.Needle on the Record

Independent record label EMPIRE celebrates 50 years of Bay Area hip-hop

EMPIRE is a San Francisco-based record label, distribution and publishing company. On Oct. 16, to honor 50 years of hip-hop, it celebrated Bay Area contributions to the genre. Hosted by Chuy Gomez and Sway Calloway, attendees witnessed performances by Spice-1, Mistah FAB, Too $hort and Black C, of RBL Posse.

This year saw numerous tributes to the hip-hop art form, some of which highlighted artists from New York and Los Angeles in particular. More recently, BET Networks heavily featured Atlanta—a Bay Area hip-hop sister city—as part of its celebration. Jermaine Dupri, founder of Atlanta-based So So Def Records, delivered an 11-minute tribute to honor his label’s groundbreaking work. While the performance was an illuminating walk down memory lane, it posed the question: What would it look like if the Bay Area featured a similar commendation on the impact the region has had on the art form?

EMPIRE’s hip-hop homage in October offered a glimpse of what that tribute could be. Throughout the afternoon event, fans witnessed legendary DJ sets from influential Bay Area hip-hop DJs including Big Von and DJ Mind Motion. Graffiti of legendary lyrics from Mac Dre and E-40 was displayed throughout the SVN West venue in San Francisco, and giggin’ took center stage.

The EMPIRE-curated event was just another example of the company’s commitment to Bay Area hip-hop culture. San Francisco native and SF State graduate Ghazi (as he prefers to be named) founded EMPIRE in 2010. Although he initially entered the rap game as an audio engineer, Ghazi eventually worked as a consultant for a digital distribution company known as INgrooves. There he began to identify how he wanted to change the music landscape.

Ghazi founded EMPIRE to help independent artists distribute their music to streaming platforms. Since its creation, the company has distributed projects for Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q and Snoop Dogg. In 2022, EMPIRE Africa was founded with headquarters in Lagos, Nigeria, to support artists based in that region. In the same year, EMPIRE also acquired the dance label Dirtybird, signaling its entrance into the electronic music space. In 2023, Billboard included EMPIRE in its list of music industry power players.

Bay Area native and music industry veteran Tina Davis was recently promoted to president at EMPIRE. During her career, she’s worked with artists such as Montell Jordan, DMX and LL Cool J. Davis credits her upbringing in South Vallejo as a key inspiration for working in the industry. 

Although she initially held aspirations of becoming a journalist, Davis found herself surrounded by music at an early age. Her father was in a band, and she played the classical piano for 11 years. While in college, a friend from high school hired her as a personal assistant, and from there she left school to pursue her music career.

In a recent interview with East Bay Express, Davis discussed this and more, including EMPIRE’s commitment to the Bay Area hip-hop community.

EBX: How did you get into the music industry?

TD: In high school, a friend of mine—her name was Laronda Sutton—always wanted to be in the music business, and I did too, but I didn’t know enough about it. She eventually got a job in Los Angeles working for a music publication company to start their Black music division. She asked me if I wanted to be her assistant, and that’s when I started to get my feet wet in the music industry.

EBX: You grew up in Vallejo during the rise of E-40 and the Click, and Mac Dre’s Young Black Brotha.

TD: Absolutely; 40 is my cousin through marriage. We used to all be in the studio all night just kind of vibin’ and listening to music.

EBX: While paying homage to DJ Mind Motion, Chuy Gomez applauded him for being willing to play rap music on the radio, because during the ’80s and early ’90s rap wasn’t widely accepted. Do you recall that time?

TD: Yeah, it was a time when you could only play one rap record in an hour. Then they graduated to two rap records in an hour. And, obviously, you couldn’t play anything derogatory or [that] had negativity in it. So it limited the artists that got played here. But yeah, there was a time when they did not want rap on the radio at all. They thought it was a fad. And even after they knew it wasn’t a fad, they felt it wasn’t real music.

EBX: You’ve worked with so many popular artists, and you’re about to travel with EMPIRE to connect with some of your artists in Africa. Why does EMPIRE need to do a Bay Area event when the scope of your work has expanded globally?

TD: Because that’s where we started. You don’t forget where you came from. I’m a hip-hop kid, I am hip-hop, I live that lifestyle. It took me by storm at 15 or 16 years old. There were a lot of people at the same time learning about hip-hop in the Bay Area, who embraced it and made it their own and changed the style up a bit different than what you’d see or hear from New York or even from L.A., and they created Bay music.

EBX: Throughout the event, it was great to see so many Bay Area legends in one place. Rappin’ 4 Tay was walking in the crowd, Too Short and Spice 1 took the stage together. Sway introduced Mistah F.A.B. How does it feel to know that you all did that?

TD: EMPIRE is making a mark for the Bay Area. Even if we can’t sign everyone, EMPIRE is standing up for the Bay Area regardless. There’s a lot of young kids and a lot of young men that are out here rapping, making a living for themselves, and they don’t have to be on the street because they’re streaming records. They might not be all over the radio. They might not be all over television, or even at the top of rap caviar, but they’re still making a living for their children and their families and building generational wealth.

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