Although we like to think we celebrate our musical legacy all year long, this June is Black Music Month. Black artists have no doubt made indelible contributions to music, but our impact hasn’t only been felt on the mic or on the stage. Black music executives have shattered glass ceilings, helped guide the culture and provided new blueprints for success. Here, in celebration of Black Music Month, we take a look at 25 of the most powerful, important and influential black music execs. 
 
  1. Before his tragic 2012 suicide, Chris Lighty was arguably hip hop’s biggest mega-manager. Rising through the ranks from DJ Red Alert’s crate carrier to reputed road manager, he went on to found Violator Management, which guided the careers of 50 Cent, Busta Rhymes, LL Cool J and many other rap superstars.
  2. You know the name: Russell Simmons is the godfather of hip hop executives, whether he was managing Run DMC, turning Def Jam into hip hop’s most influential label or flipping his music success into clothing, TV and online ventures.
  3. When major labels fronted on signing Hov in the early ’90s, Jay-Z took matters into his own hands, co-founding Roc-A-Fella Records. The label not only propelled his own legendary career, but also those of Kanye West, Beanie Sigel and others. In 2004, he became the first rapper to be president of Def Jam, where he signed Rihanna. Four years later, he launched Roc Nation, a dynamic label and management company that recently expanded to sports agency. Meanwhile, outside of music, Jay co-owns the Brooklyn Nets’ Barclays Center, Rocawear clothing, 40/40 sports 
  4. Master P brought rap independent labels to new heights in the mid-‘90s, when his New Orleans-based No Limit imprint oversaw his own multiplatinum success, as well as a deep stable of talent that included Mystikal, Silkk the Shocker and others. He also expanded his fiefdom to movies and TV, releasing a series of straight-to-DVD movies and landing several acting roles. 
  5. As the founder of Motown records, Berry Gordy is the alpha and omega when it comes to music executives — of any race. His historic label not only launched the careers of icons including Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross, it also played a key role in helping black music crossover to white audiences. 
  6. After his career as keyboardist for The Deele, Antonio L.A. Reid co-founded LaFace Records with bandmate Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds in 1989. The label was one of the most important imprints of the ’90s, signing acts including OutKast, TLC and Usher and helping to establish Atlanta as a music hotbed. From 2004 to 2011, he served as CEO of Island Def Jam Music Group, before moving on to Epic Records and also gaining small-screen fame as a judge on The X Factor. 
  7. The co-founder of Sugar Hill Records, Sylvia Robinson is not only one of the most renowned female music executives of all time, she’s also a hip hop pioneer, releasing two of the genre’s biggest, earliest breakthroughs, Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delite” and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message,” and also helping elevate the careers of the Treacherous Three, the Crash Crew and other important old-school groups.  
  8. As co-founder of Roc-A-Fella Records, Damon Dash’s unrelenting hustle helped make Jay-Z and Kanye West two of the biggest stars in music today. 
  9. Suge Knight’s strong-arm street tactics are the stuff of legend, but his real impact on the game came through his partnership with Dr. Dre to found Death Row Records, which dominated the ’90s with Snoop Dogg, Tupac and others. 
  10. The co-founder of Ruthless Records, Eazy-E is one of rap’s first prominent artist-executives, overseeing his pioneering gangsta-rap group N.W.A.’s shocking late-’80s breakthrough to mainstream America. Later on, after accusations of financial impropriety broke apart N.W.A., Eazy discovered Bone Thugs-N-Harmony.
  11. Bryan “Baby” Williams, aka Birdman, has helped take the label he cofounded, Cash Money Records, to unforeseen heights. After launching in 1991, the label cashed in building regional buzz for an unprecendented $30 million deal with Universal Music Group, which led to the stardom of Juvenile, Lil Wayne and, later on, Drake and Nicki Minaj.
  12. In between establishing himself as perhaps the best, most successful hip hop producer of all time, Dr. Dre founded two of the most influential, successful labels of the past 20 years, Death Row and Aftermath, and helped turned Snoop, Eminem, 50 Cent and others into stars. More recently, he co-founded massive headphone company Beats by Dre. 
  13. Sean “Diddy” Combs has ruled hip hop from his throne as founder and leader of Bad Boy Records, where he’s broken acts including the Notorious B.I.G., Faith Evans and French Montana. In the meantime, he’s parlayed his music success into other profitable ventures, including Sean John and Ciroc.  
  14. Top dad-a-ger Mathew Knowles took the careers of Destiny’s Child and his daugher Beyoncé to record-breaking heights of commercial success. 
  15. J. Prince is still heading up the label he founded, Rap-A-Lot Records, the South’s first prominent hip hop label, which has been home to Scarface, the Geto Boys, Do or Die and other legendary acts. 
  16. Kevin Liles has served as president of Def Jam Recordings from 1998 to 2002, where he helped revenues double and helped artists, including Ludacris and Ja Rule, become stars. He later became executive vice president at Island Def Jam Music Group and Warner Music Group. 
  17. Sylvia Rhone made history in 1990 as the first black woman to head a major record company when she was named CEO/president of Atlantic’s East/West Records. She later headed up Elektra and Motown, playing a key role in shaping music over the past two decades. 
  18. Smokey Robinson stepped up from his position as one of Motown’s top artists, songwriters and producers to serve as vice president of the company for two decades, where he added to its growing legacy as the most important and influential Black-owned music label of all time. 
  19. One of the most successful managers of all time, Joe Jackson oversaw the careers of his ultra-talented children — the Jackson 5, Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson — as they each became superstars. 
  20. Mona Scott-Young co-founded Violator Management with Chris Lighty, where she oversaw stars like LL Cool J and Missy Elliott, but in recent years she’s expanded to reality TV, creating the Love & Hip Hop series.
  21. Kedar Massenburg was one of the most important players in the neo-soul explosion of the late ’90s: He discovered Erykah Badu, managed D’Angelo and later served as president of Motown from 1997 to 2004.
  22. Steve Stoute was one of the most powerful Black executives helping to push hip hop and R&B to new levels of success in the ’90s and early 2000s, serving as president of urban music and executive vice president at Interscope/Geffen/A&M Records and president of urban music for Sony Music Entertainment. He also managed Nas and Mary J. Blige.
  23. RZA never officially took on the role of “executive,” he’s widely acknowledged as the leader of the Wu-Tang Clan, especially in their early days. He helped the Wu land an unprecendented, revolutionarly deal with Loud Records that still allowed all of its solo acts the freedom to sign as individual artists with other labels. He also oversaw the crew’s imprint, Razor Sharp Records. 
  24. Cathy Hughes rose from single mom to leading radio executive, founding Radio One, with 55 music and entertainment stations in 16 markets across the U.S., and more than $400 million in revenue a year.
  25. As the head of So So Def Records, Jermaine Dupri oversaw the multiplatinum success of acts including Kris Kross, Da Brat, Jagged Edge and Bow Wow. He’s also served as a top executive at Arista and Virgin.
 

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