Today, what many people consider to be the greatest Wu-Tang solo album of all time turns 20 – GZA’s Liquid Swords.
One of the most singular songs on the wholly unique album is “Labels.” Rappers and major labels have never really been on the best of terms, but it was rare to hear rappers call out said labels by name (although Diamond D did say, “You don’t wanna make a Pitch that’s Wild” on “Show Business”). GZA put a clever spin on it, inspired by his experience on Cold Chillin’ as The Genius: “My whole negative experience with Cold Chillin’ was part of why I made this song—but it wasn’t the main reason. I wasn’t deliberately trying to write a song dedicated to problems with labels and so on—I just threw Cold Chillin’ in there because they were an established label at one time. It actually started when I heard my friend say: “Tommy ain’t my boy!” Then it just kind of clicked in my head to use “Tommy” and “Boy.” I mean, I like doing songs based around wordplay with one theme. I actually love doing those kinds of songs. It comes naturally to me for my rhymes to have double meanings.”
There are 41 record labels named from beginning to end on “Labels,” so we decided to look them all up and see if they’re still around. Years ago Combat Jack tweeted that 85% of the labels mentioned on GZA’s song no longer exist. It’s more like 37%.
“Tommy ain’t my mothafuckin’ Boy”
Parent Label: Independent (1981 – 1985; 2002 – present), Warner (1985 – 2002)
Notable Acts: De La Soul, Capone-N-Noreaga, Queen Latifah, Naughty By Nature
The first hit record on Tommy Boy Records was Afrika Bambaataa’s pivotal “Planet Rock” single in 1982. The label, started by Tom Silverman with a $5,000 loan from his father, was instrumental in establishing the careers of groups like Digital Underground, De La Soul, Stetsasonic, and Naughty By Nature. The label was also one of the first indies to get a major deal when Warner bought half the company in ’85. They bought the whole thing in ’89 but by 2002 they sold it back for what Silverman claims was as little as $10 million.
While Tommy Boy was a risk-taking label with innovative acts, it wasn’t without its strife. Capone-N-Noreaga were vocal about their disappointment with how Tommy Boy handed the promotion of albums like The Reunion. They left the label in ’02 and a year later N.O.R.E. immortalized his feelings for the label in a freestyle.
“We’ll all EMIRG off your set”
EMI Record Group (EMIRG)
Parent Label: EMI Group (1972 – 2012), Universal Music Group (2012 – present)
Notable Acts: Beastie Boys, G-Unit, Snoop Dogg
EMI was a massive label, and despite not having a marked reputation for pushing hip-hop, it did give artists like Ice Cube (Lench Mob Records) and Twista (Get Money Gang Entertainment) distribution deals. It later merged with Virgin and went under the UMG umbrella.
“I show Livin’ Large niggas how to flip a Def Jam”
Parent Label: Cold Chillin’ / Tommy Boy
Notable Acts: Shanté, YZ
Livin’ Large was an ill-fated label under Cold Chillin’ in the early ‘90s while it was getting distributed by Warner via Tommy Boy. Despite putting out YZ’s dope “Return of the Only One,” the label barely lasted two years.
Parent Label: Universal Music Group
Notable Acts: Public Enemy, LL Cool J, Beastie Boys
We all know the story – Rick Rubin started the label in his NYU dorm room, made T La Rock’s “It’s Yours,” met Russell Simmons, and the rest was history.
“And Ruff up the motherfuckin’ House cause I smother”
Parent Label: Columbia
Notable Acts: Cypress Hill, Kris Kross, Fugees, Tim Dog
Founded by Philly producer Joe “The Butcher” Nicolo and Chris Blackwell, the label was a steadfast place for rap staples like Cypress Hill and The Fugees as well as a one-time home for artists like Kool Keith (Black Elvis) and Sporty Thievz (Street Cinema). Schwartz and Nicolo stopped the label in ’99, but in 2012 it was relaunched.
“You Cold Chillin’ motherfuckers, I still warn a brother”
Parent Label: Traffic Entertainment
Notable Acts: Kool G Rap, Biz Markie, Big Daddy Kane
Cold Chillin’ is one of the most important labels in hip-hop history. Releasing solo efforts from members of The Juice Crew, it quickly built its name as a powerhouse of talent, eventually signing a five year distribution deal with Warner in 1988. 10 years later the label shut down with parts sold to LandSpeed Records, now known as Traffic Entertainment.
Parent Label: N/A
Notable Acts: Missy Elliott, Busta Rhymes, Del Tha Funkee Homosapien
Most of the Notable Acts listed above are from Elektra, a subsidiary under Warner that isn’t mentioned in “Labels.” Warner is one of the Big Three labels next to Sony and Universal, so they encompass many record companies, including Atlantic, Parlophone, and Rhino.
“I’m Ruthless, my clan don’t have to act wild / That shit is Jive, an old Sleeping Bag Profile”
Parent Label: Priority
Notable Acts: Eazy-E, Bone Thugs N’ Harmony, N.W.A., The D.O.C.
The label that Eazy-E and Jerry Heller started with Eazy’s alleged dope money released a ton of excellent music. From early N.W.A. and JJ Fad albums to The D.O.C., Above The Law, and Bone Thugs, Ruthless was counted on for quality. It managed to stay alive in the ‘90s with a deal through Relativity, but nowadays the label just dribbles out reissues.
Parent Label: Sony
Notable Acts: DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, Schoolly D, A Tribe Called Quest, Boogie Down Productions
In its prime, Jive was a hotbed for some of the best hip-hop out there. From early Whodini and Kool Moe Dee to E-40 and Too Short later on, Jive’s signature was quality music. It eventually folded into RCA in 2011.
Parent Label: N/A/
Notable Acts: Just-Ice, Nice & Smooth, EPMD
Known for its focus on dance music, Sleeping Bag was an indie label started by an avant garde cellist and underground disco artist Arthur Russell, William Socolov, and Juggy Gales. In the late ‘80s it released classic records from EPMD, Just-Ice, and Mantronix. It shut down in ’92 but had its label purchased by Warlock Records in ’96 and reissued.
Parent Label: Sony
Notable Acts: Run DMC, DJ Quik, Camp Lo, Poor Righteous Teachers
After Cory Robbins and Steve Plotnicki borrowed money from their parents to start Profile, it quietly became one of the strongest hip-hop labels of the ‘90s. Remembering his time in the mailroom in ’89, A&R and author Dan Charnas recalls Profile as more of a dance label that happened to release really popular rap music. As an indie they allowed themselves to focus on 12 inches instead of albums, until they were sold to Arista in ’97.
“On the real to real it wasn’t from a Tuff City”
Parent Label: N/A
Notable Acts: Spoonie Gee, Cold Crush Brothers, Fearlous Four, Davy DMX
Get a load of this – music journalist Aaron Fuchs quits his job, starts an independent record label, and starts dropping releases from some of the hardest rappers out. Within three years, Tuff City is one of the first indies with a major distribution deal through Epic, though the partnership doesn’t last long. It was one of the first deals of its kind, predating the deals that Def Jam and Tommy Boy got in ’85.
“They know they microphone’s a Virgin”
Parent Label: EMI (1992 – 2012), Universla Music Group
Notable Acts: Scarface, Bushwick Bill, Luniz, Do Or Die
Virgin has been a mega powerhouse since the ‘70s, but its biggest participation in hip-hop came via the Noo Trybe imprint, which distributed Houston’s Rap-A-Lot Records from ’94 to ’97. Unfortunately Noo Trybe only lasted five years before folding in ’99.
“That’s like going to Venus driving a Mercury”
Parent Label: Universal Music Group
Notable Acts: Black Sheep, Diamond D, Ed O.G. & Da Bulldogs
Mercury has had some huge stars through the years, and their taste for hip-hop was unconventional but popular. Mercury was later bought by PolyGram, which was then folded into the Island Def Jam Music Group before it was split up in 2014.
“The Capitol of this rugged slang is Wu-Tang”
Parent Label: EMI (1955 – 2012), Universal Music Group (2012 – Present)
Notable Acts: Cee-Lo, Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg
An iconic label still around today, Capitol has always managed to stay ahead of the curve – back in ’88 they were releasing King Tee and MC Hammer records. The closest thing to hip-hop on their roster right now is Mary J. Blige, but they recently inked a deal with the forward-thinking Quality Control Music label.
They’ve also, like most major labels, got some strife in their past. In 2007 Ras Kass aired some complaints of his out to the public: “It seems to me and many others that since the year 2000 Capitol is either unable or unwilling to offer me an opportunity to (1) release and market my music and (2) thereby allow me to generate income for myself and the company.”
“I Death Row an MC with mic cables / The Epic is that I Rush Associated Labels”
Parent Label: Interscope
Notable Acts: Dr. Dre, Dogg Pound, 2Pac, Snoop Dogg
The notorious label headed by Suge Knight that floundered after the death of 2Pac and the departure of Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre. eOne Music bought the rights to the Death Row catalog for $6 million, but the label hasn’t released anything since 2012.
Parent Label: Sony
Notable Acts: Outkast, TLC, Future, Travis Scott
Epic does not have a distinguished history in hip-hop, though it has gained ground in recent years with signings like Future, Travis Scott, and King L, the last of whom is no longer on Epic. Outkast signed to the label in 2011, though god knows why except to follow L.A. Reid.
Rush Associated Labels
Parent Label: Def Jam
Notable Acts: Twinz, Nice & Smooth, EPMD, Redman, Onyx
Russell Simmons and Lyor Cohen started this Def Jam offshoot in ’90 to diversify the label, but once PolyGram bought up 60% of Def Jam in ’96, RAL became Def Jam Music Group.
“From East West to Atco, I bring it to the Next Plateau”
Parent Label: Warner
Notable Acts: Das EFX, Yo-Yo, MC Lyte
East West lay dormant for 35 years until 1990, when Sylvia Rhone was appointed CEO of the label. She snapped up artists like Da Youngsta’s and Das EFX to make the label hip while also stretching across genres to bring money in.