Jack White's Third Man Records Gets Into Rap Game With SHIRT's 'Pure Beauty'

The label’s first hip-hop act is currently pursuing his Master Fine Arts degree in Basel, Switzerland.

Jack White's record label Third Man Records is getting into the hip-hop game, issuing its first-ever rap release this month with SHIRT's Pure Beauty.

While the label isn't exactly a stranger to the world rap — having collaborated in the past on releases by acts that span the genre as widely as Insane Clown Posse to JAY-Z — SHIRT, a New York-based artist currently pursuing his Master Fine Arts degree in Basel, Switzerland, is its first hip-hop signee. SHIRT's record is available Friday (Feb. 9) digitally, with a physical release coming on Feb 23.

The team-up was a perfect fit: The Nashville label says it wanted to move into hip-hop for years, while SHIRT tells Billboard he welcomed the financial support.

“I was thinking about the JAY-Z line from “Moonlight”], 'Y'all niggas still signing deals? For real?' It's funny cause when 4:44 dropped, I loved the power in that line. Not JAY power but the power he was trying to instill in artists like me. But I realized he's only able to say stuff like that after having record deals and partnerships his whole career. I gotta get there. I need some help. Honestly having a little team is a breath fresh air,” the rapper tells Billboard. “There's also a financial element. Record labels operate like a bank and can loan out what you need to make certain things happen. It's funny when artists are put on these pedestals when it seems they've 'stayed independent.' That usually only means they have financial and/or marketing backing another kind and don't need those services from a label. I don't care about the different ways people get to work in that context. I just pay attention to what will allow me to do what I have to do.”

Third Man Records co-founder and director operations Ben Blackwell says, “We had been wanting to do a hip-hop record — an original] hip-hop record, by an artist actually signed to Third Man — for a while, but it took this long because we had been waiting for the right record, to be perfectly honest. One our employees at Third Man was a big fan SHIRT and he had brought him up in the past whenever we would have discussions about artists we should keep an eye on to possibly sign]. One day he saw a post from SHIRT on social media, basically announcing, 'Hey, I'm about to drop this new record.' It sounded like he was just going to put it on Soundcloud or something, so we reached out to him and let him know that we were interested in his music. It was basically, 'This is Third Man, can we listen to the new album before it goes up? Maybe we can do something with you, like release it on vinyl?' He was excited to hear that we were interested in his work and we were able to hash out a deal pretty quickly.'

With this being the first rapper signed on to produce original music for Third Man, it will also mark the first time the label has had to work on getting airplay on rap radio. That remains an intimidating enough prospect for even those with record companies located in rap strongholds, let alone a rookie independent label out Nashville. Third Man will be looking toward their recent forays into country music, especially their relationship with country artist Margo Price, to guide their approach with SHIRT's music to urban stations.

“The radio game is increasingly less and less important,” Blackwell says. “Country radio still doesn't play Margo and we're located within the home country music, yet she's still been extremely well received by country music fans. I feel that, with the way everyone has access to music through streaming these days, radio is the last thing to come into play for any true successful artist. It's behind the times, it's slow to react and we see it all the time. In the grand scheme things, if everything falls into place and is firing on all cylinders, radio will come. Pushing radio as one the primary goals right out the gate when signing a new artist]? I just don't see the need for that.”

Blackwell adds: “We can take all the knowledge that we gained through working on Margo's two records here and apply it in regards to where focus should be applied with SHIRT]. I'm not ignorant, I know that there is very little about the country/Americana radio world crosses over to hip hop, but there are general ways to operating in getting the word out. That's kind the main thing now, with SHIRT, just getting the word out on Pure Beauty and letting people know about it.”

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