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Labelmakers: Record Companies that helped shape Black Music
Black Music Month to me is a great way to chronicle the contributions of African Americans to society. Above and beyond any form of popular culture-music remains a language that in many ways translates to people from every walk of life.
In honor of June being Black Music Month- I would like to chronicle three record labels that helped shape African American music. I purposefully did not include Motown as it is possibly the most well-known record label for producing black music. And other labels-namely rap labels that had an ebb and flow in the 1990s and beyond- were not included due to the fact their impact is not as lasting as other labels.
What I aim to do in this hub is to pay homage to black music and the future of innovation and creativity of music in all forms.
Def Jam: The Family Tree of Old School Hip Hop
If you can guess where the tag for this capsule came from then you understand where I am going in including Def Jam on this list. Founded by two college dropouts, Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons- the label has since become synonymous with the iconic sounds of 80s hip hop and the burgeoning regional rap movement of the 1990s. But lest I forget, they have helped launch the careers of some of the most iconic artists of the past three decades.
What I love most about Def Jam is that their first signed artist is still with them. LL Cool J, Mr. Smith, Uncle L or whatever you call him helped start the template for what was the bread and butter of the label.
Following the signing of LL Cool J in 1984 and the subsequent release of his debut album-Def Jam also helped promote the first group of white rappers to break the mainstream with legitimate credibility- the Beastie Boys. Even thought the Beasties only fought for the right to party for one album on Def Jam- the impact was indelible.
But it just proves the business savvy of Russell Simmons and the artistic genius of Rick Rubin. In addition to LL Cool J- Def Jam went on to introduce the world to Jay-Z, Lady Gaga, EPMD and Kanye West among others.
Def Jam originally focused on hip hop acts as Simmons and Rubin had their fingers on the pulse of New York hip hop as it was coming to the mainstream. But in the years to come they would tackle genres outside of rap including pop, rock, and r&b.
What makes Def Jam so iconic is that they helped shape the early years of hip hop culture and continue to have a lasting influence by helping smaller imprints get their start as well. Jay-Z and Damon Dash's Roc-a-fella Records, Kanye West's GOOD Music and Ludacris' Disturbing the Peace is just a sampling of labels that got their start because of Def Jam.
Def Jam also influenced self-starter hip-hop labels outside of their realm as well. For instance, Diddy's Bad Boy empire and Suge Knight's Death Row would have never gotten off the ground had it not been for the vision of two New Yorkers in the 1980s.
LaFace: A New Face and Sound of R&B
What many people forget about record labels is that even though more burn out than last-they still leave a huge thumbprint on music. This is very true of LaFace records- a label that helped shaped the unique sounds of the 1990s urban music scene in a very dynamic way.
Co-founded by former members of R&B group, the Deele, Antonio "L.A." Reid and Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds in 1989-they had one goal-to give the world good music in their own unique way. Not only were they record label executives but they were also quite accomplished songwriters, performers, and producers. They had worked for fellow artists including Reid's first wife-R&B chartreuse Pebbles and their former group but decided to pursue more.
LaFace first gained steam in the 1990s by producing the soundtrack for the now classic ensemble African-American ensemble comedy- Boomerang featuring a then unknown preacher's daughter and LaFace's first female artist- Toni Braxton.
The sound drew audiences in. It was not so much hip-hop based as New Jack Swing was but it was rhythmic yet soulful. LaFace's next big act was iconic girl group TLC whose sound was part hip-hop, part femme fatale, part schoolyard wild, and all unique. Their debut album Oooh on the TLC Tip helped officially mark LaFace's place in urban music in the 1990s.
They also went to sign some other big acts such as Usher, OutKast, and Goodie Mob. While the sound continued to be lucrative- the label was beginning to falter at the end of the 90s. But that was not beforetheir last great discovery. Alecia Moore was part of a girl group that had been signed to LaFace but was going nowhere. Choice barley made it on the radio in the mid to late 1990s and eventually broke up when L.A. Reid discovered that Alecia was the heart of the group. Alecia reemerged with a new identity and P!nk rose to prominence in 2000.
Sadly, the discovery of P!nk was not enough to salvage the label and LaFace-already a subsidiary of Arista Records merged and the artists moved the main label.
Had it not been for LaFace- we would not have the unique stylings of so many artists that influence pop culture today and the 1990s would have felt completely different.
Stax: Southern Fried Soul
When people remember the golden age of R&B music-they quickly think of Motown. And while Motown as well as Chess records among many others contributed to the lush sounds of some of our favorite songs about love and heartache- Stax records is often neglected in the conversation.
This is mainly because unlike other labels, Stax did not build their label with huge marquee names but dynamic talents. Founded and funded by brother and sister Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton in 1957 in Memphis, Tennessee- Stax quickly went about making soul with a southern flare.
Originally called Satellite Records the early years- raw talent was discovered throughout Memphis. They also primarily focused on country and pop music until producer Chips Morman met Rufus Thomas- a notable local deejay and his daughter, Carla and they began to record for the label.
After that Stax would sign a distribution deal with Atlantic and go on to have its biggest decade in the 1960s. Their lineup would morph from torch singers to backing bands who stole the show like Booker T & MG's. But regardless of how many people were performing- talent was key at Stax.
Unlike Motown- where the focus was pop appeal and mass media-Stax made raw soul music. While Stax is still around, it no longer has the same pull in the music industry it once did.
All of these labels are important to black music being the catalyst of change, protest, romance, and heartache that it has been all these years and hopefully that will continue well into the future.