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Capitol Music Group Relaunches Priority Records as an Indie-Leaning Distributor: Exclusive

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MC Ren and Eazy-E. from N.W.A. performs during the "Straight Outta Compton" tour at Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Missouri in 1989. 

The legendary rap imprint, which gained notoriety and respect as a pioneering distributor of early West Coast gangsta rap, returns with an independent focus

Few record labels were as important to the rise of West Coast hip-hop as Priority Records. Founded in 1985 by Bryan Turner and Mark Cerami, the indie took a chance on a crew of MCs bubbling out of Los Angeles at a time when rap was dominated by the East Coast and helped turn N.W.A into a national powerhouse with the release of 1988's Straight Outta Compton, putting the West Coast, and gangsta rap, on the map.

Priority’s ownership has shifted over the years since it was sold to EMI in 2001; it was acquired by Universal Music Group in its $1.9 billion acquisition of EMI in 2012, then shifted from Island Def Jam to Capitol when IDJ was broken up in 2014. Now, CMG is relaunching the legendary imprint as an indie-leaning, versatile distribution wing focused largely on emerging hip-hop acts. Overseen by CMG chairman/CEO Steve Barnett, COO Michelle Jubelirer, new executive vp Dion “No I.D.” Wilson, CFO Geoff Harris and Motown president Ethiopia Habtemariam, Priority will be run by L.A. radio veteran William "Fuzzy" West and A&R executive Serge Durand to help push Capitol deeper into the hip-hop market.

"Until Ethiopia arrived with Motown [in 2014], Capitol hadn't been in the urban business for probably 25 years from a real commitment point of view," says Barnett. "I spent a lot of time looking at the marketplace and what the competition was doing, and it just seemed to be the right time to do it now."

Capitol already owns Caroline, an indie distributor for artists and labels like ATO Records (Alabama Shakes, Brandi Carlile), Photo Finish (Marian Hill, MisterWives) and Stones Throw. But with Priority, Capitol hopes to capitalize on a legacy that includes releases like Ice Cube's AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted, Dr. Dre's The Chronic (via Death Row/Interscope and distributed by Priority) and JAY-Z’s Reasonable Doubt to compete with more nimble competitors in the indie distribution space like EMPIRE, which has seen veteran MCs like Raekwon and Twista switch away from Caroline to its platform in recent years.

“We understand the history behind it; it's a name you respect,” says West, a Compton native. “Whoever we do business with, it's a team effort, a partnership. We're here to make the logo look good.”

Since Motown shifted to Capitol and Habtemariam was promoted to president in 2014, the label has gotten more aggressive in pursuing hip-hop deals, signing a joint venture with Quality Control Music in 2015 that brought Lil Yachty and, eventually, Migos into the fold, and landing deals for Rich Homie Quan, Chaz French and Kevin Hart's rapping alter-ego Chocolate Droppa. But with the rise of on-demand streaming -- hip-hop/R&B accounted for 28 percent of all streaming last year, according to Nielsen Music, more than any other genre -- labels have had to get faster and more flexible to adapt to a shifting landscape.

"It used to be about the majors and the indies, and now it's about fast and slow," Barnett says. "We needed to find a solution to be fast."

“Artists want to be able to move quickly on their records, do flexible deals and not feel like they're locked in to anything,” Habtemariam says. “With Priority as a distribution company, independent artists are able to have the support of the major system, but also operate and lead things the way they want to do it.”

“For any artist that has great music and a dream and drive and a great team, we're open for business here at Priority,” says Durand, who previously worked as an A&R at Empire. “It's like a menu; you can have access to major label services and still move as an indie if you want, and if you want to go major you can.”

For now, Priority launches with deals with G Perico, Snoh Aalegra and Jonn Hart and a partnership with Jermaine Dupri's So So Def label, among others. The flexibility of the deals allows CMG to work with artists at any level of their career, while from Capitol’s side they can also, says Habtemariam, allow the major to “incubate” those with work to do.

“Some artists, as they're figuring out who they are, just want to drop things and get a feel for what's connecting; it's a way for them to develop themselves,” she explains. “And there are other artists who are clear in their vision and how they want to do things and they like the freedom and the flexibility in moving quickly.”

While there are plans for vinyl re-releases from Priority's extensive back catalog, Barnett says that for now the focus is on emerging artists.

"The intent is to give new artists a home where we can move very quickly and aggressively and make very forward-thinking deals," Barnett says. "I think the opportunity for somebody to sign a distribution deal that can be upstreamed overnight and have the entire Capitol team working on it is something that's very attractive to a lot of artists."

This story originally appeared in the July 1 issue of Billboard.