Happy Black Music Month folks!
In case you’re not familiar, Black Music Month was enacted in June 1979 during the Jimmy Carter Presidential administration. Founded by Kenny Gamble, Dyana Williams, and Ed Wright, Black Music Month was proposed in order to promote the important contributions of black people in music. As a black woman who blogs about music creativity for urban music creatives, it was only right for me to launch Transcending Sound a year ago during this month. Even though this site only addresses hip-hop, R&B, and jazz, it’s important to note that black people have made amazing contributions to so many genres of music. However, it’s even more important to talk about some of the labels behind these creatives, especially the black owned labels.
When most people talk about black owned labels, the names Motown and Def Jam come to mind. But we all know that there are many more labels out there that we don’t talk about that are also important. So, I thought I’d share 10 black owned labels from past and present that cover various genres, not just hip-hop, R&B, and jazz. Check them out below:
Black Swan Records
Black Swan Records was a jazz and blues based label founded in 1921 by a black music businessman named Harry Pace. The label, known as the first black-owned record label, was named after Elizabeth Greenfield, a famous 19th century black vocalist who was referred to as “the black swan” because of her voice. The label had its own distribution. I’m not quite sure that Pace owned his publishing as the owner of Black Swan, but before starting the label, he co-founded Pace-Handy Music with the “father of the blues,” W.C. Handy, that I believe he stepped down from. Black Swan’s roster included singer Ethel Waters, but Fletcher Henderson worked for the label as a pianist and manager. If you’re familiar with the story of Bessie Smith, you may recognize Black Swan as the label she decided not to sign with early on in her career. The label went bankrupt after three short years and was discontinued after it was purchased by Paramount Records in 1924.
Interesting Fact: W.E.B. DuBois, one of Pace’s college professors and mentors, was a stockholder for the record label.
Vee-Jay Records was named after and founded by husband and wife team Vivian Carter and James Bracken in 1953. The label’s artists varied in genre, including jazz, blues, rock & roll, R&B, soul, and gospel. Their biggest acts include the R&B group The Impressions (co-founded by soul singers Curtis Mayfield and Jerry Butler) and blues singer and instrumentalist Jimmy Reed, but the label’s acts included some artists at the beginning of their careers that we know well today, such as The Pips (known as Gladys Knight and the Pips), Wayne Shorter, and The Staple Singers. Vee-Jay faced legal troubles and filed bankruptcy in 1964. The label went through various owners over the past forty years before having its music acquired by Concord Music Group.
Interesting Fact: Vee-Jay released the first Beatles album released in the United States through former major label EMI.
T-Neck was the label of one of my favorite soul, funk, and R&B groups, The Isley Brothers. Named after Ronald Isley’s hometown in New Jersey (Teaneck), T-Neck was launched the first time in 1964 but folded a few years afterward due to very minor successes. However, the brothers reactivated the label in 1969 with a lot of success, releasing many of the Isley Brothers’ hit albums and singles, like “It’s Your Thing,” “That Lady,” “For The Love Of You,” and more. Unfortunately, the label went defunct again in 1985 because of financial and legal issues.
Interesting Fact: Supposedly, the first known recording of Jimmy Hendrix (who we know now as Jimi Hendrix) on the guitar was on the single “Testify,” one of The Isley Brothers’ first T-Neck releases. Listen here.
The disco, dance, and R&B label SOLAR, short for Sound of Los Angeles Records), came from the dissolution of Soul Train Records in 1977, which was cofounded with Don Cornelius and Dick Griffey. Cornelius decided to leave Soul Train Records, which Griffey renamed SOLAR. I’m a bit confused as of why Cornelius left Soul Train Records. I’ve read that he wanted to shut the label down because he wanted to focus on the show, but I also read that there were issues between the co-founders about the disco-R&B trio Shalamar. I’m not completely sure. However, under Griffey, SOLAR had success with Shalamar, The Whispers, Dynasty, and The Deele (which consisted of Babyface and L.A. Reid that later formed LaFace Records), and was associated with writers Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis (who started their own label, Tabu, in 1980), and Leon Sylvers III (of the family group The Sylvers). The label went defunct in 1992.
Interesting Fact: Dynasty’s track, “Adventures In The Land Of Music,” has been sampled often, particularly in Camp Lo’s “Luchini AKA This Is It.” Listen here.
Sugar Hill Records
Husband and wife duo Sylvia and Joe Robinson, along with friend Milton Malden, founded hip-hop label Sugar Hill Records in the 1970s. Hip-hop folks know Sugar Hill Records for their biggest group, Sugarhill Gang, who released the first hip-hop/rap hit single, “Rapper’s Delight,” in 1979. Other acts on Sugar Hill Records include another group in hip-hop royalty, Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, as well as Funky 4+1, which included one of the first known women in hip-hop, MC Sha-Rock (mentioned in my women in hip-hop post). The label went defunct in 1986 due to legal issues with their label’s distributors, but the Robinsons’ living sons hold control over the label’s publishing.
Interesting Fact: Sylvia Robinson, known as the “mother of hip-hop,” was a singer-songwriter and guitarist with some major success before starting her three record labels. Sugar Hill was the second label she started. Watch Sylvia perform “Pillow Talk” on Soul Train here.
Philadelphia International Records
The legendary R&B/soul songwriting and production duo Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff started the R&B/soul, funk, and disco label Philadelphia International in 1971 with a distribution deal through Clive Davis’ then home, CBS Records. Along with Patti LaBelle‘s solo successes in the 80s, PIR was known for being the home of stars, such as Teddy Pendergrass (as well as his former group, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, known for “If You Don’t Know Me By Now”), The O’Jays (“Love Train,” “Back Stabbers”), veteran Lou Rawls (“You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine”), Billy Paul (“Me And Mrs. Jones”), McFadden & Whitehead (“Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now”), and the house band of the label (and band behind the Soul Train theme song), MFSB. Gamble and Huff’s label went defunct in the early 2000s after a failed attempt to revive the label in the 90s.
Interesting Facts: Gamble-Huff started writing hit songs in the 1950s. Also, one of MFSB’s songs has been used as a sample for a few hip-hop songs, including Jay Z’s “What More Can I Say.” Listen here.
American Recording Company & Kalimba Music
I’ve never heard of American Recording Company, and there isn’t much out there about it, but ARC was co-founded by singer-songwriter, producer, and instrumentalist Maurice White, one of the founding and lead members of Earth, Wind & Fire. Some of Earth Wind & Fire’s albums were released through the indie label and its parent label, Columbia Records, including their hit albums I Am (including “Boogie Wonderland” with The Emotions and “After The Love Has Gone”) and Raise! (including “Let’s Groove”). Unfortunately, it only existed from 1978-1982. However, Kalimba Music was founded in 2003 and relaunched in 2014 as a contemporary jazz label.
Interesting Fact: White founded Kalimba Productions in the mid-eighties, producing work for The Emotions, Ramsey Lewis (whom White started his career with), Deniece Williams, Jennifer Holliday, Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, and more.
Co-founded by emcee Tech N9ne and his business partner Travis O’Guin in 2000, Strange Music claims to be one of the most successful current independent labels in the world. The label was one of the first independent labels to sell its own merchandise and music online and includes multiple subsidiary labels. Including Tech N9ne’s music, Strange has released almost 50 albums and has at least 10 artists on the label, including emcee Murs.
Interesting Fact: Top Dawg Entertainment emcee Jay Rock released his first album, Follow Me Home, via Strange Music.
Jamla Records/It’s A Wonderful World Music Group
It wouldn’t be right to do a list of labels without including current labels. Jamla, a play on the name of Motown Records’ original name, Tamla, was founded by hip-hop producer 9th Wonder in 2008. Many people know Jamla for its lady emcee Rapsody, who made a mark back in 2015 for her verse on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly. However, Jamla is filled with a producer collective known as The Soul Council, as well as emcees (such as Add-2 and GQ), and includes a singer (Heather Victoria).
Interesting Fact: Young Guru, the producer and recording engineer known for his extensive work with Jay Z, is the label’s Director of Operations.
The LA based indie label, Brainfeeder, was founded and started by producer Flying Lotus in 2008. The label has one of my favorite artist lineups at the moment, with a diverse artist lineup in hip-hop, jazz, electronic and more. Other than FlyLo, the label includes Thundercat and Kamasi Washington, along with Taylor McFerrin, Tokimonsta, The Underachievers, Mono/Poly, Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, and more.
Interesting Fact: I mean…they’re awesome. What else is there to say?
Did I miss any, past or present? Let me know in the comments or over on Twitter at @amirahrashidah.