Any true progress in the music industry begins with Black music executives acknowledging that they’re just as guilty of stifling Black artists as the white institutions they point the finger at.
Last week, Meek Mill called out white record label executives for giving out “slave deals” to young Black kids. The timing of the message was interesting.
A day before Meek’s tweet, veteran rapper Sauce Money accused JAY-Z and Diddy of “backdoor” politics which shelved his career. On Thursday, January 30th, Kelis divulged in a Guardian feature that The Neptunes “stole” her share of her first two albums. And, the next day, Mase alleged that Diddy bought his music publishing for $20K in 1996 and refuses to sell it back for $2 million.
While Diddy, JAY-Z, Pharell, and other Black millionaires toast to “Black excellence” at Roc Nation brunches, many of the artists who helped them along the way are starving. It’s common knowledge that, as Jadakiss noted on “Why?,” “the industry’s designed to keep the artist in debt.” White executives are often seen as the face of that treachery. But too many Black record label “CEOs” abused racial solidarity to engender trust with artists they ultimately took advantage of. They label their movements “Puff Daddy & The Family” and “Roc La Familia.” They make albums called Like Father Like Son, like Birdman and Lil Wayne did in 2006.
And today they shrewdly play on the same sentimentality with phrases like “Black excellence” and “representation.” But those buzz words are hollow and steeped in hypocrisy. Any Black label executive who’s made millions from the music industry is complicit in its exploitative machinations. “Black excellence” can’t merely be about putting a Black face on racist practices. Any true progress in the music industry begins with Black executives acknowledging that they’re just as guilty of stifling Black artists as the white institutions they point the finger at.
The Grammys are often in the crosshairs of critics for snubbing Black artists and archaism such as a single World Music category for hundreds of sounds and artists. Diddy took the Grammy committee to task while accepting his “Icon” award, proclaiming that “Black music has never been respected by the Grammys.” He gave the committee “365 days” to correct the circumstance, because “they’re a nonprofit organization that’s supposed to protect the welfare of the musical community.”
Diddy spoke for many with his call for accountability. And Mase spoke for many recording artists in his lengthy Instagram response, which asked the same accountability from Diddy. Mase wrote if you “want to see change you can make a change today by starting with yourself.” He also said, “your past business practices knowingly…starved your artist.”
The Harlem rapper hasn’t released an official album since 2004’s Welcome Back. 50 Cent has said that Mase’s 2005 move to G-Unit Records fizzled because Diddy wanted $2 million to let the Harlem rapper out of his Bad Boy deal. 50 was only willing to pay $1 million. Mase received a one year release from the contract in 2009 after the rapper crashed Diddy’s interview with Atlanta’s V-103. Mase had his contract in hand and got Diddy to sign it on camera. After leaving the label for good in 2012, he’s now applying that same public pressure to get his publishing back. “I offered u 2m in cash just a few days ago to sell me back my publishing,” he said on Instagram. “Your response was if I can match what the EUROPEAN GUY OFFER him that would be the only way I can get it back.”
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@diddy I heard your #Grammy speech about how u are now for the artist and about how the artist must take back control. So I will be the first to take that initiative. Also, before we ask of other ethnicities to do us right we should do us as black people better. Especially the creators. I heard u loud and clear when u said that u are now for the artist and to that my response is if u want to see change you can make a change today by starting with yourself. Your past business practices knowingly has continued purposely starved your artist and been extremely unfair to the very same artist that helped u obtain that Icon Award on the iconic Badboy label. For example, u still got my publishing from 24 years ago in which u gave me $20k. Which makes me never want to work w/ u as any artist wouldn’t after u know someone is robbing you & tarnishing your name when u don’t want to comply w/ his horrendous business model. However, people would always ask what’s up w/ Mase? So I would be forced to still perform to not look crazy when I was getting peanuts and the robbery would continue. So many great moments and people lives in music were lost. But again, I rode with u in the face of death without flinching & u still wouldn’t do right. I never said anything because I wanted to wait until I was financially great so I can ensured that I was addressing this from a pure place and not out of spite. To add insult, u keep screaming black excellence and love but I know love isn’t free. So I offered u 2m in cash just a few days ago to sell me back my publishing(as his biggest artist alive) that always show u respect for u giving me an opportunity at 19 yrs old. Your response was if I can match what the EUROPEAN GUY OFFER him that would be the only way I can get it back. Or else I can wait until I’m 50 years old and it will revert back to me from when I was 19 years old. You bought it for about 20k & I offered you 2m in cash. This is not black excellence at all. When our own race is enslaving us. If it’s about us owning, it can’t be about us owning each other. No More Hiding Behind “Love”. U CHANGED? GIVE THE ARTIST BACK THEIR $$$. So they can take care of their families
Mase is one of many rappers who rued their Bad Boy experience. The Lox trio of Jadakiss, Styles P, and Sheek Louch started a Free The Lox campaign in 1999, vying to be released from their Bad Boy contract. The group felt like Diddy’s preference for Billboard Top 40-appeasing singles and glossy videos replete with shiny suits didn’t fit their image. They wanted to sign with the more rugged Ruff Ryders label, was based in their native Yonkers. Diddy eventually let them out of their deal, but he kept a lingering hold on them by retaining half of their music publishing. Whoever controls an artist’s publishing earns money when their music is used in movies, television, video games, and other commercial entities.
That remaining gripe led to a contentious 2005 argument on New York’s Hot 97, where Styles told Diddy, “we made one record with you, Money Power & Respect. It’s 10 years later and you still got half of our publishing…you can’t make it justifiable that you deserve half of our publishing.” He also alleged, “you had a bunch of artists whose careers never went right with you.”
As much as Diddy’s career could be summed up by his voracious work ethic, it could also be typified by Craig Mack’s perplexed expression as a then-Puff Daddy told Yo! MTV Raps that they were currently working on Mack’s second album — which never dropped on Bad Boy.
Craig Mack’s career stalled after The Notorious B.I.G. took off with Ready To Die, and he later joined a “cult” before passing away in 2018 at 46. R&B group 112 left Bad Boy in 2002, claiming that their deals were “doo-doo” and implying that they didn’t feel like priorities at the label. A later legal fight with Bad Boy over who controlled rights to their music delayed a 2004 Hot & Wet album on Def Jam. Black Rob alleged that Bad Boy “left him for dead” after he was sentenced to two to six years for larceny in 2004, even taking his name off the Bad Boy website. Faith Evans, believing that Diddy was too busy to give her music the attention it deserved, left the label in 2004.
Loon left amicably but mentioned “not having the opportunity to establish himself” on the label. After converting to Islam, leaving America and retiring from rap, he was arrested in Brussels for conspiracy with intent to traffic one or more kilos of heroin based on a 2004 offense (the same year he left Bad Boy.) He was sentenced to 14 years in prison in 2013. G-Dep languished on the label and was eventually dropped, though his guilt from a 1993 shooting he was involved in (which he later learned was murder) could have influenced his stagnation. He was sentenced to 15-to-life for second-degree murder in 2012. Current signee Machine Gun Kelly complained in 2012, “my deal is for like $1.5 million. I haven’t seen 1/16 of that. I don’t even understand what my deal means.”
Though many of those artists have reunited with Diddy and were a part of the Bad Boy Reunion Tour, there’s an undeniable trend of artists having trouble at the label. There have been unsubstantiated rumors (from Mark Curry and Dame Dash) that Biggie wasn’t happy with his deal and was seeking “his way out the door” at the time of his untimely death.
During the Lox’s Hot 97 interview, Lil Cease called in and said that Diddy bought Biggie’s publishing for $200K in 1995, because Biggie was broke despite having a gold hit with “Juicy.” Though Biggie’s mom later discredited Cease’s account, it appears that Diddy still has Biggie’s publishing. In 2016, Biggie’s daughter T’Yanna Wallace tweeted out that “Puff does nothing for my family,“ though they apparently had a conversation that “cleared up” her qualms.
Sauce Money was never signed to Bad Boy but penned “I’ll Be Missing You,” Diddy’s Grammy-winning eulogy of Biggie. The record set the Brooklyn rhymer up for a successful career as a ghostwriter, but he apparently fell out with Diddy at some point in the last 20 years. In 2019 he dissed Diddy for doing “sucker shit” on his “Love Tap” track, where he rhymed, “should’ve flamed your ass in ’06/Did the drugs make you forget, who it was who wrote your biggest hit.”
Diddy’s Grammy speech rang hollow for him as well, as he noted: “I respect the message, just not coming from him.” He screenshot Mase’s Instagram comments and added the following:
Can you imagine how many Mase’s there are out here? People that have been wronged for years, and are too afraid to speak up, for fear of further back door politics, or scared to be labeled a hater or clout chaser because these guys have money, stature and public adoration. Everybody ain’t a hater. Some people are just tired of the hypocrisy.
Sauce divulged his issues with both artists during an October 2019 interview with DJ Kay Slay at Shade45. He spoke in cryptic terms throughout the discussion, but said enough to hint at the “backdoor politics” he’s faced. The rhymer with classic appearances on “Reservoir Dogs” and “Bring It On” said that he took “a $100K” hit on payment for “I’ll Be Missing You,” and also alleged Diddy “blackballed” him from going on Nore’s Drink Champs show (which airs on REVOLT) at JAY-Z’s request. Sauce, who grew up with JAY-Z in Marcy Projects, also claimed that JAY-Z twice leveraged his industry power to “make calls” to stall his projects at MCA Records and Priority Records, where he released 1999’s Middle Finger U. He claimed that JAY-Z suggested he should stop writing for Diddy, but he walked in on him writing for Diddy later the same day. His most damning accusation was that after taking a meeting at Def Jam and playing JAY-Z new music in 2006, the then Def Jam-President told his longtime friend “I don’t believe in your dreams.”
JAY-Z has been a virtuous figure over the past decade. Lil Wayne recently extolled how much he tried to help him during his rift with Birdman and Cash Money Records. But Sauce’s accusations aren’t the first time an artist has railed at him for working against their interest. In 2011, Beanie Sigel claimed that JAY-Z refused to let him out of his Def Jam deal and sign an $800K contract with G-Unit in 2005. Those that critiqued JAY-Z’s entertainment deal with the NFL, which sabotaged Colin Kaepernick’s protest, have noted that his moves are often made based on what’s to be gained for him. It would be worthwhile to go into business with Lil Wayne, a music icon, but not as personally advantageous for him to have allowed Sigel to sign with G-Unit.
It’s true that no one is obligated to let an artist out of a signed contract, and “slave deals” are simply industry-standard contracts. But it’s also true that it’s time to revamp those standards, if not abolish with independence.
Even before the 360 Deal, which cuts into every aspect of an artist’s revenue stream, standard industry contracts were oppressive by design and left little room for the artist to make a profit from music sales. They’re grandfathered in from an era when the Italian Mob strong-armed poor Black artists to make hit songs for them. The business model is so entrenched that the “slave deal” is now a matter-of-fact occurrence. No music executive is inherently worse than another for offering industry-standard contracts or being resistant to let artists out of contracts. But an outsider’s perspective reveals the flaws of the entire system. Those wronged by the economic disparity of the “slave deal” aren’t allowing the artist captors to morph into artist advocates.
One of the worst executive sins is purposely deceiving artists out of their publishing, or lying about the terms of their contract like Kelis accused The Neptunes of. She told The Guardian that “I thought it was a beautiful and pure, creative safe space,” with Pharell Williams and Chad Hugo of The Neptunes, but “it wasn’t that at all.” She alleges that they claimed profits from her Kaleidoscope album would be 33/33/33, but she didn’t make anything from that album or her sophomore project. Kelis has said that she regarded Hugo as a brother, but that kind of dishonest theft isn’t a familial virtue.
Kelis spoke matter-of-factly about The Neptunes’ actions, indicating that she’s resolved any internal qualms toward them. Similarly, Mase clarified on Instagram that he waited until he was “financially great” to make his public plea to Diddy so that it wasn’t perceived as spiteful. Lil Wayne recently hung out with Birdman at Super Bowl festivities, even after they were embroiled in a $51 million lawsuit for most of the 2010s. The Lox have credited their conflict with Diddy for making them more business savvy. It appears these artists have accepted the industry’s inherent evils for what they are. Perhaps they’ve figured that if it wasn’t one executive screwing them over, it would be the next one. Maybe they know that stan culture is so treacherous that their accusations would be picked apart. Or they’d be shrugged off by people conditioned to the industry’s shady practices. Whatever the case is, they’ve spoken their truths and refuse to be bound by them. It’s time for the executives lambasted for their misdeeds to do the same.
Black music executives have to be honest about lying. They should publicly reckon with their sustenance of white supremacy under the guise of a Black agenda, educating the aspirants set to follow their harsh path. They should make some kind of penance to the artists they’ve screwed over. Until they do that, their pleas for Black empowerment are impotent. “Representation” will simply mean the devil we know. Perhaps they feel guilty about being complicit in the sustained exploitation of Black art, and drown out that guilt with flimsy “no one cares work harder” mantras and “Black excellence” toasts. But until they admit that their capitalist ascent was based on the systemic subjugation of their peers, they will have no credibility, and “Black Excellence“ will have a negative connotation.
Andre Gee is a New York-based freelance writer with work at Uproxx Music, Impose Magazine, and Cypher League. Feel free to follow his obvious Twitter musings that seemed brilliant at the moment @andrejgee.