Unpaid Royalties is a series about the myriad ways that the music industry exploits Black artists—and what's being done to change them. Read more here.
Last month, Kanye West sparked a conversation about predatory record deals when he posted hundreds of pages of his record contract with Universal Music Group on Twitter, claiming that modern deals are designed to leave the artist in debt to the label. While some people called out West for being hypocritical, perhaps the most memorable reply came from Los Angeles producer Hit-Boy. On Instagram, the 33-year-old said that while he was no longer "a fan of Kanye on a personal / human level," he agreed with the rapper's characterization of the industry: Since signing a publishing deal with Universal Music when he was just 19, he'd been locked into "the worst publishing contract" his lawyers had ever seen, one that gave him a $50,000 advance at signing but still treats him like newcomer, he told VICE. "Slave deals are still very real /rampant in 2020," he concludes in the post, echoing Kanye's comparison of the music industry and the NBA to "modern day slave ships."
By all appearances, Hit-Boy, aka Chauncey Hollis, is one of the most successful producers in the game. After earning his first placement in 2007, he popped onto the world's radar after producing "Ni**as in Paris" with Jay-Z and West in 2011. Seven Grammy nominations and two actual awards later, he's showing no signs of slowing down: In this year alone, he's executive-produced albums by Big Sean and Nas, in addition to gathering production credits with Lil Baby, Jay Electronica, and Tee Grizzley. As he previously told VICE, he's sitting on other collaborations, too, with artists ranging from 03 Greedo to Justin Timberlake. But, as he explained on Instagram, appearances can be deceiving in the record industry.
"Im 33 now and have multiple Grammys, produced a lot of your favorite artists biggest songs on top of turning in over 450+ records since I first signed and @umpg still doesnt have it in them to simply be fair," he wrote. "If they’re doing this to me with all I’ve accomplished through hard work I can only imagine the kids who don’t have big placements/ proper guidance."
Hit-Boy has a long history of speaking out against his struggle in an industry notorious for wringing money out of talent without fair compensation. In fact, he's been committing these grievances to wax for years—including some of his experiences working with West's own G.O.O.D. Music label, which he signed with in 2011. "Flew out to work on Watch the Throne, felt like I had to sign to G.O.O.D," he rapped on "Show Me" in 2015. Even then, he felt undervalued, rapping that he'd been "made to feel less than what I'm worth."
He's also compared his contract to one of an incarcerated dealer whose territories have been taken over. On his 2017 song "The Mob," Hit-Boy does a prison phone-style outro where he complains about "crackers shipping out of state" without his permission, "everything is on contract." On his 2019 album The Chauncey Hollis Project, he alludes to the situation with UMG a bit more directly. "Ten plus in this shit and they still doubt Hit / I should hand ni**as a contract, like fill out this," he raps on "All Business." "Burn your contract, call the firefighters," he quips on "Levitating."
If a consistent and prolific producer like Hit-Boy can be locked in a deal that his lawyers consider remarkable in its awful terms, up-and-coming artists and producers are likely to fall into similar traps. VICE caught up with Hit-Boy to hear the details of his own situation, what needs to change in the industry, and his advice for new producers fielding offers in the industry.
VICE: You mentioned in a previous interview that some things in record contracts need to be extinct. Can you speak on some of the specifics?
Hit-Boy: Whatever language it is that holds people in contracts and doesn't make sense—whether it's on the publishing side, with MDRC [Minimum Delivery Release Commitment, which stipulates a number of songs are produced and released per year] or whatever other thing they put in contracts for you to not be able progress through your deal properly. With all the songs I've done, they should be at least able to look at that and say, "This deal no longer makes sense for this guy." But since they've got the paperwork signed, they don't have to move. But it's just wrong, period. And they know it, too.
What was it like in 2007 to be presented with a big contract, trying to make sense of whether it's good or not?
Ah, man. Honestly, after I signed the deal, I just went into producer mode and I was moreso trying to prove myself musically. When I made a hit, that was my whole thing. I'm trying to make hits; I'm trying to get paid. I'm trying to do my shit. So I didn't realize until even later. When I initially signed, it was moreso about the opportunity, and being in a position where the artist is coming through. I wasn't just at the house making beats; I actually had a studio setup, with different artists pulling up every day.
“That was the point that I realized I was in a terrible deal so they didn't have to give me any money.”
You signed your Universal deal in 2007, but you said it wasn't until you had a track on Watch the Throne in 2011 that you realized it was fucked up.
Right. So that was almost five years later. I didn't even realize I had to catch an actual big hit to be able to go back and be like, Damn, ok, what's going on? It took years for me to even know, so that's already messed up. From my personal situation, it's a lot of trickery. Even the lawyer that did my deal, he didn't end up being my actual lawyer. The original team I had basically hired him as a dummy lawyer to put me in this contract so they didn't look like the bad guy, when at the end of the day, they really are the bad guy.
Wayno [VP of Asylum Records] said something. I was watching Everyday Struggle, [and] Wayno was like, "Man, I'm sure when Hit-Boy produced 'Ni**as in Paris' they waved that big bag in front of him, and it looked good at the time." That wasn't even the point when I got any bread. That was the point that I realized I was in a terrible deal so they didn't have to give me any money. It's crazy that's how people think, when that's not even what happened. I was just scratching the surface of understanding how fucked up my situation was.
“People in the building—I don't even want to get into names, but there are people in the UMPG building that have said, ‘This is unethical; this is wrong. This is not right.’”
Why do you think there's a system in place that even a producer with your credits is not happy?
[The corporations] only having the knowledge—the true knowledge of what the deals are saying. And money, at the end of the day. I'm printing free money for them because, shit, they didn't have to invest nothing, and I'm steady getting placement after placement, album after album, it's like, "Ok, we're just getting free money at this point. We don't have to advance him through his deal because the old terminology says this." I feel like that's wrong. People in the building—I don't even want to get into names, but there are people in the UMPG building that have said, "This is unethical; this is wrong. This is not right."
We've talked about how it's hard to think about having a hit, number-one single when you're signing your first deal, imagining the points within it even coming to fruition. Is there any advice you'd give young producers, things they should look out for that could bite them in the ass later on
Even when you have a lawyer, get a second opinion. Try to dig deep into terms; try to have a clear understanding. Know the exit plan. Know that if it goes on for this many years and this amount of time, then we both just walk away from the shit.
Don't take anybody's one opinion as everything. Take gems from as many people as you can, and just try to put it together and form your own idea of what's supposed to be going on.
With producers now labeling themselves as artists on songs, does that help at all in terms of leverage?
Nah, it just helps with the branding. With [Nipsey Hustle's Grammy Award-winning 2019 single] "Racks in the Middle," I'm glad Nip was open to [crediting me], because the song was originally mine anyway, so it was just love for him to feature me on it. If I wasn't featured on it, I wouldn't have got a trophy.
If you're a new producer—say, just out of high school—how do you know which opinions to trust when you're talking about legalese and specific terminology?
That's the thing. You don't, man. Me, personally—I had to bump my head over and over, really get into the dungeon and make some hits to even open the gates and open my eyes. Everybody's gonna have a different story, but if anybody was to read this or see this: Just try to be patient and gather as much information as you can from as many people as you can.
Are there things you've thought about, changes you want to see as far as artists getting more equitable deals in the future?
Anything that's going to hold somebody in a deal for fuckin' 14, 28—however many years. Some shit just don't add up. I can't really speak on the exact terminology and what it means, but however they're setting the shit up, or they had it set up prior, is all wrong.
“A lot of people going, ‘I'm in the same situation.’ Or people that were in a situation like me.”
What has the label's response been since you started speaking out in interviews and on Instagram?
We have been in some talks, but at the end of the day, I feel like it's still not adding up to the amount of work I've put in for what they're trying to offer me. Any extra time in this deal, at this point, feels like I'm a prisoner or—I know everybody's using the "slave" term, "slave" deal, whatever, but it can feel like that because you turn in so many joints and it's like, Ok, you're still trying to tell me that I haven't done enough to progress out of this? They can still treat me like the guy I was when I was 19. They know they only gave me $50,000. That's really all they ever have to risk: Me not making the $50,000 back. They never risked any other money on me. They never took a chance on me. They'll try to fix it up like they're trying to help you out, but really they're not.
Have other artists or producers reached out to tell you to keep going, or ask what they can do for you?
Definitely. All types of artists—major, major artists. I don't want to put no names out there, but a lot of respect. A lot of producers—my DMs have just been flooded with people showing respect. A lot of people going, "I'm in the same situation." Or people that were in a situation like me.
Was there an idea at the beginning that if you made hits and you fulfilled your end of the bargain, shit would work out?
That's how I always looked at it. And it's frustrating to know that, even to this day, I haven't got my deal right. I don't know. It's a lot.