JAY-Z once declared that hip-hop needs a board; I say it needs a John Oliver, a voice—or indeed a pen—that’s committed to calling out the bullshit, even if it means leaving behind a blazing trail of burning bridges.
Here at DJBooth, we’re never afraid to answer the call, albeit with less of that famously dry British humor (sorry, humour). Sometimes that means tackling the ugly embrace of sexual assault in hip-hop. Other times it involves the significantly less virtuous task of explaining why a 12-song project is—and never will be—a fucking “EP.”
And then there are times when it means getting really fucking petty. Like, putting-a-major-label-in-their-place-over-otherwise-trivial-claims-on-their-website petty.
On the website of Republic Records—a division of the Universal Music Group monolith founded by Monte and Avery Lipman in 1995—there’s a section called “We Break New Artists," dedicated to the numerous artists they claim to have broken. These include hip-hop and R&B stars like Drake, The Weeknd, Kid Cudi and Post Malone. Pretty impressive track record, right? No wonder Monte Lipman, in a 2013 interview, said, “Our mantra is breaking new artists, and that’s really what we pride ourselves on.”
That’s if Republic Records actually broke these artists.
In each of the aforementioned cases, Republic jumped on the bandwagon when it was already in motion. In most cases, it was another label—or even artist—that was far more instrumental in getting the bandwagon moving in the first place.
Republic (then known as Universal Motown) signed Drake in June 2009, four months after the release of his career-launching mixtape So Far Gone and a month after he made his debut on the Billboard Hot 100 with “Best I Ever Had.” Universal were merely providing distribution, though; the real story—and subsequent history—was Drake joining Lil Wayne’s Young Money, who featured him on two of the biggest songs (“BedRock,” “Every Girl In the World”) from their 2009 compilation, We Are Young Money. Before Lil Wayne was even in the picture, there was Jas Prince (“Better shamone with my check then / I’m a J. Prince investment”).
(Sidebar: Universal actually met with Drake years before signing him, but apparently went ghost on him. “I was courted by somebody and then they just axed everything. I was stuck. They disappeared. And I couldn’t find anybody to talk to about the situation,” Drake toldMTV News in 2009. “And then to meet again a year later and to have this person forget they ever met me and say that I should go meet at their office so we can talk about signing me. I was kind of in one of those moments like, ‘For real?’”)
Republic Recordsadded The Weeknd to their roster in September 2012. Two months later, they released The Trilogy, a commercially-available compilation of three buzzworthy mixtapes—House of Balloons, Thursday and Echoes of Silence—The Weeknd had dropped over the previous 18 months. Who helped House of Balloons get off the ground? Not a major label, but a mere post on Drake’s OVO blog by Oliver El-Khatib in December 2010 titled, “INTRODUCING THE WEEKND.”
Kid Cudi, who joined the label in April 2009 back when it was Universal Motown, is Republic’s earliest signing out of this group. However, by that point, the Cleveland rapper had already dropped his debut mixtape, A Kid Named Cudi, caught the attention of Kanye West, who brought him into the G.O.O.D. Music fold and collaborated with him on 808s & Heartbreak, and was climbing the charts around the world with “Day ’n’ Nite,” which was released by Fool’s Gold in early 2008. Cudi’s tenure on G.O.O.D. Music came to a somewhat bitter end in 2013, yet we remember those short years on G.O.O.D. more than we do his near-decade on Republic; it’s why headlines about Kanye and Cudi possibly reuniting cause so much excitement.
As for Post Malone, Republic Records were significantly quicker to snag the “White Iverson” sensation’s signature, but perhaps that says more about the current pace of the music industry. The deal was announced in August 2015, before he had even released a full-length project, and the backing of a major label certainly aided the success of “White Iverson,” which debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 in September and logged nearly 20 million Spotify streams by October. Yet, it’s hard to forget the impact the song made when it was first released—independently—in February, catapulting an 18-year-old rapper with 406 Twitter followers to a curious fixture on rap blogs at the center of a major label bidding war.
There’s no doubt Republic Records has helped to further the careers of their biggest artists—at the very least, by handling the distribution of their albums. And they’re certainly not the only label to have made a dubious claim (DJ Khaled literally has a label called We The Best). But for Republic to pat themselves on the back for “breaking” artists like Drake, The Weeknd and Kid Cudi smacks of bloggers and industry heads who claim to have “broken” Kendrick Lamar, despite the fact that sites like 2DopeBoyz and OnSMASH were championing his music long before they ever began paying attention. It’s the same bird-brained, behind-the-curve thinking that leads to Chance The Rapper, who in 2013 released his breakout mixtape Acid Rap, which charted off illegal sales, winning Best New Artist at the GRAMMYs…in 2017.
This begs the question: how do we define a “breakout” moment? Is it the first song, the first video, or the first project that makes noise online? Is it the first record that gets spins on the radio? Is it the first Billboard hit or RIAA plaque? And who are artists being “broken” to: casual listeners who still discover music (read: hit songs) through AM/FM radio? Or passionate fans who are actively engaged through social media, streaming services, and live shows? The answer lies somewhere between XXXTentacion, who was practically unheard of this time last year, and Kap G, who rose to prominence with the Chief Keef-assisted “Tatted Like Migos” in 2012, both making this year’s XXL Freshman cover.
In all fairness to Republic Records—and other major labels—it’s difficult to break new artists these days before anyone else, not least the two reigning gatekeepers of hip-hop discovery: OVO Sound Radio and Kylie Jenner’s Snapchat (God, that’s a depressing statement). According to Genius, new artists like 6LACK, Khalid and Nav (who’s currently signed to The Weeknd’s XO through Republic Records) have all seen +200% increases in Genius page views on their songs after they were played on Kylie’s social media channel. Similarly, OVO Sound Radio has given a boost to artists like Kodak Black, Roy Wood$ and WizKid while premiering high profile projects from Future, 21 Savage and, of course, Drake.
And then you have wildly popular—and in some cases, problematic—“SoundCloud rappers” like XXXtentacion and Lil Peep, who have screamed, shocked and serenaded their way to success, all without the help of a major label (unless the list of “mindie” artists is longer than we thought). In 2017, the major decision for labels like Republic is which bandwagon to jump on, not whether they should build their own.
Republic Records may have been crowned the top label of 2016, but not because they “broke” new artists. And there goes any chance I had of actually breaking new artists at Republic Records.
Guess I’ll stick to calling out the bullshit at DJBooth.