I always thought it was interesting that with all of the discussion about Jay-Z taking over the helm at Def Jam, that there was so little talk about how odd it was that J was picked for that post and not Damon Dash. Wasn’t Dame the ‘sword’ of the ROC, the business yin to Jay’s creative yang? Nas’s proclamation on “Ether” that Jay-Z was Biggie to Dame‘s Puffy was hurled as an insult but contained much more than a kernel of truth.
Even though he would hate to admit it, Damon Dash is a Hip-Hop executive molded more after Sean Combs than Russell Simmons. Flamboyant, abrasive, unabashedly capitalistic and more than a touch of repressed artist, made oh so clear by his face time in Roc-A-Fella videos. To Dame’s credit, outside of a few skits his vocal contributions to Roc-A-Fella Records were few and far in between. This may be more attested to the fact that Dame never wore the hat of producer as Puffy did/does.
So how is it that when Roc-A-Fella sells its remaining equity to the Def Jam behemoth Dame is not granted the executive post? Was he not interested? Did he resent the sale altogether? Did Jay and/or Biggs force his hand? Was he burnt out? Possibly. I believe that the position was simply not offered to him. By buying the Roc-A-Fella brand and its catalog and keeping the golden goose from jumping ship to Warner Bros with Lyor Cohen, Def Jam got to have its cake and eat it too. What made it sweeter was the ability to separate Biggie from Puffy or Jay from Dame. You get the talent, the inspirational leader, the best MC in the game (retired or not) and you leave the shark behind. Now it is important that I preface this hypothesis with a generous dose of humility. I was not privy to any inside discussions. This is simply my opinion that is wide open to criticism.
There is no doubt that Damon Dash is an effective leader, inspiring entrepreneur and a man whose name will be recorded in the Hip-Hop Archives. He is much more than a one trick pony. Although other Roc artists have not generated sales anywhere near Jay, Freeway, Beanie Siegel, Cam’ron and Kanye have produced excellent and very profitable albums. This is to take nothing away from him as a business or an individual. I write this to make the point that nice guys usually finish first. The tough as nails, in your face leader is disproportionately lauded in Hip-Hop while the quiet leader is too often overlooked.
There have long been rumblings that the powers that be at Def Jam have wanted to separate Jay from Dame. This has as much to do with Def Jam’s corporate greediness as with the victims Dame has left in his wake. His direct management style is highly effective in the short term, but I question its long term survival rate. I like to call people with that management style, “sharks.” They never rest and are always out for the kill. If they do not have fresh blood in their system they feel they are not doing their job. While Dame’s flamboyant nature is modeled after Puff, his shark nature is modeled after former Def Jam ruler and current Warner big dog Lyor Cohen.
It is no secret that Lyor ruled Def Jam with an iron fist. And he got results. I once witnessed one of his mythical tirades in the old Def Jam offices on Varick Street. At the tim,e one of the members of Def Jam’s in house design team, The Drawing Board, was doing some freelance work for our group at the time, The Unspoken Heard. It was about a week away from Christmas, and we were finishing the artwork for their second single. I came by at the end of the day to tweak an image or two. It just so happens that this was also the day of the year end Def Jam staff meeting. After about an hour of Photoshop work an unidentified employee whizzed by the office with an announcement, “Lyor wants everybody in the conference room.” There was brief acknowledgement but no call to action. We continued to make sure my name was spelled on the credits. Ten minutes later, employee #2 pokes a head and in an exasperated breath calls, “Yo, Lyor wants everybody in there now!” and disappears. This was greeted with a decision to wrap up my impromptu design meeting to reconvene after the meeting. About 90 seconds, the six foot Israeli general of Def Jam stepped into the office and boomed, “I THOUGHT I TOLD YOU MOTHERF***ERS TO GET IN THE GOD***N CONFERENCE ROOM!”
Never again in my life have I ever seen grown men move so fast. In ten seconds, the entire Drawing Board office was abandoned. I may have gotten a ‘Peace Wes’ before I was left to my own devices. Honestly, I was so shook that I can’t remember. I was more concerned about being tossed out by security for improperly visiting the kingdom of Lyor. By the time I realized what happen, I was all alone in the office with over six figures of equipment and mock-up of the original Belly artwork as well as the [then] top secret new DMX artwork. If I wasn’t such a righteous individual my wife would have had a much better Christmas that year. Instead I gathered my Rawkus record bag and my Unspoken Heard proofs, and walked to the A Train. There was no security, no receptionist, not a single warm body to let me out. They were giving their rapt attention to their CEO. A lot of people talk about power and respect, but that day I saw more than that from Lyor. I saw fear.
That style, because of its ability to turn immediate and tangible results, was adopted in various ways by many a Def Jam disciple such as Chris Lighty, Dante Ross and Mr. Dash. I believe it was also so wantonly adopted because it is so cinematic. It is how Tony Montana or a Deniro character would run a label, if such a thing were possible. It also mirrors the style of the street pharmaceutical entrepreneur, or penitentiary veteran that is so lauded in Hip Hop culture. Very American. Might makes right.
The only problem is that style fails more than it succeeds. It earns much respect, but even more enemies. Every person that is strong armed or disrespected on the way up is just waiting for you to fall off your horse. And by parting ways with Jay it would appear that Dame has fallen off his horse. The other problem with the strong arm mentality is that there are not many Lyor Cohens who can consistently battle and defeat the various enemies and detractors. We will now see if Dame will prosper like Chris Lighty or fall into oblivion like Dave Gosset (Who the hell is that you ask?-exactly. He was Black Sheep and Vanilla Ice’s A&R. He faded away after a poor decision to deride artist demos on a lackluster posse cut on Black Sheep’s second album.)
This is also not a Jay-Z puff piece as I have serious concerns about how well Jay can handle this new responsibility. There is no doubt that he was the heart and soul of Roc-A-Fella and without a doubt the single most important artist in Hip-Hop. Now I am not saying he is the best MC or the richest or anything Vibe or VH1 feels compelled to rank. (For the record KRS-ONE gets my vote as the greatest rapper of all time) Jay Z is simply the most important artist in Hip Hop history for several reasons.
One, his timing. He currently holds the crown. Just as whether you like George W or not he is the most important president in history because he is calling the shots NOW. He has the ability to send us to war, devalue the dollar or not. We have to deal with him respect his power.
Two, unlike any other rapper Jay understands how “the game” truly works. He appreciates moreso than any other artist how commerce, marketing, and diversification must co-exist with more traditional Hip-Hop values such as content, flow and beats. LL was the 1st to openly and successfully court the ladies. Jay does it better. Run DMC were the 1st to get into bed with a footwear company, but there were never a Run DMC designed line of shelltops. Biggie synthesized a non New York (we are usually tempted to say West Coast, but in actuality the NY sound is the adapted anomaly) sensibility with a NY flow, but he was murdered before he could see it through. Jay has perfected it.
Third, financially prudent rappers have made outside investments, but being part of the group that bought the Nets is real American big business. Bob Johnson had to sell his baby, BET, to join that club; Jay just needed to wait for the return on The Blueprint album.
Even though Jay has accomplished all of these things this does not spell success for his tenure as president of Def Jam. Running Def Jam will be quite different than running Roc-A-Fella, if that is in fact what he did at Roc-A-Fella. The budgets are larger. The staff is larger. The roster is larger, and more importantly the artists whose fate he now controls were his peers a short while ago. The politics are more complicated. There are more seasoned and dubious sharks in the water now. And just as Russell needed Rick then Lyor, although in much different capacities, maybe Jay needs Dame. Can Jay be the good cop when there is no bad cop that can even touch his personality and charisma? Can his hands off management style work in this new system. It will be interesting to see.
I believe that Jay is a figurehead. Now I do not mean that in a derogatory way at all. All great leaders are by definition figure heads. Queen Elizabeth doesn’t collect any taxes or bust any shots, but she and the myth of her title is a big part of why Brits pay their taxes and join the military. Def Jam itself is the product of the greatest figure head and inspirational leader Hip Hop has ever seen. The godfather, the archetype for the modern Hip Hop economy is Russell Simmons. As Alex Ogg writes in “The Men behind Def Jam” Russell admits that Def Jam did its best when he delegated authority to the right individuals and allowed them to enact his vision.
I believe that Jay’s tenure, for however long it lasts, will be modeled after the Godfather. Jay will not be asked to do much besides be himself. Be the larger than life, jet setting, trendsetting, fly girl on your arm leader that you are now and that Russell is/was. Inspire your roster and your subordinates to the greatness you have achieved on an artistic and financial level. Finance, Human Resources, Tax Compliance, Operations and all that other boring stuff about running a business will be delegated to the appropriate MBA’s, veterans and drones as necessary.
Until that formula is proven successful the question will remain; how important was Dame to the Roc’s success? I believe it is more than the public believes. Partly because the public loves dichotomy. Dame is mean. He screams on Kevin Liles while he gets his haircut. Jay just smiles and gets into the Phantom with Beyonce. The two of them have done much to fortify this image from the “Dead Presidents” video to “Backstage” to their roles in the underrated film State Property. I give Jay a 65-70% chance of success. I believe he will grow tired of the pure executive and will undoubtedly return to the mic or become distracted with other ventures long before this theory can be definitively proven. Dame will achieve moderate success with his new label, and other ventures. His highest chance of success I believe are in his film ventures. At the end of the day they will both prefer the old days to the new ones. Whether they try to bring back the magic of The Roc has a lot to do with money, timing and most importantly egos. Only time and will tell. Until then let the prognosticators prognosticate
Wes is the founder and owner of indie label and management company Seven Heads Entertainment as well as marketing and consulting firm Room Service Productions. An entrepreneur since 1995 Wes has worked with developing as well as established artists and labels. A graduate of the University of Virginia, and member of Omega Psi Phi Wes resides in Brooklyn with his wife and son.