The lack of a single Black artists being nominated in the categories of Best New Artist, Song of the Year or Record of the Year at the 2015 Grammy’s was simultaneously interesting, troubling and unsurprising. Black artists have been pioneers in the entertainment industry for decades, yet many of those same artists have been snubbed with a lack of mainstream acceptance and accolades. It hard to believe, but no major record label wanted to sign Jay Z or Kanye West; even The Beatles were first turned away by major American record labels. Black-owned labels gave all of them their break. Black artists, and in particular, the Black-owned record label represents the backbone of American music. It is within this void of initial approval and recognition that Black entrepreneurs have thrived; finding, developing and promoting iconic artistry created and performed by black musicians that had been marginalized otherwise. They are responsible for many of the greatest artists, producers, songwriters, and executives that the world has known. As these record labels decline so does American musical creativity and innovation. This article is meant to provide a brief brush up on the role that Black-owned record labels have played and continue to play in the history of musical art forms in this country.
The majority of art forms celebrated by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences – the organization behind the Grammy’s – were born in the oppression and plight of Black people in America. Gospel descended from the plantations, as slaves worked the fields from “can’t see morning to can’t see night”. Jazz is rooted in the fact it was once against the law for a Black person to read and write, so music had to be improvised for their own protection. The Blues was a creative expression of the woes endured by Black people every day, under segregation and institutional racism. Rhythm and Blues put a steady pulse behind this music and added love as a subject. Rock & Roll took these experiences up a notch to a faster tempo, and Hip Hop was born in the abject social, political and economic poverty of NYC, and like the other genres was spread and appreciated all over the world. Of course, this is a cursory overview. In each case, when these art forms were introduced, America rejected them. Black music was labeled “race music.” At the beginning of Hip Hop, no major video outlet, including MTV, or popular radio station, would play it. The general disregard and disdain for the Black artistry lead to the creation of many Black-owned and operated record labels, which were responsible for finding, developing, producing, and promoting artists along with creating a cultural movement around the artists and company. Historically speaking, two of the most popular examples include Vee-Jay Records and arguably the greatest record label of all time, Motown. Let’s examine the former.
Vee-Jay Records was founded in Gary, Indiana in 1953 by husband and wife, James and Vivian Carter with only $500. The label was known for chronicling the Black experience through music. Gospel, the Blues, Jazz, R&B, and Rock & Roll were the main stays of the label. Blues legends, Jimmy Reed and John Lee Hooker; Jazz icons, Wayne Shorter and Wynton Kelly; comedic and political trailblazer, Dick Gregory; Gospel greats, The Staple Singers; R&B legends, Sam Cooke, Jerry Butler, Gladys Knight, Curtis Mayfield and many more got their start at Vee-Jay. With such a lively cast, the label enjoyed incredible success. Vee-Jay represented a cultural movement. All the artists, producers, songwriters, and other support staff worked together for the success of the label and each other. It was both a professional and familial environment that invested significantly in nurturing its artists. The fame of the record label led to an expansion to include white artists. In 1962, the husband and wife team decided to sign a group NOBODY wanted, The Four Seasons. Their first Vee-Jay release was “Sherry Baby,” a big hit and instant classic. Vee-Jay’s second signing was a group from Liverpool, England, signed to EMI London, looking for a distributor in America. EMI’s American partner, Capitol Records – home to Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole – turned them down. The executives said the group would never make it; they were doing Motown covers and Rock & Roll music, a genre with origins in the Black community that may not have had continuous mass appeal. The group was named The Beatles. Vee-Jay sold 2.6 million Beatles singles in one month. After proving the music had mass appeal, lawsuits were initiated against Vee-Jay by major labels over rights to The Four Seasons and The Beatles. Both groups moved to major labels. This, along with the suits helped cripple Vee-Jay financially. Vee-Jay was forced to close its doors in 1964. Many of its artists continued on and made history.
As America grappled with its “race problem”, music became an issue; how to find it, develop it, produce it, market it and promote it. The creativity coming out of the Black community could not be ignored. One of the business models created to solve this problem was the joint venture. A major label would finance an entrepreneur or record producer to prepare a talented new artist for stardom. Whatever resulting profits would be split after the label took its initial investment off the top. Some great major label executives, including Clive Davis, Lyor Cohen, and Jimmy Iovine really believed in and championed this business model. It became common practice for many of the greatest Black-owned record labels in the music business: Philadelphia International, LaFace, Bad Boy, Ruff Ryders and Roc-A-Fella, to name a few, to enter into partnerships with major labels. The theory behind the deal was the music entrepreneur/producer knew the culture, the artists and music better than any major label executive, all he needed was financing. After producing the album the entrepreneur/producer would market the artist to a point, then the major would take over. The major label’s responsibility was to make a hit song and artist a national and international household name. The entrepreneur/music producer had total control over everything except the money.
Oftentimes the control of the money caused conflict. However, some of the greatest music and artists came from this relationship. This business model produced Teddy Pendergrass, The O’Jays, (Philadelphia International Records, owned by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff); Mary J. Blige, Jodeci (Uptown Records, owned by Andre Harrell); TLC, Outkast, Usher (LaFace Records owned by L.A. Reid and Babyface); Biggie Smalls, Mase (Bad Boy Records, owned by Sean “Diddy” Combs); DMX, Eve (Ruff Ryders owned by Darrin Dean and Joaquin Dean); Aaliyah (Blackground Records, owned by Barry Hankerson); Snoop Dogg, Tupac (Def Row Records, owned by Marion “Suge” Knight); Kanye West, Jay Z ( Roc-A-Fella Records founded by Damon Dash, Shawn “Jay Z” Carter and Kareem “Biggs” Burke); 50 Cent, Eminem (Aftermath, owned by Andre “Dr. Dre” Young) and so many more. Additionally, some of the greatest producers, were associated with each label. Blackground had Timbaland; LaFace Records had Babyface; Def Row initially had Dr. Dre and the Ruff Ryders had Swizz Beatz. All these great producers, and others, were nurtured and given their first opportunity by Black-owned record labels. Even their song writers, artists managers, and executives benefited from this business model. But today, this business model is dead. Major record labels are doing very few, if any, joint ventures. Major labels are struggling to keep up with a changing business landscape and lack of record sales. The decline in the number of joint ventures controlled by Black entrepreneurs/producers and independent record labels contributed to no new Black artists being nominated in the Best New Artist, Song of The Year and Record of The Year categories. Given the centrality of Black artistry in the history of this country, this is quite alarming. Today, American music is re-appropriating the wave of creativity that was ubiquitous during the cultural moment of Hip Hop and its joint venture deals.
History shows that America, and all its associated institutions have always been behind the curve when it comes to Black music and its artists. Much of it is rooted in racism which helped marginalized the artists, their record labels, and the entrepreneurs behind them. However, this never stopped the flow of music, it didn’t yesterday and it shouldn’t today. Greatness needs no award for validation. It is the people that validate talent with their love and support. With regards to the Grammy Awards, some of the greatest artists of all time, Snoop Dog, Tupac, Public Enemy, to name a few, never won a Grammy. In fact, Al Green had a string of incredible songs in the seventies and did not win a Grammy until 2009. Marvin Gaye did not win a Grammy for his immortal and classic albums, “What’s Going On” or “Let’s Get it On”. Black entrepreneurs, producers and artist must thrive, create and innovate in spite of the historic lack of recognition from the Academy. New independent record labels, the time-tested hub of creativity, must be formed; new great artists are waiting to be discovered and thoroughly nurtured. The internet, and changes in the music business are our greatest opportunities to create new independent record labels and discover new art forms, artists and movements. Remember, the greatest artist in the history of the music business, Michael Jackson, was discovered, developed and nurtured by an independent Black-owned record label: Motown. Let the past be prologue for the future of creative expression in the American entertainment business. America and the world are waiting.