Hip-Hop becoming big business has benefited a number of artists, producing multiple multi-millionaires and becoming an economy in itself. However, along with that success has come greed, financial impropriety, and other unsavory tactics and traits deployed by the very corporations and companies that profit off of the music. This has resulted in a number of rap artists and producers getting the short end of the stick in terms of compensation for their work. The relationship between rap artists and record labels has been checkered, at best, dating back to the inception of the culture, with many of rap’s earliest pioneers falling victim to predatory contracts that left them in squalor in spite of penning hit records that continue to be spun to this day.
This dynamic was famously lamented by Q-Tip on A Tribe Called Quest’s 1991 single “Check the Rhime,” as he coined the phrase, “Industry Rule #4080, record company people are shady,” which continues resonate nearly 30 years after the fact, with acts like Megan Thee Stallion raging against the machine. The Houston bred rap star, who inked a deal with former MLB star Carl Crawford’s independent record label 1501 Certified Entertainment in 2018, recently filed a lawsuit against the label seeking to terminate her contract, and a temporary restraining order to allow her to release new music, which was granted by a Texas judge.
Megan, who accused 1501 Certified of blocking her from releasing new music after attempting to renegotiate her contract, is also seeking at least $1 million in damages. Carl Crawford and 1501 Certified have denied all allegations levied against them, charging Megan’s new management team, Roc Nation, with attempting to poach their artist for their own financial gain. While the lawsuit is still pending, Megan Thee Stallion enjoyed a small victory, when the restraining order allowing her to release new music was extended until their next court hearing. While it’s too early to predict how this legal battle will turn out, it has brought to mind some of the most memorable moments when a rap artist took their record label to task.
Take a look back at 15 instances in which a rap artist and a record label became embroiled in a public dispute over a bad contract.
Public Enemy frontman Chuck D struck back against the major label system in 2011, suing Universal Records for $100 million in unpaid royalties. According to Chuck D, Universal, which acquired the rights to Public Enemy’s first five studio albums, had only been paying the group 25% of the royalties owed from digital downloads. The suit — which cited a case in which Eminem’s lawyers argued that digital sales should yield a higher payment than that of a standard royalty on the grounds that online agreements double as licensing deals — argued that Public Enemy should receive 50% of the net revenue from their digital sales, instead of the 18% they had been receiving up until that point.
Public Enemy signed their deal with Def Jam prior to the advent of digital downloads and streaming, so their contract did not include explicit terms for digital royalties. Chuck D’s claim, which was consolidated with the class-action lawsuit brought against Universal by Rob Zombie and the estate of Rick James, was settled in 2015, when the label agreed to pay up to $11.5 million to an estimated 7,500 artists including Chuck D, and bump up royalties.
After rumors of tension between the two bubbled to the surface in 2014, Lil Wayne filed a $51 million lawsuit against Birdman and Cash Money, accusing the CEO of violating the terms of his contract by withholding his 12th solo studio album, Tha Carter V. The suit, which was moved from its original filing in New York to New Orleans in April 2015, also sought to extricate his Young Money artists from Cash Money. This was followed by a $40 million lawsuit against Universal Music Group in March 2016. The suit — which sought to reclaim profits made from Young Money artists Drake, Nicki Minaj, and Tyga — also alleged that Universal reportedly used most of Wayne’s portion of the profits to cover Birdman and Cash Money’s debts to Universal.
In September 2016, Weezy accused Birdman of taking the majority of the $100 million advance UMG had initially given to Young Money for himself, which resulted in a judge ordering Birdman to detail exactly how he spent his portion of the advance later that same month. On July 5, 2017, Lil Wayne filed an amended petition in a New Orleans court, seeking over $40 million in damages amid claims that Birdman, Ronald “Slim” Williams, and Universal Music Group didn’t pay him the $8 million advance owed for Tha Carter V. The petition also accused all three parties of conspiring against him in an attempt to keep him from receiving profit due from his contractual agreements with Nicki Minaj and Drake. Ultimately, the cold war would end in June 2018, when Birdman granted Lil Wayne a release from his contract in a settlement worth upwards of $10 million.
Lil Uzi Vert’s issues with his record label, Generation Now, have been well-documented, with the superstar having voiced his frustration on multiple occasions. Signing a deal with the label in 2015, the Philly native shot to stardom with the release of his breakout mixtape, Lil Uzi Vert Vs. the World in 2016, but caused controversy with his announcement that he had signed a deal with Wiz Khalifa’s Taylor Gang imprint, a claim that was later debunked by Generation Now founder DJ Drama via a post on Twitter. Later that same year, Uzi Vert revealed that his debut Luv Is Rage 2 was completed. However, the album wouldn’t materialize until August 2017, with the rapper placing blame for the project’s delay on his handlers.
On January 12, 2018, Uzi continued to air his grievances via Twitter, warning artists not to sign a deal with a subsidiary, DJ, or another artist. It was a not-so subtle shot at DJ Drama and Generation Now. In December 2018, he continued to allude to his friction with Generation Now on the Shabazz PBG cut, “Shells,” which included bars about getting out of his record deal and possibly taking a sabbatical from music. Uzi appeared to back up those claims in January 2019, announcing his retirement from music, later attributing his decision to the bad blood between him and his label on Instagram Live.
On March 27, 2019, Uzi officially inked a management deal with Roc Nation, whom he had thanked earlier in the week for arranging studio time for him, and released a new song titled “Free Uzi” the following day. The song, which was removed from all streaming platforms, also came amid claims that Uzi’s sophomore album, Eternal Atake, was complete, but its release was being blocked by the label, a charge DJ Drama denied. In late March, TMZ reported Uzi’s desire to renegotiate his contract due to feeling financially and artistically “exploited” by Generation Now, a request the label reportedly denied.
However, on April 9, 2019, the rapper unleashed two new singles through Generation Now, a sign that things were headed in a positive direction. This optimism was further validated on December 13, 2019, when Eternal Atake‘s lead-single, “Futsal Shuffl 2020,” was released, with the album finally being unveiled on March 6, 2020.
As of press time, Lil Uzi Vert remains signed to Generation Now as an artist.
Inking a deal with Death Row Records in 1992, Snoop Dogg became one of the biggest artists in music with his 1993 debut Doggystyle. But by 1997, he was disillusioned with the label following the departure of Dr. Dre, the death of Tupac Shakur, and the incarceration of CEO Suge Knight. To make matters worse, the rapper had also begun to publicly denounce Death Row, accusing the label of withholding payments and cheating him of his song-publishing rights.
Things came to a head in early 1998 with the release of ”Death Row Killa,” a song aimed at the label and its principal members, as well as various media reports surrounding Snoop’s pending departure from the label. In March that year, Master P, with whom Snoop had collaborated with in 1997, came to the rescue, negotiating with Suge Knight personally and extending an offer Knight couldn’t refuse. “When we did that deal, people don’t know that Suge was in prison at the time,” P recalled during an episode of Drink Champs. “I went to go visit him in prison. He had some deals for Snoop on the table. You know me, I’m a country boy. I’m like, ‘How much money they gonna give you?’ He told me the number, I said, ‘Well, I’ma give you $300,000 more than whatever’s the deal you got on the table,’ and that’s what we did.”
Discovered by The Notorious B.I.G. and signed to Untertainment Records in 1997, Cam’ron’s career got off to a hot start. The rapper’s debut album, Confessions of Fire, went gold the following year. However, when Untertainment CEO Lane “Un” Rivera lost his distribution deal with Epic, the Harlem rapper’s contract was absorbed by the label, which had a lackluster track record of promoting and marketing rap acts. Unsatisfied with the roll-out of his sophomore album, S.D.E., Cam’ron began a campaign to get himself out of his contract with Epic, creating a hostile environment in the label’s offices and taking on Dame Dash as a manager, who convinced Epic that it wasn’t worth the trouble to keep Cam’ron on the roster.
Gaining the attention of the rap world with their 2002 debut, Lord Willin’, the Clipse were primed to release one of the most anticipated sophomore rap albums in history before contractual limbo got in the duo’s way. In 2004, when Arista Records merged Jive Records, the Clipse, — who were signed to Arista through Star Trak — wound up at Jive, a label notorious for its lack of success promoting rap acts. As frustration mounted in the face of multiple album delays for their sophomore album, Hell Hath No Fury, Pusha-T and No Malice filed a lawsuit against Jive, seeking a release from the label, citing a lack of promotion.
While Jive balked, the two sides reached a settlement in May 2006, which included a distribution deal for the Clipse’s Re-up Gang imprint. Hell Hath No Fury was released in November 2006 to rave reviews, but was deemed a commercial failure in comparison to their previous effort. Less than a year after its release, the duo departed from Jive, inking a five-year, 50/50 profit-sharing arrangement with Columbia for Re-Up Gang Records in October 2007.
Coming off of two critically acclaimed releases, Food & Liquor and The Cool, Lupe Fiasco embarked on an extended run on the road while recording tracks for his third studio album. However, the first signs of trouble brewing between Lupe and his record label, Atlantic Records, occurred in 2008, when he announced his plans to retire from music after releasing a triple disc album titled LupEND. With three albums remaining on his recording contract, the move would’ve fulfilled his contractual obligations to Atlantic Records, allowing him to pursue opportunities elsewhere. Fiasco and Atlantic’s differing opinions on the musical direction of his next project for the label created a rift between the parties, as did the label’s alleged attempt to force the rapper into a 360 deal, with the threat of not promoting his music if he refused to sign under those terms. As the Lupe lobbied for a proper release date, the fans took matters into their own hands, launching a website petitioning Atlantic Records to release his third studio album, now titled Lasers in July 2010. In October, hundreds of fans protested for the album’s release in front of the Atlantic Records office, with 30,000 other fans having signed the online petition. The fans’ pleas were heard and Lasers was released on March 7, 2011, debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, his highest-charting position to date.
Releasing his fourth studio album, Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1 in 2012, Fiasco’s struggles with Atlantic Records would continue, with executive Lyor Cohen allegedly scoffing at the rapper’s attempt to acquire his masters. However, things took an interesting turn on October 15, 2014, when online group Anonymous took to Twitter and threatened to expose personal details about Atlantic Records’ executives and affiliates if the label did not provide a release date for his fifth studio album, Tetsuo & Youth. Hours later, Atlantic Records posted a tweet announcing the release date for Tetsuo & Youth, which hit stores on January 20, 2015, ending Lupe’s deal with Atlantic and making him a free man.
Upon signing with Def Jam Records in 2002, Joe Budden was touted as a future cornerstone of the label. Less than five years later — after releasing a gold certified self-titled debut album and earning a Grammy nomination — the New Jersey rep was unceremoniously jettisoned, leaving him a free agent in the prime years of his career. The rift between Budden and the label began during the recording of his intended sophomore album, The Growth, which was rejected by Def Jam — despite the fact they held a listening session for the project — due to creative differences. Initially voicing his displeasure with the label, the “Pump It Up” rapper ultimately took matters into his own hands, unleashing the first two installments of his Mood Muzik mixtape series, which helped sustain his buzz amid the lack of a proper release date for his sophomore effort. In October 2007, it was announced that Budden had officially been let go by the label.
Azealia Banks willingness to wage war against enemies big or small has become a part of her allure, but one battle that may have flew under the radar was the one-sided affair between the rapper and her parent record company, Universal Records. The Harlem rapper, who’s debut album, Broke with Expensive Taste, was initially slated to drop in fall 2012, began putting the pressure on the label in 2013 during a social media tirade aimed largely at Pharrell Williams’ lack of assistance for their collaboration “ATM Jam.” However, in January the following year, Banks went to social media and asked to be released or bought out from her contract with Universal, blaming the label of being out of touch with her core audience. Universal ultimately obliged, dropping her from the label in October 2014, with the rapper eventually releasing Broke with Expensive Taste independently weeks later.
In 2016, Wiz Khalifa filed a lawsuit against former manager Benjy Grinberg of Rostrum Records in an attempt to void his 360 recording contract with the label. Khalifa, who signed to his roster at 16 years-old, sought $1 million in punitive damages and legal fees from Grinberg. The suit also argued that Khalifa’s agreement with Rostrum could be terminated under California’s seven-year Labor Code. Grinberg, who’s tenure as Khalifa’s personal manager ended in March 2014, and Rostrum fired back with a counter-suit, seeking $2 million worth of unpaid fees from their existing deal and 15% of the rapper’s touring and music royalties. However, in January 2017, both parties reached a settlement out of court, which they announced in a joint statement. “This agreement includes the dismissal of lawsuits that each party had previously filed against each other earlier this year. Both parties are pleased with the outcome and look forward to putting this matter behind them.”
Mase’s abrupt retirement from rap following the release of his second studio album, Double Up, in 1999, and his eventual return five years later with Welcome Back, was one of the most intriguing story-lines in hip-hop history. Following Welcome Back’s release, Mase, who had signed his deal with Bad Boy in 1996, sought to leave the label and join 50 Cent’s G-Unit Records roster in 2005. However, Diddy, who was seeking a buyout of Mase’s contract, reportedly had a price in mind that was too steep for Fif, who later balked at the notion of paying $2 million to acquire the Harlem World rapper’s services.
In December, 2012, Diddy released Mase from his contract with Bad Boy, making him an unrestricted free agent for the first time in six years, yet that hasn’t stopped Mase for voicing his critique of Diddy, lamenting the lack of compensation and credit he’s received for his contributions to the Bad Boy brand. “For twenty years, I’ve been taking the shorter end of everything to just make things go the way that they needed to go,” he shared during an interview with Angie Martinez in 2017. “If you think about even doing music with Puff, a lot of the songs, I came to Puff with those songs. People, they never give me credit for that, all of my awards went to Puff. I wrote all of those songs.” In late January, 2020, Mase responded to Diddy’s speech at Clive Davis’ pre-Grammy gala, which saw him taking the Recording Academy to task for its treatment of black musical artists and producers by criticizing Diddy’s own business tactics, including his refusal to sell Mase back his publishing, which Diddy allegedly purchased for $20,000. “You bought it for about 20k & I offered you 2m in cash, Mase wrote in an lengthy Instagram post. “This is not black excellence at all.” Diddy has yet to respond to Mase’s comments as of press time.
In the early aughts, Twista found himself entangled in a legal battle with former collaborator and Co-CEO of CWAL Records Legendary Traxster. Traxster, who had inked Twista to a record deal through Big Beat/Atlantic Records during the mid ’90s, filed a lawsuit against the Chicago rapper for copyright infringement in response to Twista violating the terms of their agreement by releasing unauthorized music through his own Legit Ballin’ imprint. Filing for bankruptcy in an attempt to get out of delivering the five remaining albums on his contract with CWAL, Twista was facing $150,000 in damages, court costs, and legal fees. Twista, Traxster, and Atlantic would ultimately reach a settlement, opening the door for Twista to sign a multi-million deal with Atlantic, releasing his breakthrough album, Kamikaze, in 2004.
During the mid ’90s, joining the Bad Boy Records roster was akin to joining a perennial championship contender, with The LOX’s arrival to the label in 1996 the equivalent of landing a high pick in the draft lottery. Appearing on hit singles and releasing their own platinum-certified debut, Money, Power & Respect in 1998, the Yonkers bred trio became disgruntled with the way their music was marketed and how their image was portrayed. In 1999, The LOX approached Diddy, asking for a release from their contract, a request that went denied, prompting Jadakiss, Styles P. and Sheek Louch to hold court in the streets. Sporting “Let The LOX Go” t-shirts during their performance at New York radio station Hot 97’s annual Summer Jam concert in 1999, the group was eventually bought out of their contract by their management team Ruff Ryders, who paid out $2 million, as well as royalties from Jadakiss’ first solo LP. The Ruff Ryders recorded one album as a unit on Ruff Ryders — We Are the Streets, the following year — before going on an extended hiatus and pursuing solo endeavors.
One of the first instances in which a rap artist and their record label couldn’t see eye to eye took place during the early ’90s, when Dr. Dre fought to cut ties with N.W.A. and their label, Ruthless Records. In 1991, Dr. Dre, the chief producer behind N.W.A.’s first two albums, began to inquire about the terms of the recording contract he had signed with Ruthless years prior, ultimately taking issue with the agreement and requesting a release from the label. With Ruthless co-founders Jerry Heller and Eazy-E’s refusal to let Dre out of his contract, he enlisted the services of Suge Knight, a former NFL player and bodyguard whom he’d met through rapper The D.O.C. While the stories as to what exactly took place between Suge Knight and Eazy-E during the negotiations are conflicting, history tells us that Dr. Dre was granted a full release from the label, forming Death Row Records with Suge Knight the following year.
One of the more tenuous spats between a rap act and a record label in recent years occurred in 2019, when De La Soul sparked a boycott of Tommy Boy Records amid a dispute over royalties. The group, who signed to the storied rap label during the late ’80s, opposed Tommy Boy’s plan to make the trio’s back catalog available on streaming services due to what they deemed “unbalanced, unfair terms.” According to the group, under the current terms of their contract with Tommy Boy, the label would receive roughly 90% of the profits, while De La would receive a mere 10%. Tommy Boy, which postponed the catalog’s release, engaged in negotiations with the group, but the two sides were unable to reach an agreement, leading De La to publicly cut ties with the label in August 2019. “After 30 years of profiting from our music and hard work… and after seven long months of stalled negotiations, we are sad to say that we’ve been unable to reach an agreement and earn Tommy Boy’s respect for our music/legacy,” De La Soul wrote in an Instagram post announcing the split.
Preezy Brown is a New York City-based reporter and writer, filling the empty spaces within street and urban culture. A product of the School of Hard Knocks, Magna Cum Laude. The Crooklyn Dodger. Got Blunt?
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