Dame Dash Explains BluRoc Mission, Upholding Lifestyle In Independence, And Being A Candidate To Run Death Row Records
HipHopDX spent a day with the BluRoc team this month. Its famed CEO spoke about "taste and independence - without compromise," how the label began as an experiment, and why struggle helps.
"Go. Eat. Come on. None of that shit here... but you're respectful, and I appreciate that." This was my first interaction with Damon Dash, CEO of BluRoc Records. The iconic entertainment businessman stood in his kitchen, wearing a simple white tee shirt and yellow basketball shorts. He was motioning to a glass dining-room table covered with homemade cucumber salad, beef stew, delicious potato salad, couscous and more, all prepared by his label's VP-turned-artist McKenzie Eddy.
At 40 years old, Dame is the oldest person in the room, but not in spirit. Surrounded by staffers, family and media, the man who helped chisel the Roc in the '90s and '00s is as boisterous as ever. As we stared at the panoramic view of the green valley in the "Camp BluRoc" backyard, Dash reveals that he purchased this home, an hour out of New York City, quite some time ago. These days he comes here to think, to escape and to plot his upcoming ventures - including film, fashion and even motor oil.
It is immaculate inside and out, with abstract landscape paintings above the fireplace, landscaping and a swimming pool just steps outside of the basement recording studio. Downstairs, Da$h - Dame's 19 year-old nephew and BluRoc artist Sean O'Connell jam to some recent recordings, interspersed with Kendrick Lamar's Section.80.
Although Dame carries a reputation for his arrogance, the illustrious executive is beyond approachable. Reclined in a bean-bag, glimpsing incessantly between his iPhone and what's on the mounted television, Dash not only agrees to an impromptu interview - he suggests it. In that conversation with HipHopDX, a misunderstood mogul speaks about the value of loyalty, his union with a West Coast juggernaut in Murs, and why he will never compromise his taste or his quality.
Dame Dash Explains BluRoc Leadership Strategy
HipHopDX: As I speak to everybody here today, every one appears empowered. Hip Hop views you as an extremely powerful person. What have you learned about power, as far as giving it to those around you, and building something together?
Dame Dash: I just didn't want anyone to be dependent on me. If people think that the relationship is "you're the boss," then [they believe that] everything that they do happens because you're making it happen - and when things don't happen, then it becomes your fault as well. The process isn't as easy as people think. Because I'll only do business with people who are responsible and have respect, I think that, number one, I've got to be transparent. They've got to know everything that's going on. Number two, if I respect you equally [since] I'm doing business with you, so you can't work from me. You shouldn't have to ask me to go and do something, you should and make the decision you want. We're gonna have an emotional interest, and an equally-vested kind of business-interest. It's in my best interest to make sure he or she knows everything, and it's in his or her business to make sure I know everything. I don't really want to work so hard. You can never really have an equal relationship with someone unless you're their brother. Period.
DX: Is this communal approach something new, or something you've carried with you your whole career?
Dame Dash: I've always been like this. I've always put all my companies in one place. I don't like offices and I don't like lobbies. The thing I notice when I go to any major [label] or any corporate [company] is you go to a lobby then you go to another lobby and then you go to another lobby and then you might be in the person's office you want to speak to. I'd rather use those rooms for everything and everybody that's helping us be more independent, as opposed to sitting around and waiting.
DX: With all these young people around you, is there a quality that you look for in your staff? Passion? Loyalty? Respect?
Dame Dash: The thing about it is, I don't always know what I'm going to do. I did not know I was going to put out a McKenzie Eddy record when I hired her as an assistant in the beginning. I didn't know she was a singer when I hired her. But what happens in this environment, is if you have enough courage to have a dream to go ahead and really make it come true, I have enough power - because of my variance and the amount of time I've been in the business, to make connections happen. See, there are a lot of talented people in the world, but they don't know the business. They don't have the opportunity to get seen by everybody. Then, with me, no matter what, you'll be seen - by default. A lot of that is just because of the amount of time I've been [in the entertainment industry].
I'm [also] not stingy with my resources. See, what tends to happen is: I'll connect someone and put them in the right place and show them the business model and then they don't need me anymore. Then they go. It becomes a business decision. So what a lot of people do in this world is they hire their connects, so the person can't leave. I like to give my connects away so I can know the person, really, and know where the relationship is at.
When you can make people famous or make them rich, everyone's gonna be nice to you. Everyone's gonna hang out with you. People laugh at my jokes till they get what they want.
DX: Even when they're not funny.
Dame Dash: [Laughs] A lot of the shit is not funny. [They'll laugh] until they don't need me anymore. That's better for me. I want you to get what you need, until you don't need me at all, and then let's see if we're still hanging out.
DX: At lunch, you made a joke about special effects in music videos, asking if somebody could do it. Then somebody replied that they knew a person who could, and you asked for the contact. How much of the last two years, has been about that sort of improvisational approach to getting things bigger, and getting things done?
Dame Dash: Everything. We thought about [BluRoc] because I was trying to make a car, and it didn't work out. So someone was trying to buy Death Row [Records] and get me to run it - a hedge-fund. So I went to Woodstock, [New York] with McKenzie and [Raquel Horn], and we put together somewhat of a plan of what we could do. It took a lot of work. Then I said, "Fuck it. If we don't use it for [Death Row], we can use it for some other time, in the music business." That's when McKenzie starts giving me music and telling me about The Black Keys and all of a sudden we start to make lil' videos, and this website, and all these different characters were all around, talking about their dreams. We all corresponded.
I had no desire to get back in the music business at all. That's why we did BlakRoc independently. I came to make music. Once people get to make money from what you make a whole lotta tacky people start coming around - it fucks up the whole vibe. I've watched very creative people worry more about making other people money, or trying to fit a format that make other people money. Those people that do that pay someone to be cool, 'cause they're so corny. I've watched somebody so cool takin' orders from somebody corny, and it kills it. I'm telling you, I've seen it happen so many times.
DX: You've spoken about your vision and your plan. How much of that is mirrored in the music of BluRoc and DD172?
Dame Dash: Everything from DD172 is created in the spirit of what's going on.
DX: So that freedom and liberty, it's true of the business and the art...
Dame Dash: It's just monetizing the things you love, really - without compromise. McKenzie was like, "I want to do music." I was like, "Alright, we'll do a company and you'll run it." I've run a company before. Now I'm tryin' to make a television network, different things - I like makin' movies and shit. Raquel, she's like, "I want to run a magazine." She wants to be in fashion, so "Do it." The thing that has to be consistent is that we have to have the highest quality and the highest level of taste. That's in art, movies, music, all that. That's just what happens. Everybody here has a low tolerance for being regular. Everybody here, regardless, wants to win, and wants to win on their own terms. Everyone here will not compromise. I haven't seen anybody compromise.
A lot of people have a breaking point. I'd be curious to know, if offered a check, who in here would take it. I've seen it happen. A bug full of money influences a lot of peoples' perspective on things. Overall, everybody here has an inner-competitive thing goin' on with it, invested in what they do. When you're independent, you have no choice but to be invested. What someone does for a million dollars, you've got to do for damn near nothing. We've been able to do that. We've been able to put together tours, identify the right sponsorships, get major distribution. We don't have to go to the radio, but we appreciate radio support. We don't mind press, but on these terms. We want to get with intelligent people, who sort of think at least think a little bit like we think, and see what they think - and take pictures and things, but on our terms. That's everything: taste and independence, without compromise.
And then when have an aspirational good thought? Shit. I'm a businessman; I like creating things. Sometimes I have a lot of money, sometimes I have no money. And everybody knows when those times happen. It doesn't matter to me, 'cause I'm a businessman; I play a different game. When you get a big check, we put it all into being more independent. Automatically, you have shit moving around and you gotta buy shit. I have an aspirational taste and lifestyle. Within the independence, I also have to maintain a certain quality of living, 'cause that's what I like. We can be independent, but we don't have to live like we struggle. 'Cause we live off of our lifestyle.
Dame Dash Admits Being Considered To Be CEO At Death Row Records
DX: In the '90s and '00s, you gave us as Hip Hop fans "aspirations." You showed kids a lifestyle to aspire to. As you see Murs' success with Paid Dues or the kind of year Tech N9ne and Strange Music are having, do you think this independent-without-struggling is the new model or manifesto, whether it's Da$h or Tabi Bonney, or anybody?
Dame Dash: See, back then, [Roc-A-Fella Records] was independent as well. But we got kinda influenced by other peoples' agendas. Once we made enough money, corporate [America] wanted to be a part of it. Nobody wanted to put me into business. I didn't want nobody to tell me what to do, so I didn't play that business. But I had to go with the majority of what the people around me wanted to do, so I was reluctant to be corporate at all times. I never thought we should take those deals; I thought we should stick it out. The benefits of being around so long and making so much money, there's no reason to be corporate; they're not necessary. What I learned about being around corporate people is that they spend a lot of time making you believe that you need them, but you really don't. Now that I really know that, with confidence, we don't need anybody corporately. You'll make so much money independently, you just have to be patient. I've seen time and time again, someone gets a paper bag full of money and be rich for six minutes, then crack all over again. And for what? Everything they sold, if they wouldn't have sold it, that bag of money would have been a house full of a money. All they had to do was just wait another year or two.
When they start offering you the bag of money show them that you're smart enough to not need it. To answer your question, it's easy to live an aspirational life if you're patient. But you're gonna have to suffer a lil' bit in the beginning. But you've gotta be patient; it always works itself out. That up-front money sucks! You think they're giving you your aspirations, but what it makes you is a dependent on something you don't believe in, and then you become a slave to it. Then your aspiration gets cut short. A lot of people that take these up-front checks, 10 years later, are working just as hard to stay relevant. If they had just waited and didn't sell off all their shit for an up-front check - where all you're gonna do is get taxed and give it away to your friends and buy unnecessary shit 'cause your young - they'd be chillin', old money, let that shit roll in. I've reaped that benefit. My advice is stay patient. I don't want to be corny, but the darkest hour is always before dawn, like Batman. Word up!
Every single business, from Roc-A-Fella to Roc-A-Wear to Rachel Roy [Clothing], all of those businesses, right before we made a lot of money, I almost couldn't pay the bills the next week. Every time. It's a gift and a curse. If you're an artist, you've gotta go through it. If it happens too fast it's gonna be temporary. You've gotta be broke.
The tour we did before this [upcoming BluRoc Tour], the one McKenzie did, we did that shit on a green school-bus. The pictures are in the magazine. In a green school-bus, all the way to Toronto and back, and we didn't have to do that shit. I was like, "I'ma do it with them, but they've got to do this work to appreciate it." McKenzie's done about 400 shows in the last year. I'm exaggerating, but in the last two or three years, she's performed every single place on the planet. In New York. In China. In Thailand. In Jamaica. She's just been performing. I saw her write 30 songs in three weeks. And I'm not even playin'. Murs brought me a 60-city tour routed already. I didn't have to do that; he did it. It was done. And he's rappin' about positive shit. So [for karma], it's good money. The thing about Rap [as far as karma], it's a little fucked up, 'cause rappers tend to say things that aren't always good for the culture - whether it's Black [culture] or in general, the ideals are not always the best for the culture. There's always a lil' guilt with hardcore Rap. [Laughs] You know it's not right, but it's good music. There's no guilt in [Murs'] music. He rappin' like it's some gangsta shit. And he's a West Coast dude linked up with an East Coast dude [in Ski Beatz]. That makes sense. Ski makes his own music, and at an abundance and a rate where he's got like 12 albums coming out. If it don't come out, then "Done. Give 'em away." That's what I tell him all the time, "Don't ever worry, you work harder than anybody. You're bustin' everybody." And my nephew [Da$h] is only 19. He's playing with a live band, doing the festivals. He's young, so he's doing his young shit. Sean O'Connell fuckin' does Folk music, but also an idea for the most ghetto shit in the world. Every one brings a lot to the table, and everybody's open-minded. You have that kind of a group of people together...I don't know if we'll move, but we'll have fun. We already won, it's just in what you consider winning. Lookin' at how we're livin', I feel like we won. We're more worried about quality of living than perception, so I don't spend much time tryin' to fuckin' act like we're doin' something we're not. I'd rather hide and have a good time than be showing off and be miserable. That's what I learned.
DX: You did co-production and A&R'd McKenzie Eddy's project. What's that like, coming from an era where you sat back on records while executives were known to transition into the creative process?
Dame Dash: I mean, I A&R'd Reasonable Doubt [by Jay-Z]. It's just, with [McKenzie Eddy], 'cause she does so much for other people - it's the most ridiculous thing, she cannot do anything for herself. It's her humbleness; she can't promote herself. She can't talk [over people in meetings]. I had to be that person to her, 'cause she's that person to everybody else. She's making records, and she's working. She's also from the South, and people from the South tend to be more indirect. So if she needs something from Ski, she won't step on his neck, versus somebody from New York [would]. Then, if I'm in the studio and I hear something, I'll be like, "Flip that." So I'm more of a director-A&R. I don't make the music, but I'll pick some beats and shit like that. If I don't do it for her, she won't do it for herself.
DX: I just visited the Andy Warhol Museum again in the last month. I kept thinking about DD172 and BluRoc as I revisited his Factory. How do you feel about the Andy Warhol comparisons?
Dame Dash: That's the best thing. [Laughs] I wasn't expected to be compared to, of all things, Andy Warhol. But if I could have chosen to be compared to somebody, it would've been someone like Andy Warhol...combined with Howard Hughes. I take the fact that people know I'm independent and have a decent amount of taste. It's very complimenting. From all the things I've done, it's very unexpected, coming from Roc-A-Fella, where I honestly thought, as a young man, that my legacy was gonna go down as sort of ignorant [asshole]. What I'd be hearing in the [newspaper] would be the fucked up shit, pouring champagne - the arrogant shit that sells papers for people. So I was like, "Aw, fuck. I'm about to go down in history as that guy - the guy who cares about money and the superficial and is kind of ridiculous." For it to turn around, like that, I'm happy.
DX: I appreciate that answer. Interestingly enough, I was watching Hard Knock Life Tour the other night. I love that scene of you screaming at Kevin Liles. [Both laugh] It's legendary to me. I'm not laughing at you, but you're getting things done. I know that the arrogance has been a major part of what brought you here. Now that you're in a different place personally and in age, how do you still channel that arrogance when it's called for?
Dame Dash: I get what you're saying... the reason that there would be those moments like that, and people would just take them. For example, going back to the Kevin Liles situation that you mention, I made it clear to him - probably about five different times. The first time, I was probably real nice about it. The second time I was nice about it - "I'm gonna make sure put those [jackets on my artists], you know how I feel about my brand." By the fourth time, I was aggravated - "I know you're not makin' jackets. Don't make no jackets for my artists; this is not a Def Jam [Records] tour." So after four times, he's disrespected to me to level I'm gonna yell to get it done. I'm not tryin' to be around people that I can't get things done nicely with, where the only way you're gonna listen is if I put you on television and embarrass you. The only reason why Kevin was so calm about that was 'cause he was [wrong]. That aggravates me more. That was ridiculous. That was some disrespectful shit. The people that I work with now, if that ever comes, I'll get out the whiteboard and [show them].
DX: So you don't like the anger?
Dame Dash: I hate it. Hate it. But I come from a place where in order to survive you had to make examples outta people or somebody might die - or get robbed. Aggression. I'm upset. I'm not gonna hit anybody, but I'm from the street, it's hard to transition. So I finally got to transition. I know I still have that temper, but I can't put myself in those scenarios to get pushed to that level.
Dame Dash Talks Murs, McKenzie Eddy & Da$h
DX: BluRoc Records releases and projects are interesting in that they have a wide scope. We saw that in BlakRoc. You have McKenzie's Young Platinum project, which has her singing coupled with Cam'ron and Vado vocals. You also have this Murs Love & Rockets, Volume 1 album, which has a different side of Murs than we've seen. We can use that - who is it for?
Dame Dash: It's for Murs' fans. A fan likes the person. It don't even be about the music. The Beatles made all different types of music - Madonna, Seal. They go through different genres, and they're followed by fans. Me, I don't listen to just Hip Hop; I'm 40-fuckin'-years old. I never did. I listen to The Doors, The [Black] Keys, Disco Biscuits - when I'm [at DD172, where the latter two record]. That's where McKenzie comes in. She has the same eclectic tastes. She cooks to Country music - real Country music. But she A&R'd a Jim Jones album, Curren$y's [ Pilot Talk II] album. All the music she listens, she knows her genre - her and Raquel. They always know.
After the interview Damon Dash reclined in his beanbag and flipped through photo-albums on his phone. As Murs and McKenzie discussed the opening tour, others chatted about sports, Dame explained pictures of a recent white-tee-shirt event in his native Harlem. Then he got to pictures of his kids. He speaks, to nobody in particular, "I really miss my daughter." No one seemed to know what to say.
A caravan of cars began departure began as the sun went down. Murs drove Dame's coach van with Da$h and Ski Beatz in the back. Film crews were shuttled out in two brand new Jeep Wranglers. Dame and McKenzie will follow later, back to the city that never sleeps, especially at BluRoc.