A lot of armchair contract law experts have come out of the woodwork this week to comment on the rapidly escalating dispute between Megan Thee Stallion and her label (more on that in a bit). Regardless of what anyone actually knows about record contracts, rap fans are justifiably concerned for Megan. Pretty much since the dawn of the music industry, labels and those in positions of power have exploited young artists’ ignorance, desperation, and lack of bargaining power to rope them into one-sided deals. As Machine Gun Kelly recently reminded us, the relationship between artist and label is plain weird, even in the best of times. More often, it’s predatory. On “No Vaseline,” Ice Cube described N.W.A.’s deal with Jerry Heller as the “massa plantation.” Meek Mill has repeatedly referred to record contracts as “slave deals.”
Below, you will find a brief guide to rappers and rap-adjacent artists who have recently dealt with some form of label drama (we didn’t even have room to discuss YG, Cuban Doll, Asian Da Brat, Cardo, Tory Lanez, and every other artist who has publicly expressed their desire to be free of their major label contract). These artists can be roughly divided into three categories: rappers slogging through some form of brutal trench warfare with their labels, artists who successfully got out of their major label contracts in 2019, and old heads still pissed at their labels and publishers. The last category is particularly telling. One bad deal can haunt an artist for decades.
Rappers in the label-beef trenches
Megan Thee Stallion
It’s been an insane 72 hours for Megan Thee Stallion. On Sunday, she went on IG Live to air her frustrations with her label, 1501 Certified Entertainment: “When I got with Roc Nation, I got management, real management, I got real lawyers. They was like, ‘Do you know that this is in your contract?’ And I was like, ‘Oh damn, that’s crazy. No, I didn’t know.’” She said that when she tried to renegotiate, “everything went left” and the label forbade her from putting out her album.
That same day, she filed a lawsuit against 1501, which is owned by retired baseball star Carl Crawford. Complex obtained the lawsuit, which alleges that the label gets 60 percent of revenue from her recordings and 30 percent from tours and merch, and that it has only paid Megan $15K to date. A judge granted a temporary restraining order that allows her to release her mixtape Suga this Friday, March 6.
Crawford defended the deal in an interview with Billboard, calling it a “a great contract for a first-timer.” Complex reported that he “filed an emergency motion to dissolve [the temporary] restraining order” on Tuesday.
Lil Uzi Vert
Lil Uzi promised that 2020 will be “like 2016,” when he put out three projects, and it looks like he might actually drop Eternal Atake. But he’s been to hell and back for what feels like half of his career due to various label disputes, most of which involve his never-ending negotiations with Generation Now, the DJ Drama and Don Cannon-led Atlantic imprint he’s signed with.
He announced he was quitting music last January. After revealing his management deal with Roc Nation in March, he went rogue and dropped one of the hottest loose singles of 2019, “Free Uzi.” In November, he took shots at Generation Now on Twitter. “Fuck Dj drama he broke ♂️Niggas need me 2 drop 2 pay bills,” he wrote. “I still got love for Don Cannon with his Fake Ass ahhhhh You snake ass nigga I wanna be just like you when I grow up.”
It’s pretty clear that Kanye West and G.O.O.D. Music were using Desiigner for “Panda” when they signed him at the top of 2016. Since then, he’s released all of one mixtape and one EP. In early 2019, he aired his frustrations on Twitter and Instagram Live. “Nobody is doing this shit for me, bro,” he vented. “Nobody is doing this shit for me. I had signed to Kanye West. The biggest nigga. Y’all niggas think he’s the genius. Y’all think that nigga’s [the] shit. But to me, that nigga’s crazy. To me, nigga, I’ve been doing this shit myself.”
Then, in October, he publicly requested to be released from his contract.
After releasing the Saturation trilogy as an independent collective, Brockhampton released their next two albums through RCA. Kevin Abstract put out his solo album Arizona Baby through RCA as well. Last May, he posted (and soon took down) a video to his website where he suggested that his contractual obligations were giving him creative burnout. “I’m currently writing music, and songs and albums from hell,” he said. “Saturation 1, 2 and 3, was my moment of catching magic… I have to release music not from joy but from obligation, which will cause messy, unfinished work.”
“I’m currently living my Lauryn Hill moment,” he continued. “She made one of the greatest pieces of music and it seems so unattainable from other people. It’s like she caught magic… Whatever happened to Lauryn Hill after Miseducation put her in a place where she no longer wanted to make music… it kind of sent her to hell in a way.”
Rappers who got out of their contracts in 2019 and 2020
Kamaiyah’s 2016 breakout mixtape Good Night in the Ghetto led to a deal with Interscope. She collaborated with artists like Drake, ScHoolboy Q, and Travis Scott, but nothing went right. She released a sum total of zero projects through Interscope. In 2017, she put out her tape Before I Wake independently, as an act of rebellion. Interscope would ultimately release her from her contract.
She reflected on her tenure at Interscope during a recent interview with The Face. “Why am I making these records if they’re not getting supported?” she said. “This is not the type of career I want. It’s not fun no more. I’m doing shit because I’m a puppet. [They say], ‘Oh, we want this record, go make this record,’ but then you still don’t want to support the record.”
Not a rapper but definitely worth mentioning – “creative differences” plagued Tinashe’s entire 7-year tenure under contract at RCA, even as she released her debut album Aquarius and platinum single “2 On” in 2014 and looked like a potential superstar. She bristled at RCA’s attempts to control the direction of her music, and her two subsequent releases, 2016’s Nightride and (especially) 2018’s Joyride, both suffered extensive delays. After RCA released her from her deal in early 2019, she tweeted: “they low-key always sabotaged my real art shit. disappointing, but it made me stronger.”
Last month, Yo Gotti shared some good news following the release of his album Untrapped through Epic Records. “Drop My Album, Out My Deal, Own My MASTERS,” he wrote on Instagram. “ALL IN DA 1st Month of da Year 2020 GONE BE DIFFERENT #UnTrapped FORRREAL!”
Old heads still pissed at their labels (and publishers)
De La Soul
Ever wonder why De La Soul’s first six albums aren’t on streaming services? It has to do with their famously bad contract with Tommy Boy Records. In August, the Queens trio announced that they had refused the label’s proposed terms for a deal that would allow fans to stream their early albums, which include 3 Feet High and Rising and De La Soul Is Dead. “After 30 years of profiting from our music and hard work… and after 7 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,” they wrote on Instagram.
Disclamer: this case is publisher beef, not label belief, but it still bears mentioning.
In August, Public Enemy rapper Chuck D sued his publisher Reach Global Music, with whom he had signed a deal in 2001. According to the $1 million lawsuit, Reach and Chuck’s Bring The Noize Music Inc were co-stakeholders in a company called Terrordome Music Publishing that laid dubious claim to the copyrights to Chuck’s music. There is a second component to the suit that dates back to 2012, when the Reach owner allegedly registered the copyrights in the name of Terrordome without Chuck’s permission.
“The effect,” the lawsuit claims, “is that Reach Global, by virtue of its 42 percent interest in Terrordome, now reaps the illicit profits of which [Chuck D] has been deprived. Reach Global is also able to profit from the administration of the stolen compositions for the entire term of the copyrights.”
Three months after suggesting that Columbia Records had considered him as CEO, Juicy J took aim at his label with the diss track “Fuk Columbia Records.” “I gave Columbia Records 20+ years of my life, and they treat me like backwash.” He tweeted. “Fuk @ColumbiaRecords I’m gonna leak my whole album stay tuned.” The song’s cover art featured a picture of Prince with the word “SLAVE” written on his cheek in marker.
Hours later, Juicy J retracted the diss track. “Spoke to @ColumbiaRecords. We’re all good!”
After Diddy’s inspiring Grammy weekend speech about representation in the industry, Mase immediately called him out on Instagram for screwing him over in 1996. “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… You bought it for about 20k & I offered you 2m in cash. This is not black excellence at all.”
Naturally, rap’s head troll 50 Cent then chimed in with a claim that Mase owns Brooklyn drill stalwart Fivio Foreign’s publishing rights. Mase, effectively, said 50 was full of shit.