How Def Jam Plans to Reclaim Its Hip-Hop Crown
It’s a few minutes to midnight at Paramount Recording Studios in Los Angeles, and the plaques on the walls are starting to shake. Most of Def Jam Recordings’ freshman class — around two dozen hip-hop artists from all over the country, all signed in the last year — have packed into low-lit Studio C, where S3nsi Molly and Lil Brook are blasting their new track “Big Boss.”
The cavernous space is smoky and crowded, but you can’t miss Molly, 18, and Brook, 20: Dressed in head-to-toe neon with mermaid-blue hair and diamond-dipped fingernails, they’re like Gucci-clad angels descended from hip-hop heaven. The energy around them is strong: heads bobbing, bodies swaying, joints being rolled and passed. When the track finishes, people whoop, and someone signals to play it again.
“It’s all about the room,” says Alexander “AE” Edwards, 32, vp A&R at the New York-based record label. The Oakland, Calif., native worked with Tyga’s Last Kings Records before joining Def Jam in 2018 and has the kind of charisma that leads artists to seek his approval. “It’s all vibe,” he continues. “That’s how you know it’s a hit. When the kids see me in there and I’m dancing, they know it’s on.” And if the vibe is weak? “Then it’s back to work. Then it’s, ‘Get your notepad!’”
This is Def Jam rap camp, a new program designed to develop and promote the label’s fledgling artists. Not to be confused with the song or “synch” camps that have become industry-standard in country and pop — in which dozens of professional songwriters come together to write material for major albums, films or commercials — rap camp is more like spring training: an intensive retreat for the label’s young guns to write, collaborate and grow creatively under the guidance of seasoned producers and sound engineers. Def Jam’s new A&R team — including Edwards, Pedro Genao, Ricardo Lamarre (aka Rico Beats) and executive vp Steven Victor — does the coaching.
For many of the artists, some of whom are still in high school, this is their first time in a professional studio environment. “Some of these guys really haven’t seen much,” says Edwards, “but they’re confident and hungry. That’s why we signed them. They’re like wolves.” Others came in ready to hit the ground running: Lul G, 20, is a member of the fast-rising Bay Area group SOB X RBE; Dominic Lord, 25, designed clothes for A$AP Mob before shifting his focus to music; and Bernard Jabs, a cocky 17-year-old from rural Georgia, built a fan base on SoundCloud before signing to Def Jam last summer, and by November was opening for Pusha T.
On this night in February, S3nsi Molly and Lil Brook have just put the finishing touches on “Big Boss.” Rap camp has become a de facto record factory, yielding over 200 tracks in two weeklong sessions (the first was in August; the second, where Molly and Brook first recorded “Big Boss,” was in November). On March 8, Def Jam will present a selection of the songs on Undisputed, a compilation introducing fans to these new recruits and, to some extent, to the label’s new direction. As Def Jam celebrates its 35th year, it’s racing to reclaim its place as the leader in new hip-hop — and betting on this diverse roster of rookies to usher in a new era at the label under CEO Paul Rosenberg.
“To remain vital, we have to stay current,” says Rosenberg, 47, who just completed his first year helming Def Jam, investing heavily in video content as well as music. Prior to arriving at the label, the Detroit native spent decades managing Eminem, running Shady Records and leading management firm Goliath Artists (Danny Brown). “Around 2017, I felt like Def Jam was in need of some reconnection and a new look forward [in order to] continue to impact the culture. When I was just a fan and not working in the industry, Def Jam was the place every artist in hip-hop wanted to sign to. There was Def Jam, and there was everybody else. My goal” — with the help of the rap camp artists — “is to make that the case again.”
When Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons founded Def Jam out of Rubin’s New York University dorm room in 1984, they were focused on experimentation: mixing elements of punk and metal with the groundbreaking sounds of New York’s streets and seeing how it all landed. Bratty and provocative, that Def Jam was known for taking risks and making noise, for championing early rap innovators like LL Cool J and Public Enemy, and for turning the sounds of urban American youth into a 20th century phenomenon. In his book The Men Behind Def Jam: The Radical Rise of Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin, Alex Ogg recalls how, from its earliest days, the label “produced a musical legacy of unchallenged caliber” and “established rap as the dominant form of American youth music.”
In recent years, the financial pressures of a rapidly changing industry took the label in a different direction. Under the leadership of Steve Bartels in the mid-2010s, Def Jam broadened its scope to focus on mainstream pop artists like Justin Bieber and Alessia Cara and DJs like Axwell + Ingrosso — all hitmakers, but, grouped together, a bit of a musical grab bag. (Before Bartels took over in 2013, Joie Manda, Antonio “L.A.” Reid, Jay-Z and Kevin Liles had all taken turns at the wheel in various capacities. Lyor Cohen, the label’s longest-serving president, ran it from 1988 to 1998.) Among the 84 songs that Bartels helped shepherd onto the Billboard Hot 100, 12 made the top 10, including Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” (featuring Charli XCX) and DJ Khaled’s 2017 summer anthem, “I’m the One.”
“Look, the industry changed and went through some hard times” in the Bartels era, says Rich Isaacson, Def Jam’s new GM. Isaacson is an industry veteran: His label, Loud Records, signed Wu-Tang Clan in 1992. “The people who were running the company probably did what they had to do to keep the lights on, and they signed some great artists. But the brand needed to re-establish its place as the gold standard in hip-hop.”
In 2016, the streaming boom ignited a resurgence in recorded-music revenue, generating double-digit industry growth for the first time in two decades, with rap and R&B leading the charge. That should have been great news for Def Jam, but its market share and industry clout were both declining. By mid-2017, the former had dropped to ninth place, behind Interscope, Republic, Capitol and, most notably, Atlantic, which was ruling urban radio with artists like Cardi B, Meek Mill and Gucci Mane.
In August 2017, Lucian Grainge, CEO of Def Jam’s parent company, Universal Music Group, announced that Bartels was out and Rosenberg in. Their joint objective was clear: Refocus the label on hip-hop and reforge the Def Jam identity.
Rosenberg assembled G.O.O.D. Music’s Steven Victor (best-known for managing Pusha T and Desiigner) to lead A&R and a group of industry veterans, including former Complex content chief Noah Callahan-Bever, to manage an in-house creative team. Victor’s first order of business was signing an unusually large roster of new artists for a rebrand to coincide with the label’s 35th anniversary. His second was rap camp.
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Technically, the idea originated with talent scout Pedro Genao, a Rosenberg hire from Shady Records and Goliath. In May 2018, he and fellow scout Lamarre, 36, were in Los Angeles working with 23-year-old Brooklyn rapper Fetty Luciano, who had been struggling with writer’s block, but in Hollywood “we caught this energy from Fetty that we didn’t get in New York,” says Genao, 36. “There were no distractions. He was taking instruction. It was magic.” They wondered what would happen if they applied the same approach on a larger scale.
Genao pitched Rosenberg on a sort of creative boot camp: Def Jam could get its newest signees out of their comfort zones and into professional studios, giving each artist scheduled blocks of time to write, record and edit. Songwriters would be on deck in case artists froze up; sound engineers would be encouraged to offer critical feedback; and producers would make sure the songs felt cohesive.
For Victor, 38, limiting the number of producers was key to re-establishing Def Jam’s sonic identity. He used 1990s label compilations by No Limit, Bad Boy, Cash Money and Star Trak as a blueprint. “Those compilations sounded like all the artists were literally working together,” he says. “Like the music had all been baked in one spot.” Early on, he hired Lamarre as the camp’s in-house producer. “He’s the connective tissue,” says Victor.
The final element of Def Jam’s savvy rebranding efforts came from Callahan-Bever: a documentary series following the kids and coaches through rap camp as they make music, eat In-N-Out burgers, get tattoos, play basketball, even sit in reality-TV-style confessionals to let off steam (or, more often, to self-aggrandize). It’s one part Survivor, one part Real World, one part Making the Band, and when the eight-episode show airs on Def Jam’s YouTube channel (starting March 7), executives hope it reframes the label — and majors in general — as vital. Clearly, some of the artists at today’s Paramount session are already convinced. “This is a damn dynasty!” says Sneakk, 22, another Bay Area artist from the SOB X RBE crew. “I’m just happy to be here.”
In the end, rap camp and its attendant marketing efforts cost the “equivalent of an A-list artist rollout,” according to an executive inside Def Jam. “Hopefully we’re able to demonstrate not only why you might need a label, but what a modern label can be in this era,” says Rosenberg. “It’s an optimistic and maybe altruistic way of approaching things, and I might be naive. But if we can show the support, camaraderie and brand benefit that artists might not be able to get elsewhere, that’s a huge win.”
He knows that these days his biggest competition might not even be a label like Atlantic, but SoundCloud. TJ Porter, an 18-year-old rapper from Harlem with a brash charm, says he ultimately signed for that very reason: Def Jam, he felt, would give him the “extra push” he needed, rather than “floating in SoundCloud” forever. “I was always recording in the projects, in my environment,” he says. “Now I’m in Los Angeles, I’m in Atlanta, I’m working with new people. It’s me on a different level.”
At Paramount, the rap campers are posing for what feels like the swaggiest high school class picture imaginable. No two artists here have the same sound, and they jump at the opportunity to differentiate themselves. Some smile with endearing sincerity, while others get right to flexing. Bernard Jabs opens his shirt to show off a Lion King tattoo. Lul G bites his lip in a smoldering pout. S3nsi Molly and Lil Brook flash middle fingers with alarming rapidity. “I’m getting emotional,” says Genao. “It’s like graduation!”
Each artist signed with Def Jam for different reasons. While a handful were excited just to be picked, others were leery of giving away too much too soon. “I’m not going to lie: There was stuff that I liked and stuff that I didn’t like” about Def Jam’s offer, says YFL Kelvin, a 22-year-old from Cleveland who signed last August. “That’s how these things go. Some of it was about the terms, some of it was about the pacing, and money too, you feel me? But it all worked out. I wouldn’t have signed if I didn’t feel comfortable.” (Despite the air of competition that the documentary emphasizes, the artists here aren’t vying for a limited number of spots at Def Jam and, according to that executive within the label, have relatively typical starter contracts.)
Dominic Lord’s decision came down to Victor, who had first approached him about working together in 2011. “I knew what I didn’t want, which was to do mediocre shit,” he says, “and that’s where you’ve got to be careful.” Within the industry, Victor is known as someone who pushes boundaries and resists trends. Lord trusts him. “He has been around, you know? He’s family.”
For many of the artists, the security that a label offers was most appealing. “If it wasn’t rapping, it was going to be trapping,” says YFL Kelvin, “and I didn’t want that to be my life.” Fetty Luciano, a former member of the GS9 crew that included Bobby Shmurda, recently spent time in prison for conspiracy and gun charges. “If I get a chance to do something right and get money legally, I’m jumping on it,” he says. “Poverty made me sign in the end.”
Even those who had already built fan bases on social media felt they had climbed as high as they could on their own. “I’m from Atlanta,” says Landstrip Chip, an early rap camp standout all the newbies seem to idolize. “If you’re not pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into your campaign, you’re not even going to get noticed.” He had already been approached by most of the city’s independent labels but had his eyes set on a major. “I was going to get the same terms, the same percentages wherever I went — I might as well go big,” he says. Ultimately, Def Jam came first. “I like to reward people who are early,” he says. And he appreciated that the label “understood my vision and didn’t try to change me. I wasn’t about to let someone tell me how to do my hair.”
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S3nsi Molly and Lil Brook saw their share of this too. Within the first 15 minutes of one meeting with a competing label, they recall, they were offered suggestions for ways to change their appearance. “We were like, ‘Are you serious? You called us,’” says Molly. Other executives acted cool; one even tried to get them to drink during the meal. “She was like, ‘Go ahead, it’s OK, I won’t tell,’” says Brook, rolling her eyes. “We were like, ‘Fuck outta here.’ Be real.”
Such are the new power dynamics of signing hip-hop talent in 2019. “I wasn’t going to sign with anyone who didn’t get exactly what I was doing, because I was already a star,” says Jabs. “I’m not saying I won’t play ball with you, but it’s my game.”
Clearly, Def Jam is betting on Victor’s taste and curiosity to give the label an edge. “I’m in the mix as much as a 15-year-old,” he says, “and if I hear a Japanese artist that sounds interesting, I’ll fly to Tokyo that night to hear them.” And yet his business tactics are surprisingly old-school. He insists on album-focused rollouts that are deliberate and slow, which can prove frustrating for rookies used to constantly sharing new material on Instagram, but also offers the kind of patient artist development that’s rare in the industry today. Victor points to Kanye West, The-Dream, Pharrell Williams and his own client of 15 years, Pusha T, as proof that his methods work. “They didn’t rush,” he says with a shrug. “The benefit of these things is you get artists with longer life spans. The SoundCloud shit is popping, and I’m into it, but something has to come after that.”
As the group breaks up after the class picture, Porter — the trash-talking class clown — splits from the back row to perform a backflip. He barely makes it, and a follow-up is demanded. Heckling ensues, and a dozen cellphone camera flashes light up his face. “This doesn’t intimidate me — this just looks like one of my shows!” he boasts, adjusting his chain and addressing his buddies like they’re a sea of screaming fans. On round two, he lands firmly on his feet with a triumphant thud. “That’s how it’s done,” he declares, and without missing a beat, turns toward the cameras.