Inside the Hidden World of Rappers Trading Guest Verses

Rappers don't want you to know they trade verses for free when they claim they charge $100K for a feature, but they do.
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Rappers don't want you to know they trade verses for free when they claim they charge $100K for a feature, but they do.

“2 Chainz is charging 100K a verse now cause he’s G.O.O.D”

It’s been almost four years since Kanye tweeted out the new feature price for the rapper formerly known as Tity Boi. Six figures, the amount seemed outrageous but only further confirmed that 2 Chainz had officially made it into the big leagues after years of digging through the underground. He would go on to have one hell of a year, running radio with single after single, hit after hit. His dominance justified the pricing. If you needed some buzz, Chainz was the man to call. A verse from him would be a worthy investment for anyone trying to crack the Billboard code.

In this industry, your name has worth. The bigger it gets, the more you can charge others to use your celebrity, especially for feature verses. There’s power in collaborating, aligning with the right superstar can ascend any new artist or expand the relevance of a veteran. Which is why the price can be set so high, you’re paying for more than the verse, you’re paying for the attention it will bring.

In his interview with BBC Radio 1xtra, 2 Chainz had no problem explaining why he deserved such a hefty, non-negotiable fee. He believed in the value of his service, that a verse from him would be helpful to the buyer, like any business investment. He already had buyers, “Who's gonna pay that for a verse? Your favorite rapper paid it. Don't even worry about it.” The comment acknowledges all the doubters who believed that the price was ridiculous. To be fair, feature prices tend to sound rather outrageous, the number has the tendency to be higher than the heavens, but it also matches the lavishness that rap tends to exude. What’s more extravagant than the idea of verses being exchanged for the prices of modest homes and expensive cars? I believe that rappers make a nice amount from features but I also believe the number that’s gloated either isn’t accurate or isn't the amount that’s received for every verse. We hear the numbers but we never see the receipts. We never know which artist is charged what.

The thing is, when it comes to your video, I'm gonna change clothes twice. They're never gonna see that outfit again," he said, mentioning Givenchy and Alexander McQueen as possible designers he would wear. "I'm gonna give you bars. I'm gonna wear fancy glasses and a bunch of chains you've never seen. I mean, I could help you."

Lil Wayne is a great example of an artist who's very proud of his feature price. Back when the Dedication II dropped in 2006, Wayne claimed to be charging $60K a verse. He was signed, on the radio and fairly popular. This is also the year he started going rampant with guest appearances. This isn't what he told Complex in 2006, however, when he was interviewed for their cover. He claimed to have made 10 million dollars that year without putting an album out, he did so by jumping on everyone's song. He had a system in place, instead of having a set price, he would record features for artists and collect his "points." The "points" are what he would receive in publishing. His lawyer would figure out how many points a verse was worth instead of trying to get upfront money for his feature. He said that his verse for Destiny Child's "Solider" was done for free because he knew that he would get his cut when the record blew up. Two years later, Rolling Stone spoke with Wayne for their Best MC editorial and Wayne claimed to receive on average $100K a verse. If he liked the song and beat, $75K would be the lowest he’d go, even stating, "I wouldn't do a song for my sister for less than $75,000." This after the success of “Lollipop” and Carter III, Wayne was on top, a superstar, and even sisters weren’t allowed to ride his wave for free.

XXL did some digging, asking some of his collaborators to confirm the price for a verse. Kardinal Offishall, who rapped alongside Wayne on his song “My Swag,” said that it was given without charge. He didn’t go into great detail or any detail about how he received the discount, but he seemed rather thankful. Bun B didn’t speak on prices when asked how much he spent to get Wayne on “Damn I’m Cold.” Ludacris was more tight-lipped, he'd rather keep the business private, but said that it was a mutual respect thing, only letting on that, “I can say that I’m on his album and he’s on mine.” 

Swapping is a method that Pigeons and Planes mentioned in their article about features from 2014, they received insight by corresponding with an A&R who admitted that “swapping” happened all the time and that rappers could trade verses like Pokemon without a fee being attached. A one for your album, one for my album kind of system. He claimed it to be uncommon among major label artists since they’re under contract the label wants their compensation, but I believe otherwise. If lawyers handle the business aspects, then everyone should receive a nice cut from publishing. Drake appeared on “No Lie” and Tity Boi returned the favor on “All Me.” This seems more plausible than choosing to ruin a studio vibe by crunching numbers. When Tech N9ne reached out to Eminem for a verse, he expected to spend more than a few pennies. To his surprise, Em wanted nothing but the favor returned. A swap in the name of making good music, priceless.

Ludacris scored his first number-one single over a beat produced by Kanye that he never paid for. “Stand Up” was acquired with two other beats as compensation for laying down the hook on “Breathe In Breathe Out.” The story appears in an old MTV article that was released during College Dropout's initial release. For only three of his beats, Ye was able to land the feature from Luda, who at the time was the more established rapper. Looking back, what Luda got from the deal had to be worth more than what he was charging for features. “Stand Up” was number one for four weeks and GRAMMY-nominated. The royalties from that song alone had to accumulate three times what he was getting for hooks and verses back in 2003.

One of my favorites from The Internet’s Ego Death album is “Girl” produced by Kaytranada. Both the band and producer are becoming more established when asked about the collaboration money wasn’t mentioned. Syd had over 20 instrumentals sitting on her computer but he also came to her house and played even more beats. When it was all said and done, two tracks were picked, one for their album and one for his. A case of great artists and mutual respect colliding to make something easy on the ears.

Nicki’s “Monster” verse is memorable for the schizophrenic delivery, but the one line from her barrage of bars that has always stuck out is, “50K for a verse, no album out.”  At the time, she was already topping charts before Pink Friday and after it was expected for that number to double. To this day, there’s no woman and very few men in hip-hop who has her kind of influence. When Big Sean wanted to have her on the remix of “Dance,” his team told him that it would cost too much. They had good reason to make such an assumption, there was no one bigger. Sean wasn’t discouraged, he asked her via text and got a warm response. The song was done without a dime being exchanged. Sean was finally famous, but I expect having to pay Nicki would have made him painfully broke.

Drake is a major artist that has no problem remixing records from fairly new, unfamiliar faces. In every case it seems that Drake doesn’t request any money from them, it’s a cross promotion that they both benefit from. He politely rides their waves and they gain exposure, it’s a tactic that is more con artist than genuine. When Talib Kweli requested for Jay Z to jump on his “Get By” single, Jay admitted that Talib’s label couldn’t afford the feature but he would do the song anyway. It took him three months to deliver the verse but it eventually came. The final line up was Jay, Busta Busta, an unsigned Kanye West, and Yasiin Bey, but a month after it was complete Lyor Cohen sent Kweli a cease and desist letter to destroy the record. He didn’t want Def Jam’s biggest star to be rapping alongside some underground rapper. There are no official copies of the remix, it was released without Jay’s verse. Talib’s scenario is just one example of how major labels have all the power when you’re under contract. 

When I think of artists having to pay for features it’s the outsiders. The up-and-comers that spend their hard earned money to get an artist they revere and respect and the newly-signed who use their new budget to make a dream collaboration come true. Rappers don't want the word getting out that they'll rap for free but I assume that most live by Wayne’s ideology. If it’s a song that they want to do then the price can be negotiated. It’s the music business, getting paid is important, but so is making incredible music.

Those that can find the balance will never be short of a dollar—charging for a verse can make you rich, but being a part of musical greatness can make you wealthy. 

By Yoh, aka Lil Yoh From The 404, aka @Yoh31