Retrospective: The Greatest Hip Hop Labels Of All Time

By @TrueGodImmortal

There are some record labels that are truly special. In hip hop, the record label is a lost art, as the changing of the times has made it obsolete. However, in much better times, the label was everything to an aspiring artist. You would shop your demo to said label, begging for a chance to get heard, freestyle for the head of the label, hoping for a shot at a contract. In hip hop, the labels were vast and many. From the biggest label in Def Jam to the smaller independent ones like Stones Throw, today we look back at the best hip hop labels of all time and what they mean to the genre still. You'll notice a few omissions on this list, and I can explain some of these before we even get into the final picks. Labels like Slip-N-Slide, Grand Hustle, Murder Inc., Maybach Music, and a few others had great runs, but most of which didn't produce classic albums (or very very few), legendary artists (T.I. and Grand Hustle have produced some greatness, just not that consistently aside from himself), or even earth shattering sales or attention. While those labels are truly great, one has to take into account consistency, legacy, and a few other things. There are some labels that don't possess the sales, but they do possess the consistency and classics over the years and you'll see some of these labels featured here in this one as well. Choosing such an important list is never easy, and once you get beyond the 6 or 7 mega labels that were no brainer picks, that's where the tough work comes in, but there's nothing wrong with that at all. Buckle up, it'll be a nice trip down memory lane.

*Bad Boy Records

-The original. While Bad Boy isn't necessarily the greatest hip hop label ever so to speak, it has to be a top 10 just based on the Biggie albums, Mase's Harlem World, and a few others. Who could front on the resiliency of the label and the cunning smarts of Puff Daddy to keep the label afloat over the years? He lost Big, Mase left, then of course we saw him get into R&B successfully with Total, Carl Thomas, 112, and Faith Evans, but the fact that Puffy brought us his own albums and the legends Mase and Biggie, the Bad Boy label certainly earns a spot on this list. I won't say anything in regards to their current roster, but for the history of the label and legacy, Bad Boy is staying here firmly on this list and with the reunion tour, we could see a new resurgence. Time will tell.

*Roc-A-Fella Records

-It's the Roc!! Dame Dash, Kareem Biggs, and Jay-Z started an empire. With Reasonable Doubt by Jay being the driving force of the label initially, they grew this label to be the most successful in hip hop for some time. They assembled a great team, giving Memphis Bleek some shine to the tune of multiple gold plaques and a platinum plaque, Beanie Sigel got to also gain a platinum plaque and gold plaques, then you have the gold selling album from THE Philly native Freeway, the gold selling album from the Young Gunz, the success of State Property, the brief marriage between Cam'ron and The Roc that garnered a platinum and gold plaque, and of course, the becoming of Kanye West, who remains one of the most successful artists in the history of the label right below Jay-Z and almost over Jay in some people's eyes. The Roc eventually split up and there was no saving it after a while, but the legacy remains for sure in tact. So many classic albums, moments, songs, and who didn't want to throw up the Roc wherever you were? Roc-A-Fella wasn't just a label, it was also a movement in hip hop that made sure the genre would never be the same again.

*Cash Money Records 

-This one is certainly a no brainer. Who could deny the power of the possible greatest hip hop label ever? While it wasn't the powerhouse that Def Jam was, Cash Money has outlasted all of the other labels made in the same vein. Starting with a roster that featured the Big Tymers, Turk, Lil Wayne, Juvenile, and B.G., Cash Money hit the scene extremely hard and ended up winning with a succession of platinum albums throughout 1998 and 1999. They would see a few platinum and gold albums throughout 2000 and 2001 before losing their top artists and going through a restructure period in 2002 and 2003. Birdman would become a solo star in a way and the Big Tymers would have yet another platinum album during this period, and then the reign went over to Lil Wayne, the last remaining member of the original Cash Money powerhouse. Wayne would sell 1.5 million of Tha Carter and go double platinum with Tha Carter 2 in 2004 and 2005, before seeing success on an album with Birdman that almost hit platinum and one more edition of Tha Carter series with Tha Carter 3, which debuted with 1 million first week sales and 4 million sales in total, becoming Wayne's biggest album. After Wayne, Drake and Nicki Minaj joined with Cash Money and Young Money, furthering the power of the label and moving forward the legacy of it. Now, the label looks to be in shambles, as Wayne is leaving, Drake is distant from Cash Money, and Nicki is separate from them all in a way. Will Cash Money return to glory? In this era, it is unlikely but after 20 plus years of consistency, it is one of the top 5 hip hop labels of all time and an easy pick for this list.

*G-Unit Records

-Some might look at me sideways for putting this label on the list, but we have to acknowledge the success and run of G-Unit through the years and their dominance. Along with having a portion of the proceeds for 50 Cent's albums, which from 2003-2007 sold about 30 million worldwide, the label also would see huge success off the 4 million Beg For Mercy group album, the 3 million selling Lloyd Banks album The Hunger For More, the double platinum Young Buck album Straight Outta Cashville, the 6 million worldwide sales of The Game's Documentary album, and 3 million sold for the Get Rich or Die Tryin' Soundtrack, not to mention gold plaques for Young Buck's second album Buck Tha World, Lloyd Banks' Rotten Apple, Tony Yayo's near platinum Thoughts Of A Predicate Felon, and Mobb Deep's Blood Money. After the release of 50's Curtis album, the G-Unit empire fully crumbled, but for 4 years, they had a stranglehold on hip hop that wouldn't be relinquished. When we talk the greatest hip hop labels ever, just for the strength of the movement itself along with the sales, you have to mention G-Unit.

*Tommy Boy Records

-We can't necessarily just classify this as a straight up hip hop label, but it's evident that this was certainly one of the biggest hip hop labels during the late 80s and 90s. Boasting a roster throughout the years that featured Naughty By Nature, Queen Latifah, Capone-N-Noreaga, Above The Law, D.I.T.C., Lord Finesse, Coolio, De La Soul, Digital Underground, Force MDs, and many, many more, Tommy Boy was responsible for some of the most vital hip hop releases that the genre has ever seen. For that alone, you couldn't sleep on Tommy Boy and its impact. No way possible.

*Stones Throw Records

-Many of you might not have even heard of this label. I understand. It is underground to the core and doesn't have the sales to really back it up. What it does have however is nothing but consistent releases and underground classics to speak of. The label is turning 20 this year, and when you look at the roster and some of the albums that came from the label, the legacy is undeniable. Responsible for releasing albums from the legendary J. Dilla, Madlib, Jaylib, MF Doom, Madvillain, Georgia Anne Muldrow, Aloe Blacc, Homeboy Sandman, Knxwledge, Lootpack, Mndsgn, Nx Worries, Oh No, Strong Arm Steady, Mayer Hawthorne, and one of my favorite albums from 2015 that was released by Tuxedo (Mayer and Jake One together), how could anyone deny the legacy of Stones Throw? They earned their respect and are still going strong. They deserve to be on this list.

*Death Row Records 

-The West Coast was well protected and Death Row held it down for years. With the big release of The Chronic by Dr. Dre carrying the label at first, Death Row would start a systematic takeover with Dre aligning with new upstart Snoop Dogg, who would release his classic debut Doggystyle as well. We saw more music from Snoop on the Murder Was The Case soundtrack, and his Dogg Pound crew would show up with a classic of their own, with the Dogg Food album. After the release of 2Pac from jail, Death Row rose to higher heights, but crashed pretty fast. Still they earned off albums from Snoop and all of the successful Pac albums before his death, the two most notable being All Eyez On Me and Makaveli. When we talk Death Row, the word to describe them during 1992-1996 is simple: dominant.

*Cold Chillin Records 

-There were plenty of labels in the 80s that made some noise and had buzz. No other label besides Def Jam really competed in the music quite like Cold Chillin. Responsible for some of the seminal albums in hip hop history, one could truly appreciate the output of Cold Chillin and recognize the greatness. Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie, MC Shan, Kool G Rap, Marley Marl, Roxanne Shante, and more, the golden era of hip hop went through this label for the most part and that earns it a huge spot here on this list. Cold Chillin Records might be forgotten to a new generation, but hip hop history never changes. It deserves to be here on this list.

*Suavehouse Records 

-In many hip hop circles, Tony Draper is a legend. Some might refer to him as a few other things, but make no mistake about it, Draper is a true legend. In the south, I'd put Suavehouse right there below Rap-A-Lot, Cash Money, and No Limit as far as independent labels that grew much bigger and stayed true. Some could consider a few other labels as well, but the longevity of Draper in the business utilizing pieces like Jazze Pha, Tela, Psycho Drama, Big Mike, South Circle, and of course the legendary 8Ball & MJG is what earns the label a spot on the list. They spawned a top southern producer in Jazze, an underground legend in Tela, and one of the greatest duos ever in hip hop with Ball & G. That's why they made this list over some others.

*Loud Records

-I was never the biggest fan of Steve Rifkind for some reason. He always felt like a poser trying to fit in with this gritty and gutter style of hip hop that he envisioned a certain way. That's not necessarily foreign when talking about white people who love hip hop if I'm being honest, but I definitely have to pay homage to Steve for being the architect of Loud Records. Loud Records brought us some of the greatest artists we've ever had the pleasure of listening to, and their roster was 100% pure hip hop to the core. Whether it was the hardcore southern swing of Three 6 Mafia and Project Pat, the amazing hard hitting lyricism of Big Pun, or the West Coast knock and bang of Xzibit and Tha Alkaholiks, or the NY gritty sensibility of Mobb Deep and M.O.P., or perhaps the solo flare of Raekwon, GZA, and Inspectah Deck, or even the entire Wu Tang group itself, which is probably the greatest act in the history of Loud Records, with Mobb a distant yet close second, Loud had it all. Perhaps, the revolutionary sound of Dead Prez better suited you instead of these other choices? Well, Loud had that as well. In essence, Loud boasted the most diverse roster in the history of hip hop IMO, and truly deserves to be appreciated as one of the greatest hip hop labels of all time.

*No Limit Records

-We've discussed No Limit recently by talking their discography. What was hilarious about this in a way, is that No Limit had such a hard fall, but there is no label in history that had as great of a year as they had in 1998. It was beyond me how No Limit could have been so successful with barely any good rappers on the team, but they were able to pull it off. Master P was the biggest star on the label, selling multi platinum a few times, and gaining platinum and gold plaques, Mystikal racked up two platinum plaques there, Fiend, Mr. Serv-On, and Mac went gold, Mercedes has an iconic cover, Silkk The Shocker, C-Murder, Mia X, TRU, 504 Boyz, Lil Romeo, Kane and Abel, Magic and Soulja Slim all rounded out such a solid collective that had no artists stronger than the whole label minus perhaps Mystikal and Mac, but No Limit was a prime example of strength in numbers. As a label, they succeeded beyond what anyone could have expected, and as a result made Master P a very rich man. No Limit is easily one of the greatest labels of all time. Period.

*Rawkus Records

-The underground label of the 90s, Rawkus spawned some classics and some huge artists. I remember first hearing Soundbombing and being captivated by the label. I didn't expect the label to produce so many great moments or albums, but they did. Whether it be the posthumous album from Big L, or two of the greatest hip hop albums ever in the Blackstar release and Mos Def's solo debut "Black on Both Sides", or even the classic Reflection Eternal album Train of Thought, or how about the solid Pharoahe Monch album Internal Affairs, or the solo project from Talib Kweli, the near classic "Quality". Add in a release from Kool G Rap and the Lyricist Lounge series, and you certainly have one of the greatest labels in hip hop history.

*Priority Records

-There are labels who gave out distribution deals mostly while also signing great artists and sure enough, Priority was one of those. Distributing releases for Ruthless, No Limit, and Rap-A-Lot, along with other labels, Priority was a true example of a powerful label. They had the pleasure of being home to a number of legendary gangsta rappers like Ice T and Ice Cube, they also helped distribute the first Jay-Z album, the superb Reasonable Doubt, along with Ras Kass, Westside Connection, Boot Camp Clik, and a few others as well. They had a ton of compilations as well on their discography and when we talk hip hop labels, you have to show love to Priority. They distributed a lot of our favorite albums and some of the labels on this very list. This is a no brainer hands down.

*Rap-A-Lot Records

-It's hard to argue against anyone who feels like Rap-A-Lot is the greatest southern label of all time. It's really hard to argue that point. Their history and legacy spawns 30 years and has a ton of classics from Texas and other southern artists who came with their A game. I remember seeing the Geto Boys on Rap-A-Lot and being intrigued to hear what else the label had to offer and then Scarface went solo and nothing was the same again. Scarface has one of the greatest music discographies ever and is one of the greatest Southern MCs ever, so that alone secures Rap-A-Lot's position on this list. Add in Do or Die, former Suavehouse artist Tela, Yukmouth, Devin The Dude, Z-Ro, Trae, and the UGK solo releases from Bun B and Pimp C, one cannot deny the legacy and greatness of this amazing Texas based label. Rap-A-Lot is hands down deserving of a spot on this list.

*Ruthless Records 

-Any label that gave us Eazy E, NWA, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, MC Ren, and all of those artists in the late 80s is hip hop royalty. Ruthless is one of my favorite labels ever and with good reason. Jerry Heller aside, throughout the late 80s and early 90s, Ruthless Records used the NWA bandwagon and Eazy E's success to carry it. J.J. Fad had success as well, as well as The D.O.C. and Michel'le, but my favorite artists in Ruthless Records would have to be Bone Thugs N Harmony, who carried the Ruthless flag heavily through the 90s alongside the slept on Kokane who is one of the more underrated singers from the West Coast. When we look back at the legend of Ruthless, albums like E. 1999 Eternal, Eazy Duz It, Niggaz4Life, and Straight Outta Compton are true hip hop classics in the history of hip hop, easily earning them this spot on the list. Legendary.

*GOOD Music

-It was tough for me to really place them here considering how much I dislike the current roster in some way (Desiigner and Tyga to be exact), but over the years, this label has definitely been one of the strongest in the genre overall. With the R&B side locked down in John Legend, who has some classics in his arsenal, to the acquisition of legendary Common, who made some great albums in BE and Finding Forever while on the label, along with Kid Cudi in his prime (not a fan, but he was successful), and not to mention Pusha T joining the fold alongside the new age sound of Big Sean, who is one of the more popular rappers of this current era. Kanye would release his The Life of Pablo album on GOOD as well, and Teyana Taylor would join the label, adding more to what they have. They have some lethal weapons in the label, and although I'm not the current biggest fan of the label, to deny what it has accomplished is impossible.


-So, in some ways this is a bit too fast, but hear me out. Consistency. With a roster that boasts SZA, Isaiah Rashad, Jay Rock, ScHoolboy Q, Kendrick Lamar, and Ab-Soul, how can one deny this? While the two most successful artists are ScHoolboy and Kendrick, the fact that this label has been rolling without any signs of stopping for the last 5 or 6 years earns them a spot. Kendrick himself has been dropping all solid projects, with Section.80, GKMC, TPAB, and Untitled Unmastered all teetering in the classic category (or at the very least in the great category). I didn't want to put such a newer label in the list, but when it's all said and done, you'd be fooling yourself not include TDE on the list with an asterisk, since it seems like it's only going to continue with consistency and quality.

*Ruff Ryders

-There weren't many labels quite like Ruff Ryders. On top of having the biker world on lock, they came for the music game as well and had a huge triple threat on their hands with the biggest rapper of the late 90s in DMX, along with one of the doper female MCs in Eve, and one of the most authentic groups in hip hop with The Lox. Each member of that triple threat had huge success, with The Lox seeing We Are The Streets hit platinum, Eve's debut and sophomore went double platinum and platinum respectively, while DMX would release three albums in about 19 months, and each album would sell over 5 million, something almost never heard of before. Other members of Ruff Ryders were viable, like Drag-On for example, but the 2nd era of Ruff Ryders saw success with the next two DMX albums and solo efforts from Lox members Jadakiss and Styles P. When looking back on their history, Ruff Ryders is without a doubt one of the greatest hip hop labels ever.

*Shady Records/Aftermath Records

-I included this combined because one is not the same without the other. This label combination ruled hip hop along with G-Unit Records over the years. Dr. Dre started Aftermath and of course Eminem started Shady and from this two headed monster, we got Eminem and his high selling albums, Dr. Dre released 2001, 50 Cent had two 10 million selling worldwide albums, two successful Obie Trice albums, two successful D-12 albums, the 8 Mile Soundtrack, and if you want to be particular with Aftermath, The Firm album, The Game, Truth Hurts, Busta Rhymes, and Kendrick Lamar all come from this lineage as well. It's hard to think Shady without thinking Aftermath and it's also tough to think Aftermath without linking it to Shady. Both labels on their own are amazing and made stars, but I have to include them together. It's one big conglomerate.

*So So Def Records 

-One of the most storied labels ever. The longevity over the years is what made me place So So Def here. While not exactly a singular hip hop label, and they had many acts that were R&B like Jagged Edge and Xscape, Jermaine Dupri and his albums, Lil Bow Wow during his early years, Da Brat, and even rappers like, Kris Kross, J-Kwon, and Bone Crusher set the tone for this label. They moved units, had the world singing along and rapping along to songs, and though they were more commercial than most, to make a list without them would be criminal. So So Def certainly belongs on the list for consistency if nothing else.

*Def Jam Records 

-The greatest hip hop label ever and it's not even really close. I mean, Def Jam is the foundation of hip hop. How could you not discuss the greatest label of all time on this list? Have we forgot the historic run of this label and what they brought to the table for the genre? From Beastie Boys to LL Cool J to DMX to Jay-Z after his first album to Ludacris to Ja Rule to Redman to Nas eventually as well, there is a long long list of artists that are etched in history here. Def Jam is so iconic that just thinking hip hop will make you automatically think of Def Jam. It was the label we all wanted to be signed to back in the day and it still seems that way for upcoming artists, as Def Jam seems to be signing more artists still. With a roster that includes Jadakiss, Fabolous, 2 Chainz, the newly signed Dave East, Jeezy, Common, and many more, it looks like Def Jam has no thought of slowing up or throwing in the towel. The greatest label of all time continues to roll on and the legacy still hasn't died and likely never will. This list isn't numbered, but regardless, Def Jam is no. 1, period. There is no other choice.

It's tough to pinpoint the best labels without missing one or two, but I believe this is the most accurate list when objectively considering the criteria. Hip hop has seen a lot of great labels, but these are just the absolute best. We need to remember these labels because I'm certain we'll never have another label quite like these again.



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