Hip-Hop Label 101: Priority Records

Priority Records had a habit of changing the music business. Founded in 1985 by former K-Tel Records executives Mark Cerami and Bryan Turner, the Los Angeles-based label enjoyed success the following year with its Rap’s Greatest Hits and Power Rap compilations, putting songs by early rap stars such as Run-D.M.C., Whodini, and Dana Dane on albums and giving them prominent national exposure.

Priority Records continued releasing rap and other compilations in 1987 but took an innovative chance by releasing the California Raisins’ Sing the Hit Songs album, a project by a fictitious group of singing raisins that covered classic R&B songs. Thanks to an impassioned cover of soul classic “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and a clever animated video, the album went gold on January 8, 1988, and platinum five months later.

Co-founder Cerami believed that to keep the label growing, it needed its own artists. Priority then signed Eazy-E and N.W.A, giving the emerging artists and Eazy-E’s Ruthless Records national distribution and music-industry muscle. The first albums released under this pact were two of the most important albums in rap history: Eazy-E’s Eazy-Duz-It and N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton.

Furor over N.W.A’s lyrics reached unprecedented heights when, on August 1, 1989, the FBI sent Priority Records a letter accusing N.W.A of encouraging “violence and disrespect” for law enforcement officers with its “Fuck Tha Police” song. Rather than cower from the pressure, Priority Records, Ruthless Records, Eazy-E, and N.W.A embraced their status as rebel businesses, as rebel artists, and as valuable members of the artistic community who had the right to express themselves.

Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, MC Ren and DJ Yella of N.W.A

Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, MC Ren and DJ Yella of N.W.A / Photo by Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

 N.W.A’s success led to the commercial explosion of gangsta rap, making Priority Records a source for a new type of music.

“[Priority Records] became a way for West Coast street music and gangsta music to have a great platform and make it all the way to places like New York, where I could appreciate it,” says Talib Kweli. “Dr. Dre describes N.W.A as Public Enemy but for the streets. The production style, the energy of it, it has the same honesty and truth as P.E. but from a gangsta street perspective. Hip-Hop needed that.”

 As N.W.A helped push the genre forward, Priority Records gave many listeners a look into a world that was unfamiliar to them.

“It was the home of ‘Fuck Tha Police’ and N.W.A,” says Dave Weiner, who started working in the mail room for Priority Records in 1991. “I was educated. I was shown something that I otherwise wouldn’t have known about. It was raw.”

N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton and Eazy-E’s Eazy-Duz-It albums became smash records, eventually going triple and double platinum, respectively. The success of these projects gave Priority Records the money and confidence to continue building its roster.

“After the launch of N.W.A,” Cerami says, “I was pretty confident we could build the largest record label in the world.”

Priority Records was at the forefront of cutting-edge gangsta rap with Ice Cube and N.W.A creating music that was socially aware, sonically searing, and fueled by controversy. N.W.A, in particular, had weathered pressure from the FBI and went on to thrive and make history. Thanks to the implementation of SoundScan in 1991, for the first time positioning on Billboard charts was determined by actual record sales, not the reporting by random record store owners and select DJs. So on June 22, 1991, N.W.A’s Efil4Zaggin became the first No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 chart in the SoundScan era.

 But the success N.W.A and other gangsta rap acts enjoyed came with a price. The genre came under fire from governmental agencies, civil rights activists, police organizations, and other entities for the content of its lyrics, which often contained graphic depictions of extreme violence, explicit sexual stories, and a reliance on profanity. Geffen Records dropped the Geto Boys in 1990 after determining that the content of its eponymous album was unacceptable.

Scarface, Bushwick Bill and Willie D of The Geto Boys

Scarface, Bushwick Bill and Willie D of The Geto Boys / Photo By Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

Bushwick Bill of The Geto Boys

Bushwick Bill of The Geto Boys / Photo By Raymond Boyd/ Getty Images

Priority Records welcomed the Geto Boys and Rap-A-Lot Records (which released its material) into the fold in 1991, releasing the group’s best-selling album, We Can’t Be Stopped, which sold more than 1 million copies and features the smash single “Mind Playing Tricks on Me.” In 1992, Priority Records signed San Francisco rapper Paris after he had been dropped by Tommy Boy Records and its parent company Time Warner because of his song “Bush Killa,” which advocated the assassination of then-President George H.W. Bush.

Priority Records also signed Ice-T. In addition to helping pioneer gangsta rap and emerging as a bankable actor thanks to his role in 1991’s New Jack City, Ice-T fronted the rock band Body Count. Its 1992 song “Cop Killer” was called obscene by Vice President Dan Quayle and the group’s self-titled LP was subsequently pulled from more than 1,000 record stores because of its content. In January 1993, Ice-T and Body Count were released from their contracts with Sire/Warner Bros. Records. Ice-T knew who to call to put out his next LP: Priority Records.

“I was always cool with Bryan Turner,” Ice-T says. “They definitely weren't afraid to put out hardcore music. I respect the shit out of Bryan Turner. He helped me at a time when nobody was fucking with me.”

Ice-T’s next album and his first with Priority, 1993’s Home Invasion, became the Los Angeles rapper’s fifth consecutive gold album. Thanks to its early work with such controversial artists as N.W.A and Ice Cube, Priority Records had established itself as a beacon for artistic expression.

“It became a destination for where you could express yourself as an artist,” says Weiner, who worked his way up from the mail room to director of distributed labels at Priority Records. “You didn’t have to worry about being censored. For a company that put out ‘Fuck Tha Police’ and fought the FBI, you could trust that they would allow you to do you as an artist.”

Ice-T

Ice-T / Photo by © Aaron Rapoport/Corbis via Getty Images

Ice-T

Ice-T / Photo by © Aaron Rapoport/Corbis via Getty Images

Priority Records also empowered its employees. In 1995, Weiner approached Cerami with a revolutionary idea. Weiner wanted Priority Records to distribute emerging rap labels, starting with Master P and his No Limit Records. Cerami loved the idea and greenlit it, setting in motion a business revolution that reshaped the music industry and stands as one of the main business models for the modern music industry. Between 1997 and 1999 alone, No Limit Records sold more than 14 million albums, grossing more than $140 million in the process.

Although No Limit was its most successful distributed label, Priority Records branched out and also enjoyed success with a number of other labels, including New York-based Roc-A-Fella Records, Duck Down Records, and Rawkus Records. Through its Rawkus partnership, Priority released Mos Def’s Black on Both Sides and Pharoahe Monch’s Internal Affairs albums in October 1999. A year later, Train of Thought, the debut album from Reflection Eternal, composed of the duo Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek, was released.

“Rawkus was seen as an indie, but they had major label budgets,” Kweli says. “They were able to support themselves and present their music on a major label platform and Priority had a lot to do with that.”

In all, Priority Records has more than 110 gold and platinum certifications and changed the music industry multiple times. It was sold to distributor Capitol/EMI in 1999, ending the run of one of rap’s most important imprints. (It was dormant in 2004 and 2005 and has relaunched multiple times since then, though none of its reincarnations have matched the success the label enjoyed between 1985 and 2003.)

“It was a well-oiled machine, a family working for artists we loved and respected, and we all prospered together,” says Weiner, who worked at Priority Records from 1991 to 1099. “It was one of those rare moments in life where everything clicked and everything made sense.”

* Banner Image: Eazy-E of N.W.A ‘Straight Outta Compton’ tour 1989. / Photo By Raymond Boyd/Getty Images