What's the Best Label in Hip-Hop? | DJBooth vs. Okayplayer

It's GOOD Music vs. TDE as we square off with our friends at Okayplayer to determine the best label in hip-hop.
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It's GOOD Music vs. TDE as we square off with our friends at Okayplayer to determine the best label in hip-hop.

In the internet age we can often get too caught up in meaningless arguments, but that doesn’t mean there’s no place for debate. After all, what would hip-hop be without arguments about whether Jay or Nas won their beef? This isn’t a passive culture, it’s made for active participation, and so DJBooth and Okayplayer have joined forces to bring some of that good natured debate back.

As part of a new series we’ll ask a question, pick opposing sides, lay out our arguments and then allow you to select the winner. And to kick things off, we’re tackling an essential question; What’s the best label in hip-hop? This is music, not math, so there’s no precise formula, that’s what makes the debate fun. But in considering our picks, we’re weighing the depth of the label’s roster, the quality of its artists and the music it puts out, its influence on culture and the charts, and just generally how smoothly and efficiently it operates.

And with those ground rules out of the way, let’s get to it. 

GOOD Music is the Best Label in Hip-Hop - DJBooth

I know TDE, I love TDE, my heart wanted me to select TDE here, but my head knows better. My head knows that when it comes to top-to-bottom talent and influence, TDE just can’t quite touch GOOD Music, not yet. Kendrick and company are supremely gifted, but they simply can’t match the depth of talent that Kanye’s assembled.

First, there’s that aforementioned Kanye guy. You know, the one who’s sold over 30 million albums, won over 20 GRAMMYs and changed the direction of popular music more than once over the last decade. That guy. Now that we’re only a few days away from the long-awaited WAVES it’s clear that the moment it drops everyone who loves hip-hop, and even those who don’t, will be listening. They might be listening to love it, they might be listening to hate it, but they’ll be listening, and short of perhaps Drake (whose OVO label isn’t even really a contender for this conversation) no one else is capable of generating that kind of draw. Jay Z and Roc Nation might like to consider themselves the creators of the new rules, but let’s not forget who’s about to unveil their album via a literally unprecedented, international cinematic experience.

But GOOD Music is far from a one man show. There’s Pusha T, who’s elevated street rap to an art form and has been one of the most consistently high quality artists of the last three years. Pusha is afraid of no man, many men are afraid of Pusha. There’s John Legend, who in addition to being one of the best R&B voices of the modern era truly crossed over and recently pocketed an Oscar. There’s Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def), undeniably one of the greatest emcees to ever touch a mic, who’s about to drop his final album via the label. And Q-Tip? I don’t think I need to tell this audience about Q-Tip’s greatness. What other label has that kind of veteran pedigree?

And balancing out that impressive veteran roster are younger guns like Big Sean, who's fresh off the best selling and most highly acclaimed album of his career an is an emcee who indisputably has the ear of the youth on lock. And in addition there are newcomers like Mr. Hudson and Kacy Hill, who are both earning some buzz in their own right. You might recognize Hill’s vocals from Travis $cott’s heavily played “90210.”

Let’s not forget that while Common and 2 Chainz aren’t technically signed right now, they’re both big in their respective lanes and heavily GOOD affiliated. Come on now, what other label could put Lonnie and Tity Boi together and make it work? Oh, and let’s ALSO not forget GOOD Music’s producer roster, which includes Hit-Boy, No I.D., S1, 88-Keys and many more. Far more than in-house producers, those are beatsmiths who have been moving music far beyond just GOOD. Hit-Boy alone has produced mega hits for the likes of Beyonce, Drake, A$AP Rocky and...wait for it...yes….even Kendrick Lamar. No big deal.

Sure, the label’s had its hiccups. So far they haven’t been able to break Teyana Taylor and CyHi the Prynce, and Kid Cudi left the label, although given his last album that might have been for the best. But what label bats 1.000? Go check out the full roster for labels like OVO and MMG and you’ll see far more misses than GOOD. And it’s also true that label operations have often taken a backseat to Kanye’s myriad other obligations, but we expect that to improve now that Pusha’s taken over as the President of the label.

No label’s perfect, but none have achieved, or are achieving, the kind of success and influence that GOOD Music has over the last few years. The original GOOD Fridays series alone make the label legendary - seriously, what crew has ever pulled off anything on that scale before? - and they’ve continued to break ground time and time again. GOOD might be in the position of being so large, so big, that we paradoxically overlook the staggering scope of its accomplishments, but while it’s always more fun to root for the underdog, let’s not let our hearts overwhelm our heads.

Ultimately, isn’t the entire existence of a label based on getting their artist’s dreams out into the world? Names can determine reality, so it’s no accident that GOOD Music is currently the best label in hip-hop.

TDE is The Best Label in Hip-Hop - Okayplayer

Is anyone out there really screaming GOOD Music like they are for Top Dawg Entertainment? The label started by Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith has ascended the ranks to become one of the domineering forces in hip-hop today. Despite the powerhouse sensibilities of Kanye West and co., that brand of overly-glossed, coked-out rap lives and dies off of its leader’s reputation, which judging by the Twittersphere, isn’t doing so well.

The Left Coast Cosa Nostra are supreme in numerous ways, but here are the first two: Dave Free and Sounwave. Tiffith holds everyone accountable as CEO, Kendrick Lamar and ScHoolboy Q may be the proverbial “stars” on the roll call, but these two are the company’s anchors. Free, who is the President of the label, makes sure that the accounts are verified and puts everyone on the roster in a position to shine on the grander stage. Put Isaiah Rashad in a Sprite commercial, sure! Sign K. Dot to an exclusive Reebok deal, fine! Either way you’ve got to go through Dave first. Plus, the opportunity is not only plush for the pockets, but good for the community as evidence of the latter.

Sounwave, who is one-fourth of the Digi+Phonics, holds down the sonic structure of TDE in tact alongside Dave Free. Whether it was lacing “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” “m.A.A.d. City,” or even the To Pimp a Butterfly revolution-starting cut, “Alright,” the man known as Mark Spears is a GRAMMY-nominated force that is on par with some of the best in the business. Who else put trap music next to jazz fusion, if not for the in-house soundboard of Top Dawg Entertainment? Speaking of the best, the rest of the TDE roster has an undeniable quantifier that GOOD Music lacks: true consistency and strategic planning.

Yes, King Push is the lord of the drug tales and Big Sean is the witty cat from the D, but can either weave a tongue-twisting diatribe better than Ab-Soul? Common and John Legend are award-winning performers, very true, but they’re like two senior citizens when paired against the duo of street-wise veterans like ScHoolboy Q and Jay Rock. We’re no stranger to the Native Tongue/Zulu Nation tandem of Q-Tip and Yasiin Bey here on this site, but you have to dock points from your argument since we are all still wondering where The Last Zulu and Bey’s retirement album are actually at. TDE, thanks to Top, Punch and Free, have given the listener’s just what they needed at the right time.

Has GOOD Music even released a “GOOD Friday” track yet as we’re careening towards Mr. West’s seventh studio album? No, and you know why? It is because Kanye has had to reshuffle his deck after TDE’s franchise player changed the game. Now, when you go out on the road, you don’t have to play the arenas and stadiums to make a massive impact. An artist’s appearance on late night television now has to be original and spectacular if anyone is going to talk about it the next morning. Kanye West and his company’s president Pusha T are racking their brains right now at this very moment trying to top what Cornrow Kenny did on Saturday Night Live, so why would anyone think that GOOD was really good…?

Where acts like Teyana Taylor and CyHi tha Prynce have failed to get out from the starting blocks, TDE’s own SZA, a stunningly awesome vocalist, just gave Rihanna one of her best songs from her ANTI album with “Consideration.” The aforementioned Isaiah Rashad even doubled-down on his Civila Demo with, “Smile,” a track that made music pubs like ours cheese from ear-to-ear. And Punch, the label’s co-president with Dave Free, continues to satiate listeners with his tales from the street delivered loosies. As GOOD Music attempts to engage more with the people, TDE is already there, embedded in the mix, throwing community gatherings and toy drives in the Nickerson Gardens Projects in California, and giving people that audio-rich nourishment they sorely need! We do agree that no label is perfect, but you won’t find one that’s more rooted, rich, connected, creative and deeply soulful than Top Dawg Entertainment.

In the final analysis, TDE is a well-rounded roster that manages to hold together as a coherent crew and aesthetic without being cookie-cutter. While GOOD music is characterized by (very) inconsistent flashes of brilliance, TDE artists have owned the year their respective projects dropped on more than one year, with more than one star--in other words, the shine of their star artists--all their star artists--has been amplified by the label’s strategic moves, instead of the other way around.

[By Nathan Slavik, writing for DJBooth, and Kevin L. Clark, writing for Okayplayer.]