In music, movies, and everything else, commercial perception plays a major role in the consumer point of view. There are people that prefer the artistic expression and others who prefer what’s “popular”. Of course, there are those, like myself, who appreciate the balance of both. Then, unfortunately, there are those who ride the wave. Nevertheless, the “level” of ad space and commercial time a new album, movie, etc. uses often can dictate the response from the public. In hip-hop, this has often resulted in the oversaturation and the overlook of many artists. In the late 90s-to mid-2000s, it was considered taboo to have an album come out on an independent label (the most dominant being Koch records). The reason is that major labels such as Def Jam, Interscope, and Sony Records were known to release album budgets as high as 3 million dollars for artists such as 50 Cent, DMX, and Biggie.
Though indie albums are often overlooked, there have been artists who used the platform to their advantage. One of my favorite examples of this is Jim Jones. At the height of the Dipset era, Jim released an album every year, from 2004-2006, boasting cult classics such as “Certified Gangstas”, “Summer With Miami”, and “We Fly High”. Each album showed an increase in sales. The first album, On My Way To Church,scanned 200 thousand units; the second Diary of a Summer sold 380 thousand, while his third, and most successful, Hustlers POME moved 440 thousand units. The consistency propelled him to superstar status. The next year he signed a 50/50 venture deal with Koch Records and Columbia for his fourth album, Pray IV Reign, which didn’t have much of a commercial impact. It barely sold 200 thousand records and was considered a flop from Dipset fans.
Major label platforms have benefits as well. They have the ability to reach the masses and help turn artists into brands that exist in pop culture for as long as it lasts. Another example is Nas. His first album, arguably the best hip hop album ever, Illmatic was released on Columbia Records in 1994. At the time, the album impacted the underground culture as well as the streets of New York but didn’t sell too well and left Nas broke. After the 1995 source, awards Biggie Smalls introduced Nas to brand manager Steve Stoute who came in to help craft the perception and sound of Nas. This assistance, along with the buzz Nas built in 1995, helped create the vision for his second album, It Was Written. The album was a critical & commercial success, selling over 2 million records. Despite the success, core Nas fans felt he transitioned into more of a Mob Figure than the young street poet from Illmatic thus, making them change his nickname from Nasty Nas to Nas Escobar. Before his comeback album StillMatic, Nas would go on to release 3 less than critical albums, two of the worst received being The Firm Album and Nastradumous. Ironically, each of these albums sold 1million plus records. Unfortunately, Nas was criticized for his content being subpar and becoming less original.
Nowadays the lines are blurred. With the power of social media and Internet platforms, labels are no longer the “gatekeepers”. You can upload a freestyle video on YouTube and become Bobby Shmurda, or a simple song can turn you into Fetty Wap. The key word is YOU. Whether artists today choose independent or major label platforms as their distribution of choice, they still have to put in the work. With the growth of the Internet and decrease in album sales, it is only so much push a record label can give you. Everything you bring to the table as an artist and a brand dictates your longevity.
Hip Hop Forever,