The label was started by Matthew F. Jacobson in August, 1990 in his parents' basement in Aurora, Colorado with the guidance of his good friend and mentor Kevin Kopp. The first two releases on the label were 7”s by the hardcore bands Velcro Overdose and Face of Decline, closely followed by three bands which would become amongst the biggest on the label, Deceased, Suffocation and Incantation.
After this, Matt Jacobson became acquainted with William Yurkiewicz Jr., who became his partner in the record label. Yurkiewicz had founded his own record label, which was soon to release albums from the bands General Surgery, Disrupt, Destroy, Misery and Exit-13. The two joined forces to create Relapse Records, aiming to release high quality professionally packaged extreme music.
In 1992, the label was expanded with the creation of its subsidiary label called Release Entertainment, which specializes in experimental, ambient, industrial and noise titles.
In October 2006, Relapse Records became the first record label to launch its own branded 'search and win' engine which allows fans to do internet searches while giving them a chance to win exclusive prizes.