Def Jam Records – whats wrong?
Several Def Jam artists such as Nas, Ghostface, LL Cool J, Redman have publicly criticized LA Reid and Island/Def Jam staff. The disgruntled employees have voiced their concerns about underpromtion, mishandling of budgets & lack of direction amongst other problems. Is this criticism fair?
In 1994/95 Def Jam was close to folding. It merged with Polygram and in 1998 Russel Simmons & Rick Rubin sold some more of their shares to Polygram. Before Lyor Cohen was even in the industry he was a financial analyst at the National Bank Of Israel in Beverly Hills. After leaving to become road manager for various acts at Rush Associated Labels, he was promoted to President of Def Jam in 1999.
His no nonsense approach to business made him many enemies – but also earned him the respect of many, as Def Jam became a powerhouse. He worked with like minded individuals such as Irv Gotti, Dame Dash, Dee from Ruff Ryders and to a certain extent, Chris Lighty.
The marketing department along with the A&R’s and managers were able to create characters with easily identifiable images/personas.
At Def Jam you had:-
Jay-Z – the slick hustler
Redman – the fun lovin weed smoker
DMX – The macho anti-hero from the streets
Foxy Brown – the sexy, loose tounged street chick
Ja Rule – the sensitive thug
That era of Def Jam was marketed as “aggressive content”. They would use phrases such as Hard Knock Life, Survival Of The Fittest etc.
Whilst labels of the day such as Bad Boy, No Limit, Cash Money et al balled to their hearts content, Def Jam was the alternative to that sound & lifestyle.
What we’re seeing with Atlantic is similar to what we used to see with Def Jam. Artists with easily identifiable personas such as T.I, Maino, Wiz Khalifa, B.O.B, Flo Rida – although the whole sound is different from Def Jam.
After Cohen and other execs left, the new Def Jam execs such as Jermaine Dupri, helped appoint Shakir Stewart as Vice President of Def Jam & merged HITCO with Def Jam. HITCO was a songwriting company home to the likes of Ne-Yo & The Dream. The company saw a shift in sales and sound with it’s RnB artists such as Rihanna, The Dream et al. (He also went on to sign Young Jeezy and Rick Ross.) Mariah Carey’s album – The Emancipation of Mimi went 7x Platinum.
Since Shakir passed away there has been very little investment in new talent – something that labels such as Atlantic & Cash Money have been brilliant at doing. Atlantics street team & online team have been great at building awareness for their artists. I haven’t seen a Def Jam street team in years. Go out and talk to your fans – make some new ones.
A lot of established veterans have been signed to Def Jam in the past such as Jennifer Lopez, Jadakiss, Big Boi, Sheek Louch, Fabolous etc. In my opinion, the labels edge has gone. The company looks scared to take risks, relying mostly on Rnb music & artists who were already established. This is in stark contrast to the Cohen era of Def Jam, which brought us new, edgy artists.