By Nathaniel Nelson
On a fundamental level, a record label’s function is to distribute its artists’ music. Most of the time they aren’t terribly interesting or relevant to consumers as separate entities. Recently, though, we’ve been seeing projects like the Cruel albums, where the organizations themselves have been gaining notoriety on par with that of the artists they represent through group events and collective marketing, especially in hip-hop. Here are just a few of the labels that seem to have become as cool as the artists they house.
Founder and date established: Anthony Tiffith, 2004
Major Artists: Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, Isiah Rashad
No matter how many dudes are wearing TDE t-shirts these days, they’ll never not be the best. Featuring hip-hop’s best pointless supergroup, Black Hippy (Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, Jay Rock, and Ab-Soul) plus SZA and Isiah Rashad, these three letters have recently become synonymous with a certain free-flowing, socially-aware, chill L.A. rap.
Founder and date established: Kanye West, 2004
Major Artists: Kanye West, Pusha T, Mos Def
I recently attended the G.O.O.D. Music pop-up concert at Manhattan’s Highline Ballroom, and let me tell you: when all those guys are standing on stage together, it’s something to behold. Lord knows Kanye alone is enough, but add Migos and the rest of the crew and it’s a party. Pusha T is president, so you know it’s real, though their website hasn’t been updated since last fall (and it’s a bit light, to say the least). Cruel Summer, their first group album, was highly underrated, and it’s looking like 2017’s Cruel Winter is going to be just as good.
Founder and date established: Dr. Dre, 1996
Major Artists: Anderson .Paak, Kendrick Lamar, Eminem
More of an undercover operation than a label, Aftermath is essentially another name for Dr. Dre’s elite recruiting house. With surgical precision and zero fluff, Dre—hip-hop’s Mike Krzyzewski—has used Aftermath to sign the most talented emcee of the 2000s, the best emcee of the 2010s, and the music industry’s most likeable young singer-songwriter. Aftermath doesn’t matter so much as a distributor of records; it’s more of a way to project through the annals of hip-hop who the next big thing will be. When Anderson Paak was picked up last Fall and dropped his flawless solo album Malibu soon thereafter, it proved Dre still has the best eye in the industry.
Founder and date established: Flying Lotus, 2008
Major Artists: Flying Lotus, Kamasi Washington, Thundercat
These guys run the electronic-instrumental-nu-Afropunk-hip-hop-jazz thing that’s managed to break the mainstream with artists like Thundercat and Kamasi Washington. Founded by Flying Lotus, with a pointless supergroup Black Hippy equivalent in WOKE, these guys are so cool that they’ve even signed George Clinton, who’s somehow still coming up with great music almost a half-century in the game.
Major Artists: Father, ABRA, Ethereal
Arguably the most interesting post-Odd Future collective working today, Awful is operated out of a house in Atlanta and boasts a sort of, yes, “awful” aesthetic. Each member is uniquely awful in name, sound, and character, none more than group leader Father (wink), whose druggy, monotone, lo-fi, ultra-chill vibes epitomize the collective’s spirit. If you’re interested, here’s a short documentary to introduce you to them.
Nathaniel Nelson (N8) is a filmmaker and writer.
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