Put your hands in the air. On each hand, align your fingers so there’s no space between them. Then stretch your thumbs as far away from your index fingers as possible. Connect the two resulting right angles at the thumbs and fingertips. You have just formed The Diamond, the symbol of the ultimate expression of street-corner acumen graduated to big business: The Roc, the rap-music dynasty, Roc-A-Fella Records. For 10 years, while cofounder Jay-Z became arguably the greatest MC of all-time, his partners, Damon Dash and Kareem “Biggs” Burke, made sure the platinum rhymes turned into platinum cards.
In 1997, Jay, Dame and Biggs entered into a joint venture with Def Jam, selling the corporate giant half of their company for $1.5 million. Summer after summer, the hits kept coming, with bags of cash following closely behind. “Diamonds are forever” seemed a fitting motto. But in 2002, murmurs started surfacing of a rift between the principals. While Jay was out of the country on vacation, Dame anointed Cam’ron, an old Harlem running mate, Roc-A-Fella VP. When Jay returned, he vetoed the move. In 2003, Jay signed a sneaker deal with Reebok—in apparent competition with the Roc’s own Rocawear clothing line—and retired from rapping. There were disputes at Roc-A-Fella over signings and staffing. Talk of a split got so intense, Dame made a movie, Death of a Dynasty, spoofing the situation.
Still, it shocked the world this past January when Jay accepted Island Def Jam head L.A. Reid’s offer to become president of the label that made rap famous. Reid bought out the rest of Roc-A-Fella and handed it completely over to Jay. Along with the name, the rapper-turned-suit inherited top-seller Kanye West, Memphis Bleek and the Young Gunz. The famously loud-mouthed Dame was left out in the cold.
But Dame’s still hot. In fact, he’s emerging bigger than ever. He still runs the hugely lucrative Rocawear. He just bought the Pro-Keds sneaker line. He’s established himself in Hollywood, executive producing critically acclaimed films like Paid in Full (2002) and last year’s The Woodsman, and he’s recently made forays into the world of boxing. Meanwhile, in the music biz, he’s pulled off an unprecedented coup. Having formed the Damon Dash Music Group (DDMG), with Biggs still at his side, he negotiated a separate joint venture with Reid, one that gives him the power to grant artists of his choosing label deals. Under DDMG will be Beanie Sigel (“and,” according to Dame, “whoever he says State Property is”); RZA, who will produce the posthumous ODB album in the Wu-Tang name; Nore’s Militainment; M.O.P.; Blackhand Records; and producer Seven Aurelius’ Dream Factory.
Haters will hate, doubters will doubt—that’s what they do. After all, if you separate your handmade Roc-A-Fella diamond, all you’ll have are two L’s. But don’t expect Dame Dash to be fazed. As XXL learned when we caught up with him recently at his executive offices in Times Square, with or without you know who, he remains the same ol’ Dame—bold, brash and talking fast. And losing is not in his vocabulary.
What was your initial reaction to Jay’s keeping the Roc-A-Fella name?
I was shocked at the Roc-A-Fella shit. Shocked. I’m sure in his heart it sits well, but it didn’t make sense to me. I was like, “It’s aight to go do your own thing, but I don’t agree with the fact that they offered you the name to keep.” And he was like, “They bought it, they could do what they want with it.” And I was like, “Aight,” and just left it at that. Like, You wanna be away from the Roc-A-Fella rap, that’s cool. I asked him, “How you gonna take the name?” He said, “Because they offered it to me.”
And that’s cool?
You gotta ask him. Then he was like, “You can get the name if you give me…” Like he was negotiating with us. I never negotiated with my friends.
Jay was gonna sell the name back to you?
If we gave him the masters for Reasonable Doubt, he’d let us keep Roc-A-Fella. At first I was like, Aight. But Biggs was like, “Nah. That’s not right.” You gotta call it the way you see it. I’m not gonna judge it.
I’m assuming you’re leaving it for the public to judge?
I’m quite sure if you ask him, there’s a way to make that [sound] right. I’m curious to see what his answer would be. But what he told me was, “Yo, shit took its course. They offered it to me.”
How does that happen? I mean, did things get twisted personally or with business?
For real: I don’t understand what’s going on with Jay. To this day, don’t understand it. I never understood it. Me and this nigga never had an argument, ever! Not one. We never had no animosity, nothing. I just never got it.
Wow. When was the last time y’all spoke?
Today. I mean, we still got business together. Like, I went to his birthday party. He came to my daughter’s birthday... I mean, you really have to ask Jay about the way he feels about what he’s doing. I’m doing what I always was doing: fighting for my artists, trying to acquire businesses and making money. I’m the same Dame Dash I was 10 years ago. One thing muthafuckas will always say is that I’m consistent. I’ve always liked myself, so it ain’t nothing for me to change really.
For those who don’t understand, explain exactly what the Damon Dash Music Group is.
I’ve been running a label for the last 12 years. And I’m the kind of guy that likes to have some kind of progression, some kind of evolution, set a precedent for the culture. I was like, If I’m going to continue to be in the music business—and it being probably the least profitable venture that I’m involved in—I could do something that made a little bit of a difference. So I figured I would give label deals instead of giving regular record deals. Another reason for that is, when you own a label, you have to be very hands-on, from the creative part to the marketing to the business. And I’m doing so many different things, it would be hard for me to focus on a label the way I did at Roc-A-Fella. So I figured I could empower people that had their own movements and just kind of use the muscle that I have to get them where they need to go… Like, M.O.P., I love that they never sacrificed any of the integrity of they music to fit the format of radio or television, but they have this whole underground following. So, I felt like they are responsible enough to be at the forefront of their own movement. Then, Nore is at the forefront of the reggaeton movement in America. I felt like he should be the one to capitalize off it… I would love to just get a check. Like L.A. Reid—when he fucks with me, all he gotta do is make sure I’m funded. And that’s it. I’m bringing him the music, the visuals, everything. All I really need is for him to make sure my shit gets serviced [to radio]. But other than that, it’s easy.
Did you have a relationship with L.A. prior to working out the deal for DDMG?
I mean, L.A. was like the only one in that building that was really supportive of me. A lot of people are scared of me; they don’t like the fact that if things aren’t going the way they should, I’m going to check ’em. And L.A.
wasn’t scared of that; he saw the genius. He also was in a position [at LaFace Records, with Babyface] where his partner was an artist and he was the brains, so he had compassion for the way things went.