Shakir Stewart: Def Jam’s New Hope (or, The Guy Replacing Jay-Z)

Last week it was formally announced that

Shakir Stewart is the new Executive Vice President of Def Jam. While

rumors had swirled for months after Jay-Z’s departure from his

Presidential duties, L.A. Reid and the team were already preparing

Stewart for his new role in managing the business day to day.Stewart

began his work at Def Jam in 2004 as VP of A&R for the label, and

was promoted to Senior VP of A&R in 2006. Shakir’s extensive

education and background in music marketing ranges from independent

promotions (working with the likes of Too $hort) and marketing to

publishing (he signed Beyoncé to her publishing deal at Hitco) He’s

also had his hand in the careers of some of the biggest names in

today’s music acts including Ciara, (whom he signed to LaFace during

his tenure there), Jeezy and Rick Ross.Stewart is now poised

with enthusiasm and an inspirational attitude to bring about some

creative growth at Def Jam. Will he be able to balance the marketing

plans for their diverse array of artists? How is he addressing those

artists who’ve been unhappy with their situations at the label? How

does he really feel about Nas’ latest marketing decisions? We asked, he You've definitely been exposed to

the independent scene with artists like Too $hort, [and] you've really

been able to see the evolution of Black music from that aspect. Now

that you're [managing] one of the few remaining major labels, how can

you apply the things that you know about the independent music to this

market today?Shakir Stewart: One of the main things from an

independent standpoint is being able to build a real foundation, a real

core fan base. I think from that standpoint, independents take more

time micromanaging on a ground level. We're a major, pumping out in

between 15 and 30 albums every six months to a year. We don't

have the time to necessarily micromanage in the same regards that an

independent would, but we still have to have that mentality as a major

that we have to turn over every stone and hit all of our bases, because

the game today is not what it was 15 to 20 years ago with independents.

Like you said, when Too Short started it was good and dangerous music.

“My main thing is to keep supporting the artists that have cultural relevance, a message, a real fanbase and that can touch the hearts of

men and women.”

You talk about artists and the label not really having the time to

micromanage. How can you achieve a balance in the amount of promotion

[support] that the label is able to give these artists when they're out

promoting for themselves as well? Are you encouraging them?Shakir

Stewart: Oh yeah, you gotta understand we put out more Hip-Hop albums

than pretty much any of our competition. We probably have the biggest

roster of Hip-Hop superstars, and we've successfully broken in what

we've done with Jeezy and Rick Ross since they began. As a label we're

a machine, and accustomed to pumping out a lot of albums, so really

it's about us sitting down and dealing with each artist individually,

and giving them a plan in addition to their own plans. Today's

rappers are not just waiting for us as the label to roll out their

records per se, they're dropping their own records, starting their own

street campaigns, getting their buzz going regionally as well as

nationally. Our job is to work side by side with them to enhance what

they do, and then for them to come in and be a part of the plan that

we're devising for them and with. What would

you say throughout your career is the best lesson that you've learned

that you can actually apply in this market with our recession and the

fallout of the old school [way of business]? Shakir Stewart:

It all boils down to the music and the artists, and in accepting this

position and being extremely well-versed in this genre of music and

what we're trying to build. My main thing is to keep supporting the

artists that have cultural relevance, a message, a real fanbase and

that can touch the hearts of men and women. Now when you look at it,

even though majors are becoming smaller, you see more people with

record deals and opportunities on a major than ever—on a major label as

well as an independent label, because artists nowadays don't

necessarily have to [have] or need a label to get it started or get

their buzz going. A lot of these artists are breaking their

records off of Myspace and the internet, so my main thing is as many

artists are out there day to day all over the world, to continue being

affiliated and associated with what I feel are the best artists out

with the best message. My commitment is to the artists of quality music

and talent. You've definitely been able to

bring in some winners through your A&R career, you've had some very

big successes. What is some advice you would pass down to your A&R

reps as they're out looking for new acts?Shakir Stewart:

Interesting. I think to always sign music and view artists that touch

you in your gut, in your heart and soul, because we as A&R people

gain power and success as we empower other people. When I first met

Young Jeezy, he had a buzz on the streets of Atlanta, but no one knew

him around the country. Keep in mind I signed Jeezy during the early

transition of L.A. [Reid] and I entering the building and the prior

regime exiting the building. It was a very interesting time from Jeezy

and his camp to our new camp, we all had to depend on each other. With

the success that we've had with Jeezy as an example of that, it's just

a matter of believing in somebody and their message and sticking with

them. My advice to A&R people is get an artist that you believe in

and champion the artist in the building and outside of the building. At

these labels you need that internal support. There are a lot of

meetings that happen with the artists and their management not there,

and they need that voice inside to speak on behalf of them the correct

way. I really have a lot of advice for A&R people out here.

That's refreshing to hear. A lot of people complain about A&Rs not

doing their job or that they're fake and rotating chairs, but there are

some A&Rs in this industry that have really revolutionized what

kind of music comes out. Shakir Stewart: The A&R position

has more to it than finding a beat or hooking up a writer with a

producer, it's developing the entire vision with the artist and with

the artist's management team or production company. Really the first

sale after the studio is to sell it to the staff, and that's what I

learned in my early days as an A&R. You have to have your marketing

people, your publicity department, your media department, your radio

department; they have to believe it because if people don't believe on

that assembly line, the ball will be dropped. Your job is not over

after you turn in the single and master an album. You have to work your

project in the building so the machine gets it.

“My A&R staff which I'm extremely happy about and I feel is one of the strongest in the business... We're putting out albums from Nas, LL Cool J, Jeezy, Ludacris, Fabolous, Ghostface Killah, Redman & Method

Man, we're working all the way around the board.”

There has been some rumbling amongst artists that are still signed to

the label from old contracts and regimes that either want out [of their contracts] or they want their albums out. Are you going through a

process of reviewing those artists and figuring out what to do with

each one?Shakir Stewart: Yes, since Jay's unexpected departure

L.A. [Reid] and I sat down and talked, and it was a matter of coming in

and embracing everybody and us doing that together. We have a roster of

80 to 100 people, and maybe even more than that when you look at the

Island Def Jam/Mercury Music Group and the Island/So So Def Music Group

- we have a lot of artists that we have signed to us. My job

is to support the efforts of my chairman and my partner, and come in

and work with the artists who needed it the most at that time. Those

two artists were Nas and LL Cool J, artists whose albums have been

completed and we're putting out. That's an honor for me because these

are artists [whose careers] I've watched from day one. I remember

buying "I Cant Live Without My Radio," "I Need Love" and "Rock The

Bells" from LL, and Nas' Illmatic when that first came out. To

be able to be a part of their careers now and work hand in hand with

them in creating their albums now…this is [probably] Nas' most

anticipated and controversial album ever. From my standpoint

it's a matter of dealing with everybody, some artists need more

attention than others. With my A&R staff which I'm extremely happy

about and I feel is one of the strongest in the business, we're doing

that. We're putting out albums from Nas, LL Cool J, Jeezy, Ludacris,

Fabolous, Ghostface Killah, Redman & Method Man, we're working all

the way around the board. Obviously some of the names that I

mentioned were not always happy with change, but anytime you have

change like that you have to take the time to sort it out and assemble

the team, and that's what I've been doing, what L.A. has been doing

and what our entire Def Jam staff has been doing.

I'm sure everybody has got to be excited about that, and that's a good

thing. It's hard to hear an artist who's been in the business for 10-15

years be really upset, much less someone like LL who's been in it for

25 years. It's a little disheartening for Hip-Hop. Shakir

Stewart: I respect LL for voicing his opinion. I believe in the freedom

of speech. If you feel a certain way, speak on it. But now that we're

actively working on a new LL album, and obviously he's talked in the

press, I would want people to talk to LL now. "How do you feel? What's

going on?" It's still a process, but I feel LL Cool J's

excited. I talk to him daily. I think my team speaks to him daily and

[the fans should love] the music we're putting out with him. They'll be

happy with the music and product that LL Cool J has given them on his

13th album. You have to applaud him on that.

“From a business standpoint certain changes had to be made in order to sell the product... It's still a business for Nas, and it's still a business

for Def Jam Recordings. So what we had to do was change our strategy.”

You mentioned that you've been hand in hand with Nas. L.A. [Reid] has

been very vocal about supporting the decisions that Nas has made with

this album. Now that you're going into the final stretch with the

marketing, how do you feel about the way that the package is being

presented to the public? Do you feel that Nas is making the right

decisions, that the label is right there with him or that there's been

a tug of war with that?Shakir Stewart: I use the word

“strategy.” I think Nas always comes up with concepts and thematic

albums, and I think that he had a lot on his mind with not only the

state of America but of the world today. He feels that people have been

treated a certain way and this is the album to address the issues. I

and we stand in support of Nas. Now, from a business standpoint certain

changes had to be made in order to sell the product, because it's still

a business for Nas, and it's still a business for Def Jam Recordings.

So what we had to do was change our strategy. Nas "Black President"I

think as people see the rollout in the next three to four weeks [they]

will understand it, and I think that first and foremost Nas' message

and the substance he has in what he's saying…once people really listen

and get engaged in the music it will all make sense. But from my

standpoint especially stepping into this, I stand in full support of

Nas, and I think that when people finally hear the music and really

take the time and listen to the message, I think that it will be not

only extremely entertaining, but very educational. I think that's

needed not just even in the world of music, but in general.Nas "Hero" Will fans be seeing another Jay-Z album out of Def Jam?Shakir

Stewart: [laughs] That's the question they all wanna know. As of now

Jay-Z is still a Def Jam recording artist and we have an incredible

relationship with Jay-Z. That's all I can speak on in reference to

that, because there's business at hand that can't be discussed. But

we're still in business with Jay-Z as of What are some of the immediate plans you have for yourself?Shakir

Stewart: It's interesting because [last week] marks the day that it

went out to the public. I've been actively taking on the tasks and

responsibilities that come with this role almost since our first day

back to work January 3rd. My main thing is to keep the transition

smooth. First and foremost I want to make sure my artists, their

managers and their own teams are comfortable with the transitions, and

that people are getting the type of attention that they need when

deemed necessary. So that when they have their music ready, they need

to be rolled out and get their marketing plans together, our team is

ready. More than anything what I'm happy about is, I believe

in the Def Jam team. I believe in the people that work for the company

now, and I feel that they're the best in the business. They're prepared

so when an artist comes in, may it be Juelz Santana or Chrisette

Michelle or Method Man & Redman, when they bring great music to the

door, we're prepared to give them the best rollout possible and to

fully support them. So my transition would be a lot more hectic and

difficult if the team wasn't as oiled up for lack of a better analogy

as it is now. So that helps my job, as well as L.A.'s job, because we

as one are functioning like a real team and a real unit and that's

important. More than anything what I want people to understand about me is, I'm pro

the artist. I'm for keeping the brand culturally relevant globally,

coming in and being a part [from any standpoint] with a company that's

had this type of history, recognition and respect is a huge honor and a

challenge. I'm up to it, I'm a fan of the music and artists and I'm

just passionate about it so I'm just ready to go.