We’ve all seen this go down. Rap Internet’s peanut gallery froths at the mouth, both mirth and rage fill a tight space of 140 characters, and predictions only fit for a weatherman are made. O’ praise Yeezus, for it has happened—the tracklist for an anticipated project has been released. On such a sanctimonious occasion, commentators are generally fixated on two things; who produced this and who’s featured on that. As far as producers go in this modern age: hitmakers are sought after, your frick and fracks are nearly joined at the hip, and wide-eyed up-and-comers mostly e-mail beats around, hoping their track gets picked above and beyond the rest. The paperwork comes later. The logistics of how feature verses come together are more opaque. As a rule of thumb, every situation is unique, but generally (should) touch a few of the same bases.
Perhaps the most fabled feature artist since hip-hop’s inception, Lil Wayne, once said he gets paid $100k on average per feature and wouldn’t hop in the booth for less than $75k, even for his sister. Blood is in fact, not thicker than a hot 16. Current guest verse trailblazer, 2 Chainz has a going rate of $100k as well. The question remains, do rappers really get paid that much money to spit 16 bars and maybe donate a hook? Well yes, and no.
The rate for a verse from a superstar rapper can absolutely rival the price of a decent suburban home, but that amount doesn’t go straight into Rapper X’s Chase banking account (or duffle bag). This amount gets divided up between the artist’s label and management. The percentages depend on the artists’ record contract, which also stipulates if the rapper is even allowed to record features in the first place.
The origins of the guest verse and its coupling with contracts can be traced back to how record companies dealt with rock and jazz musicians decades ago. Something called the “sideman clause” was created. Steve Gordon, entertainment lawyer and author of The Future of the Music Business, says the sideman clause is a provision in a record company contract that allows musicians to make extra money by appearing on another musician’s album. If an artist doesn’t have a sideman clause provision written into their contract, it can be difficult for them to legally record and release a guest spot for a song.
“The standard agreement says this: All master recordings made during the term of the agreement belong exclusively to the record company. It’s very broad,” Gordon says. “The issue is whether the artist has the right to even do the feature. If they don’t, then there’s a problem with using that new recording.”
Once a rapper signs a contract, they’re technically not supposed to make a record for another company, and if they do—and pretty much everyone does—their label owns the master recordings. This is where having an entertainment lawyer is key. Gordon says lawyers should conceivably be involved in the process from its very inception, especially if the artists on the project are on different labels.
Once a rapper signs a contract, they’re technically not supposed to make a record for another company, and if they do their label owns the master recordings.
When a rapper lends a guest verse to an artist that is on a different label, lawyers representing both the artist and the label negotiate and draft up a one to two page contract stating the terms in which the song can be used and how residuals and publishing are divided. Also, the label receives a credit in the liner notes of an album. Gordon says as far as paid features for major artists go, he’s seen bills that range from $50K to $250K, up front, no royalties.
Of course, lawyers can be an afterthought, as rappers have the propensity to lack knowledge or business savvy. Others are unsigned or independent and have less red tape to wade through. This can lead to unpaid features.
A common occurrence for independent and unsigned rappers alike, says Andrew Fechter, A&R at RCA Records is the “swap.” This is when rappers trade verses with one another, free of charge. Swaps happen all the time, but Fechter says they’re scarce with major label artists, because “most likely the label wants to be compensated for their artists.” Independent rappers, he said, can charge at their own volition. So that’s anywhere between free, a swap, and $100K.
A common occurrence for independent and unsigned rappers alike, says Andrew Fechter, A&R at RCA Records is the “swap.” This is when rappers trade verses with one another, free of charge.
Vince Chapa, manager to independent artists, The World Famous Tony Williams, Snow Tha Product, Blue, The Misfit, A.Dd+, and Sam Lao says when considering whether or not a sort of pro-bono feature occurs, there are generally two variables at play. “Either you have something you can offer them,” he says, “or you have a strong enough relationship with the artists or their camp.” Both Fechter and Chapa stressed that relationships are key in the music industry. And that is from actually getting guest verses to happen, to determining how much the labor is worth.
Feature verses on hip-hop records are a main component of the genre. You can’t go an entire album or mixtape without two or three at the bare minimum. Much like your favorite rapper’s career, they’re simultaneously an act of artistic expression and a gallant effort to get dis money. They’re carte blanche affairs. I mean, it is a music business after all.