For Love of the Art: The Boutique Labels Behind XXL’s Freshmen
During the past two decades or so, as owning and managing your own business has become a realistic and easily attainable goal, many musicians and managers have decided to start their own boutique record labels and explore their artists' creativity, instead of it being stifled by the major label system. For bigger artists, it usually makes sense to partner with a major that can distribute and market to a wider audience, but keeping control through your own entity is really an appealing aspect of running your own label.
Fittingly, execs and musicians who were once bound by the old rules have taken notice, and have built mini-empires by putting out consistently solid music and creating a collaborative atmosphere where the label's (typically like-minded) artists are keen to work with one another. This creative freedom and positive environment allows artists to be micro-managed and guided by a smaller team that is fully devoted to them, and gives them the space to try different styles and sounds as they develop their artistic identity.
Looking back at our five Freshman covers, it's clear to us that some of these smaller boutique labels are doing the right thing. From Puff's historic Bad Boy Records to newer brands like Pittsburgh's Rostrum Records to the Brooklyn-based electronic/hip-hop label Fool's Gold, these specific boutique labels have a keen ear for different types of artists and sounds that have made them true experts in their niche. Here's a walk-through to labels who have had more than one of their artists featured as an XXL Freshman, along with a breakdown of some of their notable artists/releases, as well as what they have coming up. —Jaeki Cho (@JaekiCho) and Dan Buyanovsky
Bad Boy Records
Notable Artists/Releases: The Notorious B.I.G., Ready to Die, Life After Death; Ma$e, Harlem World; Puff Daddy & The Family, No Way Out
XXL Freshmen: Gorilla Zoe, French Montana, and MGK
Quote: “Bad Boy Records looks to continue their XXL Freshman trend with the addition of latest signee, rapper Los. As a legendary label it has been an honor to have already had three other artists on the Freshmen list in the past.” —Harve Pierre, President of Bad Boy Records.
Cinematic Music Group
Notable Artists/Releases: Big K.R.I.T., Live from the Underground; Smoke DZA, Rugby Thompson; Joey Bada$$, 1999
XXL Freshmen: Joey Bada$$, Big K.R.I.T., and Nipsey Hussle
Quote: "I've been lucky enough to have a few artists over the years that have been chosen for the Freshman cover, and I always feel a sense of accomplishment because it's the start of another bright career. Salute to XXL for all of the love you've shown Cinematic and my guys GoodTalk."—Jonny Shipes, Founder of Cinematic Music Group
Fool's Gold Records
Notable Artists/Releases: Fool's Gold, Loosies; The Cool Kids, 88/I Rock; Danny Brown, XXX; Kid Cudi/Crookers, Day N' Nite
XXL Freshmen: Danny Brown and Donnis
Quote: "Don't forget Kid Cudi, too! He was our artist when he was on the cover. The best part about the XXL Freshman cover is that no one will ever, ever agree on it. As long as hip hop is unpredictable, it's healthy. The Freshman class is like the NBA draft: one of this year's guys is going to be Greg Oden, and somebody not even on the cover is going to become a superstar. The worlds of music and media get more and more splintered, but the XXL list unites everyone in argument. You might say, 'Who the hell is Danny Brown?' But he'll stay on your mind. And by the time you see him on other magazine covers, or shutting it down at Coachella, or picking up a Video Of The Year at Woodie, he's won you over and it all comes together." —Nick Catchdubs, Co-Founder of Fool's Gold
Notable Artists/Releases: Hopsin, Raw, Knock Madness; Dizzy Wright, SmokeOut Conversations
XXL Freshmen: Hopsin and Dizzy Wright
Quote: "It's a blessing to have Dizzy Wright and Hopsin on back to back XXL Freshman covers. It's a testament to their hard work, the growth and support of everyone at Funk Volume, and most importantly the energy of our fans. We'll be back next year [laughs]. We have a ton of talents on the roster." —Damien Ritter, CEO and Co-Founder of Funk Volume
Notable Artists/Releases: Common, Be; John Legend, Get Lifted; Kanye West, Graduation; Big Sean, Finally Famous; GOOD Music, Cruel Summer
XXL Freshmen: Travi$ Scott, Big Sean, Cyhi the Prynce, and Kid Cudi
What's next: Hip-hop's most fashion-conscious outfit is looking forward to another year of high productivity from its artists. In late April, Cudi will release Indicud, and a month later crooner John Legend will put out Love in the Future. Big Sean is hoping to release his Hall of Fame record sometime this summer, and label boss Kanye is rumored to be putting the finishing touches on his sixth solo LP.
Grand Hustle Records/Hustle Gang
Notable Artists/Releases: T.I., Trap Muzik, Urban Legend; DJ Drama, Gangsta Grillz: The Album; B.o.B, B.o.B Presents: The Adventures of Bobby Ray
XXL Freshmen: B.o.B, Iggy Azalea, and Young Dro
What's next: Earlier this year, T.I. announced possible plans of moving his imprint to another home, with his 10-year contract with Atlantic Records coming to an end. Various power players from Jay-Z to Dr. Dre have shown interest to court The King's successful roster of artists. And it's only right with the general T.I.'s Trouble Man II: He Who Wears the Crown, former XXL Freshman Iggy Azalea's long-awaited debut, and a Hustle Gang compilation album are all expected to drop later this year.
Maybach Music Group
Notable Artists/Releases: Rick Ross, Teflon Don; Wale, Ambition; MMG, MMG Presents: Self Made Vol. 1
XXL Freshmen: Meek Mill, Wale, Pill (former member)
What's next: Next up in the MMG batting order is Wale, who's slated to release The Gifted in mid-June. After that, we'll likely see debuts from recent signees Stalley (teased by his recent "Swangin" single) and Rockie Fresh, followed by a sophomore effort by Meek Mill. And you can't forget the bawse, who's already released the first single off his upcoming Mastermind.
Notable Artists/Releases: Wiz Khalifa, Rolling Papers, Deal or No Deal; Mac Miller, Blue Slide Park
XXL Freshmen: Mac Miller and Wiz Khalifa
Quote: "Having Wiz and Mac on the XXL Freshman cover back to back years was a great honor for us. Not only did it help catapult their careers, it solidified their place in the hip hop community as rising stars. It was also a great way for Wiz and Mac to meet their fellow peers who were on the rise with them. They both remain friends with others who were on the cover with them."—Arthur Pitt, Vice President of Rostrum Records
Notable Artists/Releases: Eminem, Slim Shady LP, The Eminem Show; 50 Cent, Get Rich or Die Tryin'; D12, Devil's Night
XXL Freshmen: Crooked I, Joell Ortiz, and Yelawolf
What's Next: Helmed by the now legendary Eminem, in terms of rapping forte, there's no label on this roster that boasts a stronger roster. With a long-delayed album from 50 Cent slated for a release, along with new projects from Eminem and Yelawolf, Shady's role in the hip-hop sphere continues to reign and dominate.
Top Dawg Entertainment
Notable Artists/Releases: Kendrick Lamar, good kid, m.A.A.d City; Schoolboy Q, Habits & Contradictions
XXL Freshmen: Kendrick Lamar, Jay Rock, Ab-Soul, and ScHoolboy Q
Quote: "It's a great accomplishment to have all four of our artists on the Freshman cover and it says a lot about Top Dawg Entertainment as a company and as a brand. We've worked extremely hard over the years to put our artists in a position to be successful while showcasing their talents. Hopefully we can continue this run of having a TDE artist on the cover every for years to come. On behalf of Top Dawg (CEO), and the entire TDE team, thank you!" —Terrence "Punch" Henderson, President of Top Dawg Entertainment
Young Money Entertainment
Notable Artists/Releases: Lil Wayne, Tha Carter III; Drake, Take Care; Nicki Minaj, Pink Friday; Tyga, Careless World
XXL Freshmen: Lil Twist, Ace Hood, and Cory Gunz
Quote: "I am not surprised that multiple YMCMB artists have made the list over the past few years. We don't just sign anyone. We look for strong artists who have creativity and style, possess an excellent work ethic and of course raw talent. If you sign with Cash Money Records, you are going to work hard, put in time at the studio and in long writing sessions, get your look together, fine tune your stage show, go on meet and greets. Cory Gunz, Lil Twist and Ace Hood are all perfect examples of young artists who are serious about their careers and are on their way to stardom. People take notice when an artist is a YMCMB artist." —Bryan "Birdman" Williams, co-CEO and co-Founder, Cash Money Records & YMCMB