Once upon a time, getting signed was the holy grail for rap artists. If you got signed, the thinking went, you had arrived. At the very least, artists could count on a small extension of their 15 minutes of fame for however long they had label representation. Nowadays, the dreaded 360 deal and a myriad of new ways to consume music place the once-coveted record deal in murkier waters. Some artists, like Chance the Rapper, have gone so far as to malign deals as being more harmful than helpful, and even call the music industry—at least in its current form—dead. Getting signed isn’t what it used to be.
While inking your name on the contract of a major label isn’t a guarantee of success anymore (was it ever, really?), its importance is still enough to inspire excitement. This is the case even more so when colossal advances (see ChiefKeef’s reported $6 million) are attached to relative newcomers. The fantasy of the overnight celebrity is still a very attractive one, perhaps because of its proximity to the lives of the non-famous fans: If they could do it, so could you.
This fantasy was furthered even more with the advent of easier to use music making software. The majors have now broadened their membership from only the classically groomed pop stars to include homegrown heroes, milk fed on FL Studio and GarageBand.
Artists are proving there are infinite paths to mainstream success, be it through WorldStarHipHop freestyles, provocative visuals, or six-second clips re-Vined into ubiquity. But there are those who get signed off the strength of one really good track. These are Rappers Who Signed Deals Off One Record.
Song: “The Gas Face”
It’s hard to imagine MF DOOM without the mask. Hell, it’s hard to imagine MF DOOM being called anything other than MF DOOM. Before his days as a solo MC and producer, he went by Zev Love X. He and his brother (stage name: DJ Subroc) and Onyx the Birthstone Kid made up the group KMD (Kausing Much Damage). After hearing them rap at community meetings, 3rd Bass tapped them for a feature on their 1990 seminal record “The Gas Face.” Dante Ross of Elektra Records signed the trio on that track alone. And thus, another rap legend was born.
Song: “Nann Nigga”
In the first music video Trina was ever in, Trick Daddy’s “Nann Nigga,” she walks in wearing a black robe and drops it to reveal a crystal-encrusted bikini and matching choker. The music changes, and the entire music video stops for a moment so the viewer can bask in the glory that is Trina. It’s almost exactly analogous to her entry into the rap game. While Lil’ Kim had made raunchier subject matter from female rappers popular, she was the inaccessible luxe MC to Trina’s ’round the way girl. People were hooked, and Trina was subsequently signed to Slip-n-Slide Records (former label of Trick Daddy and current label of Rick Ross) on the strength of that verse alone.
Label: So So Def/Arista
Remember those three months in 2004 when J-Kwon was actually relevant? The St. Louis rapper earned a deal through Jermaine Dupri’s So So Def imprint off the strength of his club anthem “Tipsy.” However, just as quickly as J-Kwon’s “Tipsy” fame materialized, it seemed to evaporate. The following year he only appeared on one song (which he opens by saying, fittingly, “You ain’t seen me in a minute.“), and after that he dropped off the rap game’s radar.
Song: “Crank That (Soulja Boy)”
Soulja Boy is one of the most underrated artists of our time. Critically, his music is frequently panned for his elementary lyricism and production. However, it is this simplistic approach that made his first song a runaway hit. If we’re being technical,“Crank That” is basically four steel drum notes looped in FL Studio with a couple snaps and some bass thrown in. In actuality, it was the breakthrough anthem of 2007, and a cultural phenomenon with a dance to match. Naturally, he was signed to Interscope before the dust settled.
Song: “Lights Please”
Label: Roc Nation
Two long years before his anticipated debut album came to fruition, J. Cole released his sophomore mixtape, The Warm Up, in 2009. The self-produced single, “Lights Please,” wrestled with shallow relationships. In capturing a common flaw—finding temporary bliss in ignorance—Cole resonated with men and women alike. Better yet, it awarded the North Carolina rapper a record deal earlier that year in March. Having already moved to NYC to pursue his music career while in school, Cole realized his dream of joining Jay Z after the latter heard his heartfelt song by way of Mark Pitts. Now Cole’s manager, Pitts heard the track while walking out of his office and stopped in his tracks, quickly bringing the record to Hov himself, who was also in awe of the young talent. To dive deeper into the history of “Lights Please,” read our in-depth story on the making of Cole World: The Sideline Story.
Song: “You’re a Jerk”
Label: Asylum/Warner Bros.
This cocky jawn by the New Boyz reeked of everything to hate about teenagers. It was slightly misogynistic, aggressively flashy, and came with its own dance. Naturally, kids everywhere loved it. Legacy and Ben J brought the jerk dance and musical style to the forefront again, with their 2009 single charting at No. 4 on the U.S. Rap charts. They would sign with Asylum Records soon after.
Label: Cinematic Music Group
Joey Bada$$’s debut mixtape, 1999, while not being completely original, was a perfect introduction to the Brooklyn rapper. Taking his age into account—17 years old—a work this whole was an anomaly, especially considering he hadn’t released anything prior. Well, at least not officially.
In 2010, Johnny Shipes, manager of Smoke DZA and Big K.R.I.T., stumbled upon a video of a 15-year-old Joey Bada$$ (then JayOhVee) freestyling. A baby-faced, braces-clad, and backpack wearing Joey spits a freestyle full of punchlines while a shaky camera records. Video quality aside, it’s not hard to see why Shipes signed him almost immediately after.
Song: “Purple Swag”
Label: Polo Grounds/RCA
“Peso” put Harlem rapper A$AP Rocky on the map, but it was the video for “Purple Swag” that got the hype machine going. The video pretty much depicts Rocky getting faded (and one pretty white girl in a grill inexplicably mouthing the N-word.). “Purple Swag” went viral, and the labels began courting the rapper and his crew, A$AP Mob. Rocky signed a $3 million deal with Polo Grounds/RCA Records by the tail end of 2011.
Song: “I Don’t Like”
If Kanye West feels the need to hop on your track for a remix, it’s got to be good, right? This was the case with Chief Keef’s 2012 record “I Don’t Like.” For a rapper so frequently lambasted for his unintelligible grunting, this song was a clear declaration of…well, all the shit he doesn’t like. Purveyors of Chicago’s drill music scene will tell you that Keef was already making moves before Ye gave his fellow Chicagoan a nod, but it was this song in particular that kicked off the bidding war. When he finally inked a contract with Interscope, it was for a whopping $6 million.
Song: “All Good Everything”
Label: Def Jam
Recapping this signing is probably the most painful of all the ones on this list, namely because Trinidad Jame$ was recently dropped from Def Jam. It wasn’t more than two years ago that Trinidad was the subject of a label bidding war, because of his record “All Gold Everything.” In the few short months between the release of “All Gold” and him signing to Def Jam, the lumbering banger reached insane levels of notoriety, partially because of how quotable (and GIF-able) the video was. “Popped a molly, I’m sweatin,” got meme’d immediately, and Trinidad’s gold-accented and snaggletoothed image basically begged to be spliced into six-second Vines, consumable for all eternity. Unfortunately, lightning failed to strike twice, and Trinidad appears to be firmly strapped into his seat to one-hit wonderland.
Sage the Gemini
Song: “Gas Pedal”
California hyphy music got a much-needed reinvigoration thanks to the HBK Gang. The group’s de facto leader Iamsu! was the first to break into the Billboard Charts with his song “Up!,” but it was Sage the Gemini’s “Gas Pedal” that pushed the crew into the Top 40 (No. 29, to be exact). Sage’s “Red Nose” was released just a few days before “Gas Pedal” in March 2013, but the latter saw a 583 percent increase in sales after two Vines featuring the song racked up some half a million views. The track, which is as catchy as it is repetitive, garnered attention from execs at Republic Records, with whom Sage would later sign.
Every once in a while, a rapper seems to emerge from nowhere with completely realized talent; no struggle mixtapes, no co-signs, no one-off features that could have foreshadowed the stardom. Cozz is the epitome of that. The gravity of the first two bars of his record “Dreams” is enough to seize the focus of any discerning rap head, and the following three minutes repay that attention tenfold.
The video, a somber but simple vignette of his life in South Central Los Angeles, has a surreal quality that makes it hard to look away. J. Cole saw the vision and signed him to his Interscope imprint, Dreamville, real quick.
Song: “Hot Nigga”
Bobby Shmurda’s rise has been described as “meteoric.” Even if you count the months since his viral video hit was released in March, it has been a relatively short time. But that stretch of time most are referencing is the past six weeks, within which Shmurda was featured on seemingly an infinite number of music sites (including ours), had his song remixed by nearly everyone with access to a studio, had Beyoncé do his dance on her “On The Run” tour, was a guest on Hot 97’s Ebro in the Morning show, and was eventually signed to Epic Records. Meteoric indeed.