It’s hard to imagine a world without music or film. Both mediums offer audiences escapism and entertainment, and they speak to the human condition in creative ways. Music and movies make us laugh, cry, and inspire water-cooler conversation and ill-advised social media posts in equal measure.
Record labels and movie studios are also multi-billion-dollar industries with a lot in common. Both are decades-old institutions founded on increasingly archaic physical media. Both have dived headfirst into the world of streaming, sparing no expense to flood the digital streets with a seemingly endless supply of content to fulfill their bottom lines. Unlimited content leads to endless variety; for every surefire hit like Disney’s Avengers: Endgame or DaBaby’s Baby On Baby, there’s a disaster on the level of Universal’s Cats or Hobo Johnson’s The Fall of Hobo Johnson to balance things out.
To usher in the new decade, here’s a list of eight record labels, all of whom have rap acts on their rosters, and their Hollywood movie studio counterparts.
Universal Music Group is The Walt Disney Company
The biggest companies in music and film are headed by a globe and a mouse, respectively. Through shrewd business dealings and omnipresent branding, the influences of Universal Music Group (UMG) and The Walt Disney Company (Disney) loom large over the entertainment industry.
UMG owns the record labels that own the subsidiaries that fund and distribute work from some of the most prominent music artists in the world: Republic (Post Malone), Interscope (Kendrick Lamar), Capitol (Migos), Def Jam (2 Chainz), Motown (Vince Staples), you name it. The roads paved by Priority Records, Cash Money, and Dreamville all lead back to UMG. If Kanye West decides to drop another glorified playlist of faux-gospel music and pulls it to update songs, the phone calls he would receive from G.O.O.D. Music and Def Jam Records would all stem from Universal’s gilded hallways.
Disney, one of the original Big Five movie studios, is no slouch when it comes to ownership. Aside from producing its own films and grabbing media companies across sports (ESPN), television (ABC), and even print (Vice), the company has made three infamous purchases within the last decade: Marvel Entertainment in 2009, Lucasfilm in 2012, and 20th Century Fox in 2019. For context, this means Disney owns The Avengers, Star Wars, and an entire movie studio’s worth of properties. More or less, the Mouse House is bankrolling all of pop culture.
In a world increasingly fragmented by the Internet, UMG and Disney continue to wield influence through sheer volume. Make sure to check your liner notes and director’s commentary the next time you hit play.
Stones Throw is A24
Being independent in the real sense of the word requires passion and drive. California record label Stones Throw Records and New York film production company A24 both specialize in moderately funded thinking person’s media championed equally by casual fans and diehards in porkpie hats alike.
Founded in 1996 by Chris “Peanut Butter Wolf” Manak, Stones Throw formed its roots in the music of Wolf and fellow California rapper Charles “Charizma” Hicks. Charizma’s untimely death three years prior proved to be the battery in Wolf’s back, laying the foundation for bold artists—Madlib, MF DOOM, and J Dilla, among others—to release critically-acclaimed albums that the music nerd in your life has been bugging you to hear. Releases like 2004’s Madvillainy and 2006’s Donuts shook independent rap’s foundations and paved the way for artists like MED, Homeboy Sandman, and NxWorries (made up of Anderson .Paak and Knxwledge) to carry this adventurous flag for another decade.
Conversely, A24 is known for having its finger on the pulse of the independent film scene. Founded as an upstart in 2012, the company made their presence felt when they acquired the rights to Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers in 2013. Over the past seven years, A24 has continued to back films bent on taking creative risks across science fiction (Ex Machina), horror (Midsommar), and romantic drama (Moonlight). Adam Sandler 2019’s vehicle Uncut Gems recently became the company’s most profitable film, grossing $37 million on an unknown but reportedly small budget. In some sense, this makes Sandler A24’s answer to DOOM.
Stones Throw and A24 represent slightly higher-brow work, the kind pretentious hipsters act snooty about when asked why the kids won’t stop listening to YNW Melly. Don’t let their insecurities steer you away from some good soul food.
Quality Control Music is 20th Century Fox
Crowd-pleasing is the name of the game for Atlanta-based record label Quality Control Music and legendary film studio 20th Century Fox. Each has big-studio budgets and a stable of A-list stars and properties at their disposal, but through recent financial troubles, they have been bought out by the competition.
Quality Control heads Keith “Coach K” Lee and Pierre “Pee” Thomas provided a strong foundation for their label, which they founded in 2013 off of the strength of Atlanta superstars the Migos. Coach K, already a music industry veteran, put his know-how behind the Atlanta trio, eventually securing the group and the formerly independent label a joint venture deal with Capitol Music Group, a subsidiary of Universal Music Group.
Migos’ 2015 debut studio album Yung Rich Nation was a soft hit before the defining wallop of 2017’s sophomore project CULTURE. QC then quickly went into field-scout-mode, recruiting Lil Yachty and Lil Baby for their growing stable before producing two compilation albums. QC’s is a rags-to-riches story fit for any number of Fox’s films, though none of them have songs as catchy as “Bad & Boujee.”
Fox, on the other hand, built an empire over a much longer timeframe. Founded as Fox Studios before merging with Twentieth Century Pictures in 1935, 20th Century Fox became a heavy hitter, making and distributing hit movies across genres even amid financial troubles and a constant changing of the guard. In 2019, the company—now called 21st Century Fox—was purchased by Disney, who now owns every hit property from Alien to Home Alone to Avatar.
Even though the competition has absorbed them, QC and Fox are still making their products their way. [Editor’s Note: Capitol does not own Quality Control.] What more can you ask for as corporations slowly collide into one giant monopoly?
Mello Music Group is LAIKA
Mello Music Group and stop-motion animation studio LAIKA staff their companies with creatives unstuck in time. Both businesses aim to modernize classic techniques, endearing them to old and new fans by baking history lessons right into their art.
Michael Tolle founded Mello Music Group in 2007 on one core principle: It has to sound beautiful, like the truth. He ran the business from his cell phone and laptop until he’d built an independent foundation suitable for giants. Everyone from Oddisee and Apollo Brown to L’Orange and Open Mike Eagle flocked to the label, creating an ecosystem of progressive rap music tethered to the genre’s humble beginnings. Vinyl releases regularly sell out on their site. The label has even published music from legends the likes of O.C., Kool Keith, and Pete Rock. Mello Music Group’s sound screams backpacker forum dweller on paper, but it relies on the teachings of hip-hop’s past to inform its future.
LAIKA has an equally physical appreciation for the past. The company specializes in stop-motion animation, created by moving tiny figures and taking photographs to simulate movement. Over 14 years, during which time the company produced films like Coraline and ParaNorman, LAIKA’s animation and technique continue to dazzle the industry. LAIKA’s latest movie—2019’s Missing Link—just became their first to win the Golden Globe for Best Animated Feature, beating out three Disney movies in the process.
Why would someone go out of their way to build a 16-foot tall, 400-pound skeleton puppet in Kubo and The Two Strings if they weren’t going to make it look incredible? Stop-motion animation is a tedious but miraculous art form, one almost as old as the art of filmmaking itself. LAIKA’s colorful characters, dazzling sets, and new-age digital printing techniques reveal fidelity to the old school shared with Mello Music Group.
RCA is Warner Bros. Pictures
Staying on the cutting edge while appealing to the masses is no easy task. Enter RCA Records and Warner Bros. (WB), two established companies unafraid to experiment with winning formulas to push themselves forward. Both companies are holdovers from the early 1900s, standing as proof of a little bit of foresight and flexibility going a long way.
Considering RCA was founded in 1929 as a phonograph company, the company’s flexibility is impressive. The fallout from World War II forced RCA’s stable of orchestra musicians to leave for Columbia, limiting the amount of music RCA could make at the time. This decision inspired fierce competition between RCA and Columbia Records, with both companies going as far as creating new physical distribution for music from vinyl LPs to 8-track tapes.
RCA continues to adapt throughout the 2010s, with the streaming model putting more emphasis on artists than the medium you heard them on. In just the past few years, the SONY-owned label has snatched up a sizable number of acts by betting the farm on creative experimentation (BROCKHAMPTON, Awful Records) and putting their faith behind any label responsible for making this commercial.
Warner Bros. Pictures has found itself in a similar situation multiple times over the last century. Initially, one of the Big Five studios founded in 1926, WB survived several eras of film by keeping up with the times. After Disney released Steamboat Willie in 1929, WB matched them pound-for-pound with their animated shorts, creating the Looney Tunes in 1930.
Nearly a century later, Disney would get their revenge as the Marvel Cinematic Universe ushered forth the superhero boom. At the same time, WB could barely hold its own brooding DC Extended Universe together. WB adapted to the audience’s wants, bringing more varied emotional tones and color palettes to superhero movies like the upcoming Wonder Woman sequel, 1984, and the group movie, Birds of Prey.
Success isn’t guaranteed, but things are looking up. RCA and WB have both repeatedly shown a willingness to change directions. Adapting to the times isn’t just a good business decision; it’s healthy for each medium’s future.
Death Row Records is The Weinstein Company
After periods of success, the cores of Death Row Records and The Weinstein Company (TWC) began to rot from the inside thanks to their ruthless founders. The designs they each oversaw live on to this day, but Marion “Suge” Knight and Harvey Weinstein’s abuses of power have become the cornerstones of their companies’ respective legacies.
Sing along if you know the words to Death Row’s iconic origin: Dr. Dre was approached by Suge Knight shortly before the breakup of N.W.A., resulting in Dre co-founding Death Row Records with Suge in 1992. Suge Knight was the Thanos to Death Row’s Black Order; a ruler bent on bringing his vision to life by any means necessary. Artists were hung from balconies, and hits were executed.
Suge became distant. Star players Snoop Dogg, Tupac, and Dre began to drift further apart. Death Row, once a formidable family of artists, splintered. Tupac’s death in 1996, followed by Dre leaving to found Aftermath Entertainment, took the wind out of Death Row’s sails.
In February 1997, Suge was arrested for violation of parole but continued to smear his former artists from behind bars. Defeated after an attempted revival, Suge and Death Row Records filed for bankruptcy in 2006 before Suge returned to prison after a hit-and-run in 2015. In 2019, the label was sold to toy company Hasbro for $4 billion as part of the eOne Entertainment package.
After leaving Miramax Films in 2005, Harvey and his brother Bob founded The Weinstein Company as a fresh-faced independent film studio. TWC eventually became a powerhouse, giving platforms to filmmakers from Quentin Tarantino to Lee Daniels. Ultimately, no star power was bright enough to hide Harvey’s aggressive streak.
On October 5, 2017, The New York Times dropped a bombshell report: hundreds of women accused Harvey Weinstein of varying degrees of sexual assault, from his time at Miramax to TWC. The scandal unearthed buried skeletons, exposing a mogul as a monster. The investigation and subsequent charges filed exacerbated the company’s money troubles, forcing them to declare bankruptcy in March 2018.
Weinstein is currently standing trial, attempting to gain sympathy by moving with a walker during his indictment this past week. Suge Knight spent the vast majority of his 2015 trial claiming to be legally blind. Death Row Records and The Weinstein Company, dashed by the evil of their founder’s deeds.
Def Jam is MGM Studios
Not all legends are built to last. Trailblazing companies like Def Jam and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) Studios struck gold by tapping into the essence of rap and film, respectively. Time and bad marketing prevented both from keeping the once-mighty influence of their heydays. James Bond and 2 Chainz can only do so much.
Def Jam Records is a hip-hop institution. Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons birthed the label in an NYU dorm room with nothing more than Rubin’s punk act, Hose, and college-age hopes and dreams. Eventually, the label turned artists like LL Cool J, The Beastie Boys, and Public Enemy into some of the first rap stars, wading through the unprecedented territory in Kangols and tracksuits. The label kept a finger on the pulse through the 1990s and 2000s, minting subsidiaries (Def Jam South, Island Records) and artists (DMX, Kanye West, Rihanna) while switching presidents more often than Drake tries on accents.
In 2020, Def Jam has its fair share of popular artists (Logic, Big Sean, YG) and a handful of artists they’re attempting to groom (Valee, Maxo). However, the writing is on the wall: the company’s death grip on rap has weakened. In 2019, Kanye West, Nas, and Logic, three of the biggest rappers in the world, all released projects that were received with less enthusiasm than Playboi Carti leaks. It’s hard to argue that the patented Def Jam Identity isn’t in disrepair.
The roar of MGM’s golden lion has also seen better days. Founded in 1924, MGM is one of the oldest film studios, unafraid to tap into the glossy and glamorous side of classical Hollywood. The Wizard of Oz and the James Bond series would become household names, but turbulence altered the studio’s path.
By 2009, the studio was behind the cultural pulse and billions of dollars in debt, forced to file for bankruptcy. Their luck would eventually change through distribution deals, but the influence they held over the film world had lost its grandeur. Being grandfathered into an industry is one thing, but history can only help your impact so much before people begin to wonder what you were famous for.
Def Jam and MGM’s legacies are secured, but their futures look shaky. They don’t have the volume or the blinding star power of their glory days. Thankfully, it’s never too late for a course correction.
Top Dawg Entertainment is Annapurna
Reaching the top of the mountain is hugely satisfying. Bringing others along for the climb makes the experience priceless. Through these means, Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE) and Annapurna Pictures created blueprints for independent success in media in the 2010s. For years to come, every aspiring rapper and filmmaker will be daydreaming about the success of both companies.
As we all know, TDE’s story begins with two men at a Kentucky Fried Chicken. TDE founder and former gangbanger Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith went from sticking up the KFC where future signee Kendrick Lamar’s father worked to founding the label. TDE would become home for Kendrick and Watts rapper Jay Rock to hone their burgeoning skills. The two artists became TDE’s Cain and Abel, brothers forged in rhymes and forming the label’s support system.
TDE signed joint venture deals with Warner Bros. and eventually, Interscope, resulting in Kendrick Lamar’s major-label debut good kid, m.A.A.d. city and ScHoolboy Q’s Oxymoron. The label also welcomed Isaiah Rashad, SZA and SiR into the fold, the latter two signing joint ventures with RCA.
By 2018, the enterprise took on a complete shape, with TDE’s Championship Tour serving as a showcase of the entire roster from coast to coast. Later that year, Kendrick’s third album, DAMN., earned him the Pulitzer Prize in music. He is the first rapper in history to achieve this honor. TDE became a house for rap auteurs to create on their time, blending thoughtful raps with a deceptive ear for hits.
Annapurna’s beginnings are less humble but just as ambitious. After years of producing films on her own, founder Megan Ellison birthed the company to invest in a part of cinema she felt had died. With dramas and auteur cinema on the decline, Ellison attempted to fill the gap with Annapurna Pictures.
Hollywood loves safe bets almost as much as producer Jetsonmade loves fast-paced 808s. Ellison noticed a lack of challenging work in the field, from old and new filmmakers alike. From 2012’s The Hurt Locker to 2019’s Hustlers, Annapurna Pictures gave filmmakers a place to create thoughtful films with the backing necessary to bring them to life.
Ellison grew up with significantly more money and privilege than Top Dawg. Still, TDE and Annapurna both have the same goal: To give artists the money and platform they need to display their vision in high-definition. Creating trends is what makes someone a top dawg.