What Could Have Been: The Best and Worst Rapper Signings
No one is Nostradamus, not even Nostradamus. (Not Nastradamus, either.) Signing rappers is akin to predicting thousands of years of events–every A&R believes themselves to be a seer, although few can accurately predict what they’re going to have for lunch. Rappers aren’t immune to confirmation bias, either; rappers’ imprints are where careers go to rot. Here are a few of the most notable good, and bad, signings rappers have made:
Good: Eazy-E Signs Bone Thugs-n-Harmony
After recording Faces of Death, B.O.N.E. Enterprise (not yet “Bone Thugs-n-Harmony”) decided they needed to leave Cleveland in order to fulfill their dreams of rap stardom. Using member Flesh-N’s income from working at KFC, the group booked Greyhound tickets to Los Angeles, a three-day journey to a city where they had few connections. After months of near-homelessness and unreturned phone calls, the group managed to secure an audience with Eazy-E. Shortly thereafter, the group signed to Ruthless Records.
What if…Eazy-E hadn’t picked up the phone: B.O.N.E. Enterprise probably would’ve returned to Cleveland and waited 20 years for their low-budget, almost indecipherable tapes to become canonized, like Tommy Wright III.
Bad: Dr. Dre Jilts Step-brother Warren G
Dr. Dre and Warren G are stepbrothers, which makes Dre’s treatment of Warren G that much more egregious. During the recording of The Chronic, Warren G gave Dre the Leon Haywood and Donny Hathaway samples which became “Nuthin but a G Thang” and “Lil Ghetto Boy.” Additionally, Warren G introduced the the former NWA member to one of his a childhood friends, a lithe, silver-tongued rapper from Long Beach–Snoop Doggy Dogg. Despite these invaluable gifts, Warren G received no royalties. After the success of Mista Grimm’s Warren G-produced “Indo Smoke,” Def Jam signed Dre’s jilted step-brother, whose debut Regulate…G Funk Era would go triple platinum and keep the label solvent.
What if…Dr. Dre had signed Warren G to Death Row: Regulate…G Funk Era would’ve featured Snoop and Dre, who were barred from featuring on the album by rap’s ultimate eminence grise, Suge Knight. Def Jam might’ve ceased to exist had they not signed Warren G.
Good: Gucci Mane Signs Young Thug to 1017
The first three volumes of Young Thug’s I Came From Nothing caught the ear of Gucci Mane, who signed Thugger to his Asylum/Atlantic imprint, 1017 Brick Squad Records, for a paltry $15,000 advance in March 2013. To say that Gucci Mane signing Young Thug was good is to ignore the highly questionable morality of signing a talented rapper lacking in business acumen for a figure far below his market worth. A more accurate word for the signing would be “savvy.” At present, it’s impossible to tell which label Thug’s on–he’s disowned 1017 (in a purely emotional sense), flirted with Cash Money, signed a strange partnership with APG, and is said to be on Lyor Cohen’s 300 Entertainment.
What if Gucci Mane hadn’t signed Young Thug: Someone else would have realized Young Thug’s commercial viability, and offered him a deal despite his unremarkable moniker. Thug’s star is ascendant, but it’s difficult to tell how much his previous naivete cost him financially.
Bad: No I.D. and French Montana Sign Drill Rappers
After the success of Chief Keef’s “I Don’t Like,” major labels scrambled to sign a gaggle of previously unknown Chicago teenagers. No I.D. signed Lil Reese, who featured on “I Don’t Like,” to Def Jam, and French Montana signed Lil Durk to his Def Jam imprint. It’s gone poorly. Lil Reese has yet to release an official album, and Lil Durk, after two years of wrangling, finally released Remember My Name to a lukewarm reception.
What if…they never signed: Lil Reese may never have been a mainstream star, but has severely damaged his career by being stuck in label purgatory. Lil Durk is a regional hero with or without a deal–it doesn’t appear Def Jam has dented his popularity in Chicago. No major label was well-equipped to handle the intertwined maturity and legal issues inherent to shepherding drill rappers.
Bad. Kind of: Jay Z Signs Jay Electronica
As the bromide goes, hindsight is 20/20. After assorted MySpace singles, including the Just Blaze-produced “Exhibit A” and “Exhibit C” (on which he bragged that Nas, T.I., and Puff Daddy were pestering him about verses and songs), Jay Electronica signed with Jay Z’s Roc Nation in November, 2010. At the time it seemed a relatively astute signing; despite Electronica’s spasmodic release schedule, he’d already garnered critical cache and solid following. The five years since Electronica’s signing have nearly redefined the word “profligate.” Every eight months or so, Electronica promises to release the ridiculously named Act II: Patents of Nobility (The Turn), and drops a single of variable quality.
What if Jay Z hadn’t signed Jay Electronica: The result is likely the same–fans cherish the MySpace releases, and half-heartedly await Act II. Someone else would’ve taken the risk, probably Puff Daddy’s Bad Boy Records.