Hip-Hop's Other EMPIRE: How Indie Distributor Is Quietly Owning the Rap Game

Marcus Ingram/BET/Getty Images for BET
D.R.A.M and Lil Yachty performs onstage during the 2016 BET Hip Hop Awards at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center on Sept. 17, 2016 in Atlanta.

"Broccoli,” the viral sensation from D.R.A.M. featuring Lil Yachty, has climbed to No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100. But while the MC’s debut album, Big Baby D.R.A.M., is due Oct. 21 on EMPIRE/Atlantic Records, “Broccoli” was released by surging independent ­distributor EMPIRE -- the ­company behind Fat Joe and Remy Ma’s top 40 hit “All the Way Up,” Anderson .Paak’s breakthrough LP Malibu and Kendrick Lamar’s 2011 Section.80 album.

The San Francisco-based company is the brainchild of Ghazi Shami, the 40-year-old former urban director at INgrooves who launched the company in 2010. “Labels and so-called distributors have umbilical cords to other labels or distributors; there isn’t any autonomy,” he says. “The concept was to build the modern music company that didn’t have to rely on anybody else for its success.”

That philosophy has paid off well for “All the Way Up,” which peaked at No. 27 on the Hot 100 in June and became Fat Joe’s highest-charting song in a decade. And now it’s working again for “Broccoli,” D.R.A.M.’s second hit with EMPIRE after his 2015 song “Cha Cha” went viral on Instagram, prompting Beyoncé to post a video of herself dancing along.

The success comes after years spent building relationships with veteran rappers, younger artists looking for a foot in the door, and rising labels like Lamar’s Top Dawg Entertainment and .Paak’s Steel Wool Records. Shami built his own distribution network that allowed artists and managers to track royalties easily and began signing non-exclusive deals -- a practice that allows EMPIRE to take risks, and artists like D.R.A.M. to ride a successful single to a major-label contract.

"The idea was not to lock people in and get rights from them," Shami says. "The approach was, 'What's the fastest path to business?' And if we start to do good things together then naturally those rights will evolve into other revenue streams: publishing, touring and things of that nature."

That’s a twist on the model spearheaded by companies like eOne, which had long been an independent clearinghouse for veteran rappers cast out of the major-label system. Along the way, EMPIRE has been growing steadily: Shami notes that both income and gross revenue are doubling year-over-year, while streaming's explosion -- R&B/hip-hop dominates the landscape with 21 percent of all on-demand streams -- has re-energized EMPIRE's catalog. ("Any time you have a format change," he says, "if you have a timeless product then you see a re-consumption of that content.")

And it's working to stay on top of trends, whether that's leveraging Snapchat filters, Musical.ly campaigns, diverse remixes by Jay Z, David Guetta and Daddy Yankee to broaden the appeal of "All the Way Up," or digging into the analytics to find that "Broccoli" was blowing up on SoundCloud before it entered the charts. "Our responsibility is to identify where that energy is coming from, feed it and then migrate it to other platforms," Shami says. "You look at where the trends are, who's listening and try to keep it as fresh as possible to prolong the energy."

Shami estimates EMPIRE has distributed 10,000 albums as the company has grown to 25 employees while adding marketing and publishing wings, as well as its own label, EMPIRE Recordings, that artists can add a la carte on a rolling basis. The company now sits among the premier ­independent hybrid distributors in the United States.

“It wasn’t any one record that got us where we’re at,” says Shami. “It was a sum of the battles that is winning the war.” 

A version of this article originally appeared in the Oct. 29 issue of Billboard.