Historically, there is always a Top 5 dead or alive MC/rapper debate throughout Hip Hop. However, a conversation that needs to be discussed more is the masterminds behind the mic. So below are the legacy labels that broke away from the status quo and delivered legendary artists throughout the culture.
1. Def Jam Records – EST 1984
To ignore the contributions of Def Jam is to ignore Hip Hop’s entire existence. Founder/producer Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons transcended an underground movement into serious business by introducing a then young BAD MC named LL Cool J, followed by the socially conscious super group Public Enemy, and as a result, sold significant records during the “Rap is just a fad” era. Throughout the decades, Def Jam has been home to notable artists such as Method Man, Redman, EPMD, Keith Murray, Foxy Brown, and Slick Rick, making them Hip Hop’s grand all-time Mecca label.
2. Uptown Records – EST 1986
Hip Hop and R&B natural salt & pepper combination is credited to the Uptown Records founder, Andre Harrell whose “Ghetto Fabulous” mantra/formula represented the culture’s high life, while ushering in the New Jack Swing sound. The label’s roster included Heavy D and the Boyz, Father MC, Jodeci, Mary J Blige, Lost Boyz, and a young intern named Sean “Puffy” Combs.
3. Rap-A-Lot records – EST 1986
One of Southern Hip Hop pioneers, founder James “J. Prince,” made Rap-A-Lot an early home for the Geto Boys, Bun B, Scarface(solo), Devin the Dude, Z-Ro, and more. The label has also been credited for discovering Canadian rapper Drake and managing the professional boxing careers of Andre Ward, Floyd Mayweather Jr, and Roy Jones Jr.
4. Ruthless Records – EST 1987
A label that unapologetically introduced suburbia America to supergroup N.W.A. needs no introduction. MC Ren, DJ Yella, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and founder Eazy-E would go on to create one of Hip Hop’s most historical family trees with artists such as Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, The D.O.C., and more.
5. Ruff Ryders – EST 1988
Led by Yonkers, NY-born DMX’s It’s Dark and Hell is Hot debut revealed a legion of Black biker culture never experienced before in Hip Hop. Along with The Lox, Eve, and super producer Swizz Beatz, the label’s music undeniably put fans in a chokehold. Siblings Joaquin “Waah” Dean, Darrin “Dee” Dean, and Chivon Dean founded Ruff Ryders as a family business and a movement.
6. No. Limit Records – EST 1991
Master P’s prime run felt like the No Limit tank in his videos carried the entire South. Yes, their animated digital covers could be humorous. Still, the music was bold, heavy bass knock (a tribute to Beats by the Pound), and unapologetically southern grown with artists such as Mystikal, Magic, Fiend, Kane & Abel, Silkk the Shocker, C-Murder, and Mia X.
7. LOUD Records – EST 1991
Whenever Hip Hop felt too glamorous, it could always return to its hardcore roots in the offices of Loud Records. Founders Steve Rifkind and Rich Isaacson helped launch the careers of Wu-tang Clan (along with member solo careers of Raekwon and Inspectah Deck.), Three-6-Mafia, Mobb Deep, the Alkaholiks, Twista, Remy Ma, Dead Prez, M.O.P., Xzibit, and more.
8. Cash Money Records – EST 1991
Cash Money Records is the greatest Hip Hop label of all time. Since the early 90s, founder and brothers Bryan “Baby” Williams and Ronald “Slim” Williams repped their New Orleans home with local group U.N.L.V., but it was the 99 and the 2000s when the label gained rocket fuel momentum with their Hot Boys roster that included Juvenile, BG, Lil Wayne, and Young Turk. Decades later, Cash Money gave birth to Lil Wayne’s Young Money Entertainment, which launched the careers of Nick Minaj and Drake, whose reign has yet to slow down.
9. Death Row Records – EST 1991
When a record label’s CEO is Suge Knight, whose roster includes Dr. Dre as an artist and producer, Snoop Dogg, Tha Dogg Pound, the Lady of Rage, Nate Dogg, and 2Pac, it’s an NBA All-star team vs. those players who play against the Harlem Globetrotters. When that same label creates classic albums such as The Chronic, Doggystyle, Above the Rim, Dogg Food, and All Eyez on Me, it’s clear the only competition is themselves, and it was.
10. Bad. Boy Records – EST 1993
When Sean “Puffy” Combs got fired from Uptown Records, he took their “Ghetto Fabulous” blueprint to the next level to reign over an entire decade. Bad Boy created cinematic music videos such as Flava in Ya Ear-remix and One More Chance-remix that made fans want to be invited. Led by Brooklyn Don’s The Notorious B.I.G. , followed by Mase, Black Rob, the Lox, and Shyne, Bad Boy wasn’t just selling music; they were selling a lifestyle.
11. Roc-A-Fella Records – EST 1994
It’s almost disrespectful to have to explain the greatness of Roc-A-Fella records, especially when their mile-long credible roster included Jay-Z, Beanie Sigel, Memphis Bleek, CamRon, Dipset, State Property, and yea, some guy named Kanye West. Founders Kareem “Biggs” Burke, Damon “Dame” Dash, and god MC Shawn “Jay Z” Carter, created sophisticated street music that core fans related to or aspired to become.
12. Murder Inc – EST 1998
The genius behind Irving “Irv Gotti” Lorenzo is that he took his experience as a Def Jam employee, his friendship with Jay Z and DMX, and created annoying yet singable street pop records with his artists Ja-Rule and Ashanti.
Aftermath, Rawkus Records, So So Def, Shady Records, Slide-N-Slide, Luke Records, Top Dawg ENT, Quality Control Music.
Click HERE for the GOAT makers playlist.