Steve Rifkind Explains Shunning 360 Deals & Urges Executives To Stop Being Lazy
Exclusive: Steve Rifkind runs-down his long going evolution of artist promotion and being one-half of All Def Digital with Russell Simmons.
The past few decades have been quite kind to legendary music executive Steve Rifkind. Since the early days of working with his father Jules Rifkind at Spring Records, Steve has always had a special ear for the best urban music had to offer. Growing-up during Hip Hop’s early ages, it made perfect sense for him to use firsthand knowledge in forming his own label. With Loud Records, Rifkind became one of the many key figures in changing the culture’s business and creative trajectory.
In a time where Hip Hop found itself locked out of traditional promotional lanes, Rifkind essentially created grassroots tactics that paved new marketing grounds through street teams. Staying authentic while reaching as many potential listeners as possible became the standard. For many labels pushing Hip Hop pre-social media, it was almost seen as a revolution. However, being the “father of street teams” wasn’t the only card in his deck. He had good, iconic talent to boot. Besides being the former home of Twista, Mobb Deep, Big Pun, Three 6 Mafia and others, the biggest success story for Loud came in the form of a gritty nine-member collective fascinated with Shaw Brothers flicks.
Unprecedented at the time, Rifkind provided The Wu-Tang Clan a deal, which allowed them to seek separate solo deals outside of initial group album obligations. Seen as a large gamble, it paid off in spades as most projects, both as a group and individually, went on to be cultural and critical landmarks in Hip Hop.
Though Loud eventually folded, Rifkind launched a new label through Universal Music Group dubbed SRC Records. Holding his own against everything he built during those memorable years at Loud, SRC saw Rifkind finding more crossover success through acts including Terror Squad, David Banner, Akon and Melanie Fiona before closing.
Reminding the industry of his relevance yet again, he’s teamed up with another iconic figure, Russell Simmons. The union brings the world All Def Digital, a platform for emerging artists in the Digital Age. In a year’s time, ADD hit some interesting strides, becoming a YouTube sponsored channel, partnering with Samsung for ADD52.com and a label deal through Universal Music Group. Though technology has changed the industry’s rules, Rifkind continues to prove he can still play the game and play it to win.
How All Def Digital Fuses YouTube, Streaming Radio & UMG
HipHopDX: You’ve witnessed music promotion evolve from radio, to video and eventually digital. How have your methods changed with the industry?
Steve Rifkind: First, I still think it’s all about the music. You have to have a great record, great song and a great artist. And then going from vinyl, to CD, to digital, you have to go with the times. I’m learning right now as it goes. I’m not even saying I’m an expert anymore. I know what I like and I go from there. I just had a meeting last week with the people from Spotify, and I’m really understanding now what that is. And the future's so bright for the music business that I’m so excited.
DX: In a recent interview, you mentioned the Internet as the new street team. Does that leave room for the more traditional approach which you essentially created?
Steve Rifkind: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s just bigger now. That’s all it is. Just a press of a button. But, [in terms of] what people are sharing, liking and just still talking, there’s still an offline component. I’m 53-years-old and I have three children, so if I asked them if they talked to their mom today, it doesn’t necessarily have to be through phone but through text. That’s the form of communication right now, so I believe whatever is going on online you need that offline component. And if it’s me texting you saying, “Check out this record or go to YouTube,” it’s still a form of communication.
DX: The hope for ADD52.com is to transition from a music hub to network. What exactly will the platform offer that many others don’t?
Steve Rifkind: The platforms offers the opportunity for me and Russell to hear your music and you get an opportunity to get a single deal. And we get to see what you’re made out of from an artistic point, from a business point, and marketing point, also with Milk Radio. That’s the platform where you’ll be able to see the type of plays you’re getting, shares you’re getting and the request on what’s going on. The singles we’ve picked so far, I listened to it yesterday, and if we put these songs together and made one album, this would be an incredible album. We have this kid, Dunson who went top 10 on Billboard’s new real-time chart, which is unheard of. Niykee Heaton came from the platform, and she’s already surpassed a million streams on Spotify for her single “Bad Intentions.” Love Dollhouse is up 36% in SoundScan without even bringing the record to radio. So you’re going to get a real shot. What makes this company so special is that we have a YouTube-funded channel helping promote the artist we are signing. We have a record company. You mix those together and you have one of the best marketing tools in the world to break an artist.
How 3D Na’Tee & Tayyib Ali Gained Exposure Via ADD52.com
DX: Is there a metric you use in determining the momentum an artist is gaining?
Steve Rifkind: There’s a chart, but the chart is made out of your radio plays whether its light, medium or heavy, and how many likes and sharing. Those are the metrics. That’s also like my street-team. My street-team use to give me feedback in the ‘90s. They would say so and so is playing this record or this is the audience. So it’s almost the same thing except there’s a chart. I never had a chart to monitor my street-team. I should have but I never did.
DX: One of the more interesting features of ADD52.com are personalized playlist from both you and Russell. Is there anything you’re looking for when creating a playlist?
Steve Rifkind: When I make my playlist, the records that I’m picking are the records I enjoy. It’s like a good restaurant that you call up one of your friends or family to say I just ate at the best restaurant in the world that had horrible reviews. Or you go to see a movie and the reviews are horrible but you think it’s amazing.
DX: It’s about personal choice.
Steve Rifkind: Yes. One of my favorite movies of all time is The Shawshank Redemption. It took about a-year-and-half for that movie to truly break. Hope I’m making sense.
DX: Absolutely. Samsung has always had a hand in Hip Hop from investing millions into FUBU during the ‘90s to last year’s deal with Jay-Z’s Magna Carta…Holy Grail. Was that a motivation for connecting with them for ADD52.com?
Steve Rifkind: They know how important music is and how music truly sets trends. That’s how the relationship began.
DX: One of the first emcees signed through ADD’s joint venture with Universal Music Group were 3D Na’Tee and Tayyib Ali. Where do they align themselves specifically with the platform’s goals?
Steve Rifkind: Both 3D and Ali both came off the platform. We’re not rushing anything and we’re just developing them just like we would any artist, but we’re using YouTube as a platform. Tayyib Ali with the “Do It” video got almost 800,000 views. With 3D, I think she’s incredible on how she markets herself. She’s a straight businesswoman.
Steve Rifkind Revisits Wu-Tang & Three 6 Mafia’s Run On Loud Records
DX: Were you hesitant in dealing with major labels considering Loud’s fallout with Sony and SRC ending its relationship with Universal?
Steve Rifkind: No, I’m back at Universal. If I had any problems about that I wouldn’t be back.
DX: When artists sign with ADD, what are they offered as opposed to other labels especially in an age of lackluster artist development and 360 deals?
Steve Rifkind: I don’t believe in 360 deals that much unless we really do something for you. And I think that’s just the record business of getting their piece when they break an artist. I have no problem with taking a piece when I do something for an artist. If I get them a brand deal, a tour, [a] publishing deal, then I feel I deserve a piece. I don’t feel as if I deserve anything if I don’t bring anything to the table.
DX: In regards to 360 deals, any thoughts on allegations that Lyor Cohen invented them?
Steve Rifkind: Lyor is brilliant. I don’t know how he’s structuring his deals. That’s Lyor’s business, not my business.
DX: How did you connect with Simmons, and how have you both implemented your separate history into ADD?
Steve Rifkind: I go back with Russell since I was 16-years-old. He’s an old and very close friend. When he started this thing, we sat down and decided we should do this. I’m taking what I know best and Russell is taking what he knows best, and we’re just merging into a brand new company. We’re just a year old right now. What works for him may not work for me and what works for me may not work for him. We talk every morning. Before 8:00 we’re already on the phone three or four times. We’re both trying to get this done. Our belief is that the artist comes first. We run a record business but we are very sensitive to what the artist needs.
DX: When did you and Russell address Wu-Tang’s Loud deal co-existing with Method Man’s Def Jam solo deal?
Steve Rifkind: There was never a conversation. Meth in my deal with the Wu was that they could go wherever they wanted. We had a right to match. I don’t remember what he was offered, but Wu-Tang was just breaking. There wasn’t even an album or single. I said let him be on Def Jam because it was the biggest and best record company out there at the time. There was no conversation. Whenever they needed help with something I was there to help. I remember there was a problem at Hot 97 in New York and Lyor called me. We went to Hot 97 to solve the problem together.
DX: Speaking of Wu-Tang, do you have any thoughts on their Once Upon a Time in Shaolin album? Do you have a favorite Wu-Tang album; solo and as a group?
Steve Rifkind: I would never bet against RZA, so if that’s what he wants to do, I’m sure he has a plan that he’ll be very successful at. In regards to my favorites: for [a] solo record Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, and as whole group their first album 36 Chambers.
DX: Outside of Wu-Tang, the next big collective signed to Loud was Three 6 Mafia. Considering last month marked the 14-year anniversary of their first platinum-selling album When The Smoke Clears, what attracted you to them then?
Steve Rifkind: They were brilliant. They are brilliant. They had such a movement going on, and it was amazing like an assembly line. They would come with a Triple 6 record, which they would own as their underground or mixtape records, went through Select-O-Hits and that would be the foundation of whatever album came out. So when we did When The Smoke Clears there was also a movie called Choices that was very big, and we shot it ourselves. When an artist has a vision like they had a vision, it’s incredible. It was a great run. Everyone put their egos to the side and we listened. The artist came first because they had a vision.
DX: Did you ever think they’d go on to win an Oscar as a group or Juicy J would see a reinvention?
Steve Rifkind: When they won the Oscar I was blown away. I saw Juicy J not so long ago, and I’m just proud of everyone.
DX: Remy Ma’s debut There’s Something About Remy was released on SRC, how do you feel about her release from prison?
Steve Rifkind: I read something this morning saying she was going to be on Love & Hip Hop. I don’t know if it’s real or not, but I’d like to talk to her to see if she’s OK. I didn’t speak to her while she was away. I think she’s so talented and if she stays on the right path, the world is hers.
Why Steve Rifkind Says, “I Don’t Want Executives To Be Lazy Anymore.”
DX: Looking back, has there been an artist you regret signing or not signing to either Loud or SRC?
Steve Rifkind: I mean, regrets is not the right word. I had an opportunity for Jay Z. I had a chance to do a deal with Irv Gotti before he went to Def Jam, but BMG wouldn’t let me bring him in. Regret isn’t the right word because the company would have been different if those things would have happened.
DX: Given your history with Loud, does independent, regional Hip Hop have a future?
Steve Rifkind: It’ll always have a future. Where it goes just depends. I just heard a record out of Chicago the other day ago, and the record just blew me away. The artist could sell a few hundred records himself and just develop his own fanbase. That’s the best way.
DX: Where do you think the center-point of Hip Hop is at the moment?
Steve Rifkind: I don’t have an answer. I don’t want executives to be lazy anymore. I want the executives to develop the new producers and push the artist to where they develop more. Even if it’s an EP or album, it’s not about one single but truly developing artists again.
DX: What exactly do you like and don’t like about where the music industry is going?
Steve Rifkind: I don’t like a lot of things. I don’t like the old structure. Right now, there’s a brand new playing field, and I’m excited about being back in the record business. I can’t worry about what Sony is doing, what Warner’s doing or even what Lyor is doing. I can only worry about what me and Russell are doing.
DX: In Dan Charnas’ The Big Payback: The History of The Business of Hip Hop book, some of your promotional tactics included bringing boxes of Popeyes to radio program directors. What are some of the most outrageous things you’ve done to promote an artist?
Steve Rifkind: I never read Dan’s book. I remember with Tha Alkaholiks, they had a record called “DAAAM!” We made this perfume that smelled like fucking horse shit that we gave to everybody. I remember there was a program director or a mix-show guy in Chicago and he was craving a steak. I spoke to him at like 10 in the morning and he had never been to Morton’s. So I told him we were going to have dinner that night. He called bullshit and I said, “Alright, see you at the station at 6:00.” I flew in, took him to dinner and came back. We do what we have to do if it’s feasible and legal.
DX: There’s been a lot of talk on Dame Dash’s side about the dynamics surrounding adding to and taking from Hip Hop culture, do you think there is any merit to what he’s been saying?
Steve Rifkind: Did he say anything about me?
DX: Not that I can recall.
Steve Rifkind: I mean, that’s Dame and [we] go back with him since he was 13. I follow him on Instagram but Dame speaks his mind. So if that’s what he feels, who am I to stop him?