Dash, Damon 19(?)(?)–
Damon Dash 19(?)(?)–
Record producer, executive
When rap surpassed country to become the third-best-selling music genre after R&B and rock in 1998, a spotlight was cast on rap-industry executives. “It’s become part of the hip-hop culture now to become a business mogul,” L. Londell McMillan, an entertainment attorney, told Black Enterprise. Unlike other music genre executives, those in the business of rap and hip-hop were quick to sell not just records, but to market a culture. With a diverse spread of film interests, a successful clothing line, and other marketing tie-ins, in addition to backing multi-platinum records, Damon Dash has become one of music’s most prominent moguls. As CEO of Roc-A-Fella Records, the Roc-A-Fella film division, and the Roc-A-Wear clothing line, “I’m a millionaire after taxes,” Dash said in an interview with Black Enterprise.
Though he was raised in Harlem, Dash was a scholarship student for a time at the South Kent School in Connecticut. He got his start in the entertainment business at age 19, when he and his cousin, Darian Dash, started Dash Entertainment, an artist-management company. After finding record company executives uninterested in their artists or ideas, the pair, frustrated, quit the business.
Roc-A-Fella’s most prominent artist has emerged in Brooklyn-raised rapper Jay-Z. Dash met struggling rapper Jay-Z after the dissolution of Dash Entertainment, and the two became fast friends. Dash became the rapper’s manager, but couldn’t get him signed to a record deal. Finally, they decided they had “better insight” into how to market urban music and style, according to writer Charles Whitaker in Ebony. “We knew that people liked our music and were imitating our style, the way we dressed,” Dash told Ebony. “So from the start we said we wanted a company that would promote that urban culture to a mass audience.” They wanted to do it all—music, clothes, film—and believed they could do it better than a lot of the competition.
So Dash, Jay-Z, and third partner Kareem “Biggs” Burke put their money together, pressed some records on their own, and secured a distribution deal, launching Roc-A-Fella Records in 1995. After the independent album went gold, selling 500,000 copies, the same record companies that had turned down Dash and Jay-Z were eager to do business with them. “When record companies were first courting us, they came to me with the nigga
At a Glance…
Born and raised in Harlem, NY.
Career: Founded Dash Entertainment with cousin Darien Dash at age 19; founded Roc-A-Fella record label partnership with Kareem “Biggs” Burke, Jay-Z, and Def Jam Records, 1995; started Roc-A-Wear clothing line and Roc-A-Fella Films, 1998; produced Jay-Z’s Hard Knock Life… Volume 2, 1999; produced Streets Is Watching film and Backstage documentary; organized Hard Knock Life tour with Jay-Z, Redman, DMX, and Method Man, 1999.
deal where they make you think you own a label and you really don’t,” Dash told Black Enterprise. “I wanted a joint venture because I knew I was going to be successful and the equity would be worth something down the line.” In most joint-venture arrangements, major labels retain more power, but Dash finally struck a joint-venture deal with Def Jam Records in which Roc-A-Fella owns one-half the master tapes of all recordings. Since its start, Roc-A-Fella Records has produced eight albums that have earned either gold or multi-platinum status.
Dash also was not going to give away the upper hand in setting up his and Jay-Z’s clothing line, Roc-A-Wear. Rather than license the name to a manufacturer, he found a New York manufacturer who would go into business 50-50 with him. “I may not know how to manufacture and design clothing but I have a brand that I can bring to it,” Dash told Black Enterprise. Though many Jay-Z fans could be seen sporting Roc-A-Wear gear, “It’s been more about the clothes and the quality than the artist,” Dash said in an interview with USA Today. “People look at the clothes as being good clothes, as opposed to being Jay-Z’s line. That might have gotten their curiosity going, but it’s not that easy. You have to make quality clothes to stay in the business.” That said, Dash admitted that a lower-level artist than Jay-Z might not have been able to launch a successful clothing line. He told USA Today that only a few artists “are influential enough and business savvy enough to make it lucrative for them.”
The line was targeted at males between 14 and 30 years old, and included men’s clothes in the $23 to $600 price range; kids clothes ran from $15 to $60. The clothes were predominantly denim, with a selection of T-shirts, sweatshirts, sweaters, jackets, leather, and accessories. After launching in 1999, Roc-A-Wear reportedly did $100 million in sales in 2000, putting it in competition with Def Jam-founder and rival Russell Simmons’s Phat Farm line, as well as more high-profile lines by such designers as Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger. Dash also planned a women’s Roc-A-Wear line.
Dash road-tested the Roc-A-Fella brand name in 1999, with the “Hard Knock Life” tour, a 50-city, large arena tour headlined by Jay-Z, and featuring Redman, DMX, and Method Man. Though he encountered resistance because of the perceived threat of violence at the events, Dash researched every detail and the tour was notable for its lack of incidents among fans and performers. The artists played to mostly sold-out crowds, and the tour broke rap-genre records for ticket sales. The tour reportedly grossed over $13.7 million, ranking it at Number Ten in sales for the first half of 1999.
Despite having to fight for attention as an unknown film producer in the Hollywood establishment, Dash launched Roc-A-Fella Films in 1998. Dash’s goal with the production company was to create urban films that did not glorify sex and violence, but illustrated the consequences of his character’s actions. Dash turned out two reasonably successful straight-to-video films—Streets Is Watching, the semi-autobiographical movie based on Jay-Z’s songs, and the concert documentary Backstage, which went behind the scenes of the “Hard Knock Life” tour.
Boston Globe critic Loren King called Backstage a “gritty and freewheeling documentary.” The film follows the artists of the “Hard Knock Life” tour with a “raw, behind-the-scenes peek that strips away preconceptions (often stereotypical and judgmental) about the rappers,” King wrote, “revealing the drive, brains, anger, pain, and humanity of the urban hip-hop scene.” New York Times critic Elvis Mitchell wrote that the film captures the “standard life of revelry and exhaustion” that is typical of concert music, as well as “the performers’ awareness of the way rappers are perceived.” Mitchell summed up: “Backstage isn’t as good as the rap documentaries Rhyme and Reason and The Show, but it still casts a keen, observant eye (even though video fatigue sets in) on this world.”
Dash’s ambition and business acumen has helped him succeed in a variety of endeavors. As a producer and founder of his own record label, Dash has earned the title of music mogul, and, with his forays into fashion and film, he has brought hip-hop culture to a wider audience. But perhaps his greatest achievement still lies ahead.
Black Enterprise, December 1999, p. 78.
Boston Globe, September 6, 2000, p. D6.
Ebony, January 2001, p. 32.
New York Times, September 6, 2000, p. E5.
USA Today, August 29, 2001, p. D10.
All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (August 3, 2001).
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