic had with Ruthless Records, which already produced the JJ Fad success story. N.W.A was steadily on the rise at the time, so a full D.O.C. album produced by Dr. Dre was a no-brainer.

In many regards, it was true that Atlantic was appealing to the “streets,” but they were also banking on some big record sales as well. Atlantic continued to sign more rap artists in 1990, adding Yo Yo, Rodney O and Joe Cooley, Dangerous Dame, Doug Lazy, and K Solo to the roster. Again we can see a similar trend in strategy, but it definitely seems to lean more to trying to capitalize on the success of N.W.A and Too Short’s Jive Records debut, Born To Mack. West coast projects like the Ice Cube led project by Yo Yo, the signing of Compton’s Rodney O & Joe Cooley and Bay Area artist Dangerous Dame, who later wrote “Short But Funky” for Too Short. As for Doug Lazy, his album focused on the hip-house trend, which was having some fringe success at the time while EPMD affiliate K Solo piggybacked the Hit Squad’s buzz. Although Atlantic continued to sign new rap acts through the mid 90s and beyond, it seems their focus got less targeted, though they definitely hit a few short-term jackpots along the way with Das Efx, Snow (“Informer”) and Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch. They also released some underground records by Original Flavor, The Poetess, The Future Sound, Hard To Obtain, Kap Kirk, Yomo & Maulkie, etc. This is just one example of how major labels were rethinking their rap strategies in the late 80s and early 90s.

However, when this chart first launched, Atlantic wasn’t even in the top 5 labels dominating the charts (though they were in the top ten). The top 5 would be Ruthless, Capitol, Delicious Vinyl, Def Jam, and with the significantly biggest piece of the pie, Jive Records. Capitol’s inclusion was largely because of MC Hammer, with assistance from King Tee, Mellow Man Ace, Beastie Boys, and Oaktown 357 (an MC Hammer produced group). Delicious Vinyl had Tone Loc and Young MC, with some assistance from Def Jef. Ruthless had N.W.A, Eazy-E and The D.O.C. In some ways Def Jam was the most diverse of the top 5, with Slick Rick, Public Enemy, LL Cool J, and 3rd Bass. Jive was also pretty diverse, but it’s also interesting in many ways. The biggest influencer there was Boogie Down Productions. While “Self Destruction” was the biggest song for them that year, three songs from BDP’s third album, Ghetto Music: The Blueprint of Hip Hop also saw some chart action. Jive also had Too Short, Kool Moe Dee, and DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince.

In many ways it looks as if Jive avoided the stigmas associated with rap charts. BDP, considered the “conscious rap” act, led the way for their chart influence, even dropping an album that was purposefully anti-pop. The second biggest slice of the Def Jam pie was Too Short, which was also completely against the grain of what was considered pop, though his music is likely influential in the early steps of redefining what pop music could be. The Jive artists with the most pop sounding songs — Kool Moe Dee and DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince — were the lowest on the rap chart. Surely, DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince were seeing some other significant chart action in addition to this minimal rap chart action. And even though Kool Moe Dee wouldn’t be considered and all-out pop artist — nor would his Knowledge Is King”album be classified as a pop record — the singles released for the album were clearly catered to pop music fans.

I don’t think this is necessarily a sign that Jive was more cultured in their approach than other labels. I think what this shows is that labels were being strategic about what charts they went after for specific artists and many likely used their influence, marketing and in some cases payola dollars to influence these charts. Specifically in this case — and this is 100% speculation — it seems that Jive perhaps purposefully didn’t push for high charting on their pop sounding songs on the “Hot Rap Songs” chart. That would be a pretty decent strategy. If you have Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince doing great in the world of pop and selling units, there’s no real benefit to have them riding the top of the rap charts, at least not as much benefit as there would be in pushing your non-pop artists to the top there. If you put all that marketing and money into pushing that position for artists you believe in but you know are most likely not going to see any pop chart action, you are going to maximize your efforts. Hence, putting support for the rap charts for something like BDP and Too Short could make more sense.

Just one year later, 1990, there’s a noticeable shift in top influential labels. Def Jam becomes number one. Jive remains at the top, but is competing for space with Atlantic and Capitol. Tommy Boy and Profile show noticeable growth and Uptown Records makes an impressive debut. What you’re able to see as you look year by year is how different players came into prominence. You see how for years Def Jam and Jive wrestled for the top position. You notice how there are areas of the map, mostly all throughout the middle, that never get a bubble, which is not a surprise. It’s common knowledge that the music industry was concentrated in New York and L.A., so while throughout the 90s more artists were emerging from different cities all over the map, there was still the perceived need to go to New York or L.A. fully succeed in the business. The one early clear exception was the activity in Florida, mainly because they had their own built in sound with Miami bass. It was essentially ignored in the New York market and didn’t seem to be heavily explosive on the West Coast, likely because L.A. already had their electro era with Egyptian Lover, World Class Wreckin’ Cru, Arabian Prince and the LA Dream Team. Additionally, when the explosion of N.W.A and Too $hort took place, the L.A. electro scene became noticeably less prominent.

Earlier I mentioned how when the chart first launched just a few short weeks later you started notice a shift in the diversity, as things start leaning towards a bigger pop sound. However that was relatively short-lived. I surmise that the after-effects of the explosion of N.W.A, Too Short, and 2 Live Crew started to have more residual impact in the early 90s, and then in 1992 Dr. Dre’s The Chronic kicked the door off the hinges. For example, if you look at the year 1991, most of the top songs for any label with a bigger piece of the pie for the year are tracks made with some pop sensibilities; lots of bright feel good music, singing hooks and danceable beats. But, 1992 looks a little bit different, though not completely. You start to see the emergence of artists who are successfully combining gritty sounds, danceable beats, strong hooks, and a boom bap feel. Not always all of those traits at once, but generally a combination of those characteristics, making songs that had hit potential and still resonated with the core rap audience. Key examples include Cypress Hill “Phuncky Feel One,” A Tribe Called Quest “Check The Rime,” Public Enemy “Can’t Truss It,” and UMCs “Blue Cheese.” None of those are really a traditional pop hit, but they use elements of pop sensibilities. In the case of Public Enemy, they were able to communicate their positive-minded messages to broader bases by using this formula, especially a couple years prior with “Fight the Power.” Cypress Hill was able to turn psychedelic pro-marijuana rap into a hit phenomenon, which is rather surprising on its own, at least in some ways. I feel like those next few years transitioning into the mid-90s are critical in defining the shift to how this chart still works today.

Things remained similarly diverse over the next couple years, as we see an ebb and flow of different sounds and styles dominate the charts. We start to see trends such as dancehall and child rappers make their way into the mix. But there’s a noticeable change in 1997. First, looking at 1996 you can see that there isn’t the same level of dominance by a just a couple of labels and that there was a wider competition with what labels defined what this chart sounded like; Def Jam, LaFace, Ruffhouse, Loud, Tommy Boy, MCA, Duck Down, Chrysalis, Elektra, Ruthless, Death Row, Rap A Lot, etc. But when you move ahead just one year later to 1997, only two labels are truly dominating; Bad Boy (Puffy, Notorious B.I.G, Mase) and Violator (Foxy Brown, Cru, Beatnuts). Additionally, both of those labels were focused on a similar sound, as street/club music was winning the charts. Skip to 1999 and No Limit is the clear dominating force, more than any one label had been before. The closest example is Def Jam in 1991, but there was still Jive and Select Records with a decent sized presence.

2000 saw a return to the norm, with several labels sharing the pie, but while there were a lot of labels and artists in the mix, the variety of sound and style was not nearly as diverse as previous years. This is true specifically in the most charting labels, though you see some smaller presence from songs setting themselves apart, such as Common’s “The 6th Sense” and D.I.T.C.’s “Thick.” Looking through the remaining years there is a lot of diversity of different labels getting into the game — including an explosion of new indie labels — which includes an increase of representation from different parts of the map. The sound of the chart stays pretty consistent, focusing on primarily street music that works in the club. There is a notable absence of boom bap, positive messages, abstract styles (i.e. De La Soul, UMCs), and humor-based records (i.e. Biz Markie, Digital Underground or Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince). But there’s also a lack of non-rap on this chart as their were in earlier years, with very little hip-house, dancehall, and or R&B songs, despite the fact that there is a heavy amount of R&B styles integrated into the rap hits. Some would simply say that it was just the natural changing of the guard and that east coast boom bap had its time and now it was time for other sounds to dominate. Others would counter that there was a conspiracy at play to limit the success of positively tinged music as there certainly is a notable lack of it charting over time. It’s probably less about conspiracy and more about following formulas in attempt to make as many hits as possible.

If my theory is true about labels using the rap chart to push things that they didn’t see having pop potential, that thinking started to change in 1995 with the arrival of Bad Boy, who competed with Def Jam for the top slot that year. At that point, the theory could still be ring true because Bad Boy released both Notorious B.I.G and Craig Mack debut albums in ’94, which may have been considered underground records with pop potential. I’m willing to guess that Puffy believed they had more than just potential to go pop and that Bad Boy had created a magic formula to appease the widest base of rap fans, from coast to coast, from the underground to the pop market. Puffy’s experience at Uptown Records with artists like Heavy D and Mary J. Blige was probably influential in his understanding of that. He was able to take those pop record sensibilities and combine them with the influence of the clean yet still rugged sound of Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, a game changer and one of the most influential rap albums of all-time. It was a perfect fusion of marketing genius.

It seems that this time period — influenced by Dr. Dre and further capitalized on by Bad Boy — marked the start of the dissolving of the divided lines in hip-hop that had long been so prevalent, such as east vs. west, indie vs. major, New York vs. everybody, commercial vs. underground, etc. It’s because of that blurring of lines that people became more vocally passionate about what side they were on, as this time marked the height of all these controversies. It was the “keep it real” era, where artists went out of their way to express how they hated major labels and were never going to sell out to pop music. That is, until their indie records got enough attention to get them major deals and potential to crossover, which happened repeatedly. However I agree with those who say that the media really were the ones fueling the fire, because these controversial stories sold magazines and newspapers. There’s also no denying that the media had a fire to fuel because many East Coast artists were opposing the merging of these sounds, as well as the dominating sales and popularity from other areas throughout the map. But despite all the resistance, diss songs, passionate-sounding diatribes about pledging allegiance to the “real hip hop,” the change was imminent. Truthfully, I can’t decide if most of the resistance was just hype or if people were really that scared and/or bothered by the change. Regardless, the resistors continued to lessen in numbers and many artists were soon trying to figure out how to fit into the changing times.

As these changes and shifts were taking place, another thing that this study reflects is at any given time how many labels were influencing the charts. In 1990 there were 53 different labels with songs on the charts. That number gradually increased every year up until 1996, with 111 different labels having chart positions. 1997 was the first year that number didn’t increase, but it didn’t change significantly, with 108 labels represented, and then those numbers started to consistently increase again for the next few years until it reached its peak. In 2000 there were 171 labels represented on the chart, the most to date. There was a noticeable decrease in 2001, but in 2002 the number was less than half, with only 81 labels representing this chart. 2003 was almost half that with only 50, and it has fluctuated around that general range ever since, with the lowest amount ever being 2004 with only 45 labels. We’ll see where that stands by the end of 2015, as of April of this year there were only 35 labels represented thus far. Additionally, like the domination of No Limit in 1999, you see a similar domination with Cash Money Records in 2008. Then between 2010–2015 you could almost just start referring to this as the Young Money chart, their domination has been nearly flawless in that time period. I think this supports my idea that over time this chart has gotten less diverse in what fills these chart positions.

The only year in this five-year span that Young Money had to share any comparable size of the pie is 2013, which marks another interesting rarity in the form of Macklemore. In 2013, Macklemore has the biggest share of the chart, with Young Money in a pretty close second place slot and no other label even close. For their position that year, Young Money was dependent on hits from Lil Wayne, Tyga and Drake. And that’s what is interesting. Never before do we see a label — or an entity in this case — dominating with the biggest impact on that chart and being completely reliant on only one artist to do so. Certainly in some of the cases, perhaps many, there is one artist that was the primary success story for a label on any given year, but there are other artists also contributing to that position. For 2013 there is just one artist who had the biggest piece of the pie, Macklemore.

In my personal opinion, I think all the introductions of new sounds, styles, and voices are good and in one way or another and they help the culture and music evolve. Despite all the talk of what’s killing hip-hop — which has been debated and discussed at least since rap music first hit wax in ’79 — I don’t believe anything really is. If anything, I would guess the biggest culprit would be close-minded people within the culture not willing to let it grow and diversify. I know a lot of people from my generation and a little later would probably not agree with that, but my research, analytical assessment, and admittedly, some theories, have convinced me it’s true. That in mind, on the other hand, I do agree that this polygraph is an example of how rap music did at some point strive to diversify, but then eventually chased the trend of the reigning formula and rarely looked back. The artists in the last few years who’ve made large impacts and went against the norm seem to be fewer and far in-between; Kanye West, J Cole, Kendrick Lamar, etc. Even though those artists are doing some notably different things that are creative, artistically engaging and often progressive, they are also still making at least some music that fits in the basic formula of what dominates this study. That would be only real critique of what this polygraph reflects.

In comparing 1990 to 2014 on this chart, this is what I see. 1990 you had the street sounds of N.W.A., the new jack swing of Heavy D, the abstract minds of De La Soul, the ridiculousness of Chunky A, the pop hits of Salt N Pepa, Kwame’s love ballads, the hip-house of Mr. Lee, MC Hammer’s dance soundtrack, Queen Latifah and Monie Love’s ode to the ladies, Kid Frost representing for “La Raza,” the boom bap of the D.O.C and 3rd Bass, and the melting pot of chaotic genius that is Slick Rick. While in 2014, the chart is filled by Drake, Young Dro, Wiz Khalifa, Bobby Shmurda, Igga Azalea, Young Thug, Eminem, Kid Ink, Future, Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q. While I’m not suggesting all of those artists sound exactly the same, I would say it’s considerably less diverse of a representation of the range of sounds and styles of rap as a whole than the chart was in 1990. However, that’s not because rap music in general is less diverse. There is still a multitude of sounds and styles out there, but this chart and many other outlets are not really a reflection of that. It seems over time the various styles of rap have gotten more like a funnel, and no matter how much variety there is, only a small amount is getting out into the mainstream at any given moment.

Furthermore, is this chart a true accurate reflection of a record label’s success or level of influence? Certainly in some ways it definitely is. The labels that consistently had the bigger pieces of the pie are the labels that are the most well known in their respective times. These labels generally boasted the most iconic, hit artists. However, what about the labels who have little or no presence on there? For example, I could only find Rhymesayers Entertainment represented on this particular chart once, which was in 2007 via Atmosphere. However, Atmosphere has had higher positions on different and more competitive charts in Billboard, but has mostly been ignored by the rap chart. And while the radio side of things is not where I focus any attention to in my job at Rhymesayers, I don’t think in my 14 years here I’ve heard a discussion about the importance of making a Billboard chart. That’s not to say that it has no importance. It just that it’s never really been an integral part of our marketing plans or primary concerns. However radio play in general has certainly been a part of the process. So you have a label like Rhymesayers that is 20 years strong in the business and has only had one blip on the “Hot Rap Songs” chart. But still our artists tour all over the world, have large and loyal fan bases, and still sell a notable amount of records to live comfortable as full time musicians. And if you look at the last 20 years of this chart, you’ll see countless artists on it, some who were at the top at various points, that probably can’t say that. So, while the charts do reflect some levels of success and influence, they don’t solidify longevity.

Independent labels like Rhymesayers, Stones Throw, Strange Music, all whom have had very minimal success on the “Hot Rap Songs” chart, have found longevity and their own form of success. We’ve done this by establishing strong and direct connections to ever-growing fan bases and consistently releasing music that speaks directly to those people and at the same time also showing diversity. Stones Throw started out with Peanut Butter Wolf putting out records with MCs from around his way that he appreciated, such as Subcontents, Encore, Homeliss Derelix, Rasco, The Lootpack, etc. But, they continued to evolve by adding a lot of rare Funk reissues, as well as finding new acts like Tuxedo and Dam-Funk who mixed modern and retro styles. They also branched off into experimental jazz, psychedelic rock, electro-soul, modern R&B, and who knows what else. Stones Throw continues to engage their fans with awesome music, as well as cool marketing and merchandising.

Tech N9ne’s Strange Music is a machine on its own and proving once again that a Rap empire can be built anywhere if you have engaging music and are willing to put in the work. Built off the success of Tech and labelmates such as Krizz Kaliko, Kutt Calhoun, Grave Plott, and Big Scoob, Strange Music keyed in on a sound and built an impressive and loyal following, supported by a touring and street team combined effort that is second to none. In recent years they have signed artists that have helped diversify the label’s sound; Murs, MayDay, and Ces Cru. Another example that caught my attention was the lack representation from Odd Future. There’s no denying how much impact they have had in the industry over the last several years, but this chart does not capture that. Yet they were able to connect directly with their fan base, working as an artist collective to launch several successful careers, a music festival, clothing line, TV Show, and radio station. I would say all of that makes them one of the most interesting and impressive success stories of recent times as far as rap artists go. My point is, that while looking at the charts might give artists and labels an idea of the formula to make a successful charting record, on the another hand, looking at label models like Odd Future, Rhymesayers, Stones Throw and Strange Music, to name a few, could provide even greater insights to long term success.

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Medium’s Premier Music Publication: An ear for the new, a heart for the classics

Kevin Beacham

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Microphone Mathematics is my upcoming book on the evolution of songwriting in Hip Hop (circa 1977–1989). Contact:



Medium’s Premier Music Publication: An ear for the new, a heart for the classics

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