As a string of high-profile hip-hop artists near the end of their record contracts, a question looming over their pending free agency isn't which major label they'll sign with but whether they should

As a string of high-profile hip-hop artists near the end of their record contracts, a question looming over their pending free agency isn't which major label they'll sign with but whether they should sign with a major at all.

One prominent rap artist has already jumped ship: Jay-Z signed a long-term recording, publishing and management deal earlier this year with Live Nation. A Def Jam spokeswoman says Jay-Z has one album left on his contract with the label, but Def Jam head Shakir Stewart recently told Billboard "we're still working it out."

While few rappers can match the pull and marketability of the former Def Jam president, big names like 50 Cent, LL Cool J and OutKast will soon be on the market as well. Although they may ultimately re-sign with major labels, their camps have indicated that they are at least contemplating the possibility of a future without a major-label deal.

LL Cool J will complete his three-album deal with Def Jam with the Aug. 5 release of "Exit 13." By the end of the year, 50 Cent is expected to put out "Before I Self Destruct," the fourth and final album on his Interscope deal. OutKast owes LaFace/Zomba three more albums under the duo's four-album contract, with all three releases expected out later this year and next year.

Representatives for Def Jam, Interscope and LaFace/Zomba declined to comment on the contracts.

Tiphanie Watson, co-manager for OutKast's Big Boi, says the duo hasn't decided yet whether to seek another deal with a major, but adds, "It's much more beneficial to do it on your own. For an artist with an established fan base, there's more than one way to come up with strategic branding."

Signing with an indie label is the best option for hip-hop stars nearing the end of their deals, says Alan Grunblatt, GM/executive VP of Koch Records, which has charted with Jim Jones, DJ Khaled and Yung Berg. "With a major you'd get an advance, no masters and the deal would be based strictly on royalties," Grunblatt says. "Koch would do a licensing and/or a P&D deal."

Selling music independently via such distribution partnerships has appeal, but majors are creating those partnerships too. In 2007, rap duo the Clipse signed a joint-venture deal with Columbia Records and retained ownership of its masters.

Atlantic A&R executive Jean Nelson says not to discount the majors, arguing that 50 Cent, LL Cool J and OutKast would all be appealing signings. "It's about how much a label can support you, not the advance money," Nelson says.


Additional reporting by Keith Caulfield, Ed Christman and Raphael George.