In early January, 16-year-old Memphis rapper NLE Choppa uploaded a three-minute clip to YouTube of him and his friends dancing, joking around and toting prop guns to the tune of a boisterous hip-hop track called “Shotta Flow.” Helped along by reaction videos from popular hip-hop vloggers, and combined with Choppa’s melodic, heavy-hitting delivery, the rowdy clip quickly made rounds on the internet, reaching 300,000 views within two weeks of its release, according to YouTube — and racking up more than 10 million views to date.
Within a month, Choppa, whose real name is Bryson Potts, had sparked a bidding war among record companies like Republic, Interscope and Caroline, with bids reaching as high as $3 million. This kind of story is familiar: Young, local rapper goes viral; labels pounce. But this week, the rapper tells Billboard, he turned down those offers to enter a distribution partnership with UnitedMasters, Steve Stoute’s independent distribution company, without an advance and while retaining full ownership of his master recordings.
Stoute says that when the “Shotta Flow” music video caught the eye of UnitedMasters’ A&R team last month, he immediately reached out to Choppa and the rapper’s mother, who was acting as his manager, offering distribution for the song. Choppa agreed. “Then, record companies are calling the guy and offering a bunch of money,” Stoute tells Billboard. “Here’s the issue: He’s already just seen, with him owning the rights and us doing distribution, he’s earning money on Spotify and Apple Music, and his song is growing on YouTube. What does he need a record company to do?”
Stoute, former president of Interscope Records and CEO of ad agency Translation, launched UnitedMasters in November 2017 after quietly raising $70 million for the project from Alphabet, 21st Century Fox and other investors. Artists pay UnitedMasters to distribute their music everywhere from Spotify to YouTube to SoundCloud, and the two sides split the royalties while the artist retains full rights to the master recordings. Today, Stoute says the industry-disrupting startup is now distributing music for 30,000 artists, a list which has included emerging hip-hop acts Neek Bucks and Tobe Nwigwe and singer-songwriter BAYLI; 2 Chainz was an early test subject.
That kind of freedom appealed to Choppa, who hopes to one day turn NLE — No Love Entertainment — into a full brand, maybe even with its own label attached. He’s dropping “Shotta Flow Pt. 2” today, and plans to release an album within three months.
“[Stoute] told me everything they could do — they trusted me, and I trusted them,” Choppa says. “I get to own all my music, so it’s just a better deal [than a label]. I want to be able to have my own label, so I can build something from the ground up. In 10 years, I want to look back and think, ‘I created something big.'”
Choppa’s move reflects an industry shift whereby some young talents are foregoing traditional label contracts in favor of broader independence, following artists like Chance the Rapper and Frank Ocean. Earl Sweatshirt recently left Columbia Records, also, to do, as he puts it, “riskier shit” as an unsigned act.
In other UnitedMasters news, the company recently inked a deal to soundtrack the NBA’s digital channels. Stoute says he’s still looking for the right person to fill the company’s president role, and confirms that former Republic Records president Charlie Walk is no longer working as a consultant for the company (as their consulting project has come to completion).
“UnitedMasters is a record company in your pocket,” Stoute adds. “Everybody’s fighting against it because they’re holding onto a legacy model: ‘We own you, you work for us, here goes the money, goodbye.’ The new model is, ‘What can we do for you?”’