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Black-Owned Record Labels are Giving Music Industry Underdogs the Keys to Success

“I remember feeling the dream was so far-fetched when I was growing up because I didn’t know anyone who did it.”
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Black-owned record labels seemed like an anomaly in the early days of rap. Sugar Hill Records, No Limit Records, and Death Row stood out as exceptions to the rule. Now, in 2021, there are more Black-owned labels—independent or otherwise—than ever before, and many are in a unique position to transform the industry permanently.

“I’ve always been a big fan of the underdog,” says Kei Henderson, co-founder and marketing director for independent label SinceThe80s. “I kinda associate myself with that: I’m the kinda successful Black female lesbian executive-manager who may not be getting all the respect and appreciation. I look at artists the same way; some are just diamonds in the rough.”

The label, which is home to JID, EarthGang, and Njomza, is one of several Black-owned independent labels committed to doing the groundwork of finding artists and giving them the platform and resources to define success in their own words.

Since its launch in 2018, SinceThe80s has been preoccupied with splitting the difference between wide-scale recognition and grassroots organization. “We just want to break artists and be synonymous with putting talent first, especially in an age where it’s numbers and virality,” adds Zekiel “Zeke” Nicholson, co-founder and the company’s head of A&R.

Henderson and Nicholson, along with president Barry “Hefner” Johnson, are working to ensure their ethos persists in every facet of SinceThe80s. All three individuals have vast experience as artist managers: Nicholson and Johnson currently manage acts EarthGang and JID, while Henderson is a former manager of rapper 21 Savage. When the trio came together three years ago, it was to help their network of artists stand out within a crowded industry—and pocket a lot of money along the way. They hope to do the same for Atlanta rapper Metro Marrs and Los Angeles-via-Charleston R&B vocalist Asiahn, two of the company’s latest signings.

On top of branding and label services, SinceThe80s also emphasizes industry education to help future Black entrepreneurs better navigate the music space. This decision is most evident in their 40+40 Mentorship Dinner Series, an event where aspiring executives can meet with insiders to break down questions and titles rarely discussed.

“I remember feeling the dream was so far-fetched when I was growing up because I didn’t know anyone who did it,” Nicholson remembers. “I always wondered why it was so secretive. Why do you have to be knocked down 40 times just to be a part? Providing those experiences and wisdom earlier just makes it all easier. We want to make sure the next people coming after us have an easier time, especially Black businessmen and businesswomen.”

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Giving back in an industry prone to taking advantage of Black creatives inspired Atlanta producer and musician Zaytoven and music business veteran Roland Williams to come together and bring their label Familiar Territory Records to life. Zaytoven, a 24-year veteran of the recording industry, first conceptualized the label while in high school, when he would invite his friends to his house to rap into a karaoke machine, he owned under the banner of “No Budget Records.”

It was only after Zaytoven moved to Columbus, Georgia, that the name Familiar Territory first stuck. “I moved all my life, and I do all these different things; I make beats, and I play the organ at church on Sunday. All this stuff was familiar to me, but the name just stuck,” Zaytoven tells DJBooth. “When guys like Gucci Mane first started coming around, they’d start yelling ‘Familiar Territory’ like it was a real label. I knew I had to go get my business license, and I stuck with it ever since.”

Zaytoven’s penchant for providing Gucci Mane, Migos, and OJ Da Juiceman, among countless other acts, an early career boost galvanized his label ambitions. With that same level of determination, Williams’ decision to join the fold as the “all-point man” helped Familiar Territory ascend to the next level. On top of serving as Zaytoven’s manager, Williams also helped with the label’s PR, photography, and social media management.

“As an independent label, that’s pertinent to survival when you have a small team like that,” Williams explains. “Everyone has to be well-versed in different activities. You have to be in the middle and know a little bit about everything.”

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With Zaytoven’s passion and Williams’ well-roundedness, Familiar Territory became a well-oiled machine. Their efficiency eventually helped the pairing sign a distribution deal with Motown Records in 2017 before joining independent distribution company Opposition in 2020. The duo’s deal with Opposition afforded them the option to own their masters while maintaining creative control. In 2020, Familiar Territory also released no less than 20 different projects, which, as COVID-19 wreaked havoc across the world, presented a host of new challenges.

“When COVID happened, we were right around the release of the A-Team project [collaborative album with Lil Keed, Lil Gotit, & Lil Yachty],” Williams recalls. Their lean operation, however, provided maximum flexibility. “We went from 75-plus shows in 2019 to only having five shows in 2020. It was a lot of empty space that needed to be filled. We were able to make an animated video and get that to the fans; we pivoted to doing a lot of virtual events like DJing gigs from home, and we were able to lock down the basement studio that we worked out of for about eight months.”

The adaptability of Familiar Territory speaks to the resilience of Black-owned labels across the industry. With determination and a little bit of technological finesse, these companies are staring down the major-label system and forcing the suits to meet them halfway. Entering a partnership with a company like Opposition, which specializes in growth across digital platforms, gave Familiar Territory an edge against the major labels. “I feel like the majors are still gonna be a superpower, but people are starting to figure out the indie situation. I feel like technology is propelling people to be independent,” Williams says.

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Zaytoven and Williams aren’t the only modern Black-owned label heads taking this approach. Damien “Dame” Ritter, co-founder of the Music Entrepreneur Club and the now-defunct record label Funk Volume—which engineered co-founder and rapper Hopsin’s rise to fame—came to understand the power of their independent operation as it began to draw an audience in the early 2010s.

Ritter first met Hopsin in 2008 through his younger brother Justin “SwizZz” Ritter, who, at the time, wanted to pursue a rap career instead of going to college. The older Ritter hadn’t considered working in the music industry before that moment, having spent time at investment firms and as a management consultant before being laid off. But why not?

“Those two things just so happened to coincide, and my brother introduced me to Hopsin, and that’s when we figured it was time to take a shot at this,” Ritter explains.

Before the pair co-founded Funk Volume in 2008, Ritter first had to help Hopsin exit an existing record deal with Ruthless Records. One year later, Hopsin unveiled his debut album, Raw. By 2011, the pair had four artists on their roster, signing a trio of acts: SwizZz, Dizzy Wright, and Jarren Benton. Over the next five years, Funk Volume would carve out a successful niche in the music industry, resulting in sold-out tours and a distribution deal with Warner Music Group.

“If you wanna be independent, you have to have a good infrastructure and be able to replicate what a label can do for you,” Ritter explains. “The music industry is the one industry that people are trying to get into without having any knowledge of how it actually works.”

Funk Volume’s run came to an abrupt end in 2016, but their abbreviated tenure doesn’t change their origin story. Ritter and Hopsin managed to create a Black-owned, self-sustaining ecosystem attractive enough to partner with a major-label. Ritter later used his extensive knowledge to co-found the Music Entrepreneur Club, a space for up-and-coming musicians and CEOs to learn the ins and outs of independent music.

“MEC is a passion project,” Ritter says. “This is mostly my way to give back and educate young independent creators so they can give themselves the best shot at creating a profitable business.”

“Artists are getting smarter, and [major] labels are realizing that they don’t have all the leverage anymore,” Ritter says of the modern music industry. He’s right. Across three conversations with five Black label heads, it became clear to me just how much Black people in their respective positions have shifted the way the industry moves.

It’s no secret that Black artists, both in front of and behind the mic, are routinely abused, ripped off, and otherwise taken advantage of. Still, the rising pride in independent stardom within the world of rap music is inextricably tied to the Black artists, managers, marketers, and A&R’s who helped set the template throughout the 2010s: the Odd Futures, the Nipsey Hussles, the Funk Volumes, the Familiar Territories, the Kei Hendersons, and the Zeke Nicholsons.

The winds are changing and for the better.

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