Kareem “Biggs” Burke Reveals Roc-A-Fella Secrets Regarding Big L, Scarface & Ma$e
Roc-A-Fella Records’ 1990s and early 2000s’ reign is credited to three businessmen. While Jay Z has become one of, if not the biggest artists in Hip-Hop history, Dame Dash is one of the highest profile Rap executives. Third owner of the original Roc, Kareem “Biggs” Burke was (and remains) less in the spotlight than his two partners. However, with a new fashion line, 4th of December making its rounds, the Harlem, New Yorker comes forth to reveal some Roc secrets, and collect some props.
Appearing on the Rap Radar Podcast with Elliott Wilson and Brian “B.Dot” Miller, Biggs explains that “Biggs did it first, then Jay put it in verse” when it came to cars, drinks, and fashions in the formative 1990s.
Originally from the island of St. Thomas, Biggs begins by speaking about what he has been up to since his May, 2015 prison release. He discusses 4th of November, and why it was not until the fourth quarter of last year that the onetime mogul began reappearing in the public eye. “I had six months anyway, you gotta be on halfway house confinement,” he says, following a sentence surrounding his California marijuana dispensaries. The businessman, who twice served felony sentences in the 2000s, believes he has been made an example of by prosecutors.
Biggs recalls his Harlem upbringing, and his history with Damon “Dame” Dash prior to meeting Jay Z. By the mid-1990s, as the manager and artist progressed, Biggs was approached about joining the Roc-A-Fella movement. “It wasn’t just about support, it was being a real partner,” he says having entered around the time of Reasonable Doubt. In making the album, Biggs also credits himself for insisting Jay Z rhyme on the Knobody, Nomad, Dahoud, and Sean C.-produced beat to “Can’t Knock The Hustle.” After Mary J. Blige added her vocals, the song would be Jay’s second Top 100 hit, and a critical part of Reasonable Doubt‘s success. (32:00) He adds that the name “Roc-A-Fella” was created by none of its founders, but by Tone Hooker—who joined Ski Beatz in the group Original Flavor. As a soloist, Hooker worked with Jay, O.C., Jaz-O, and Sauce Money—on many Roc records.
The discussion on Roc-A-Fella’s first hit album merges to include some commentary on its mid-2000s sale. Biggs details the $30 million sale of the label to Def Jam Records, and adds “that’s not counting the royalties and everything else.” Today, Roc-A-Fella still houses Kanye West, Jadakiss, and other acts.
In the first 10 minutes, Biggs also discusses Jay Z’s progression as an independent artist with Priority Records distribution, later with Payday, and eventually Def Jam.
(10:00) Biggs discusses how in 1994, he and his associates were wearing Iceberg jeans. A dismissive attitude by the company’s founders would ultimately lead to the creation of Rocawear. Biggs recalls the earliest days of the popular brand, “It was crazy in the office back then.” There are memories of sewing machines in the Roc-A-Fella offices. Overall, Kareem tells Elliott and B.Dot about the attitude he, Jay Z, and Dame Dash had in the mid-1990s: “We actually felt empowered going into the game. Being that we were street guys and coming up how we did…at that time, we never really had any respect for anybody. We always thought we were better than everybody, coming into the game.”
Biggs, who would run the day-to-day operations at the label in the early 2000s, defined his role in the mix. “While Dame is yellin’ at everybody, people always want to talk to somebody in the room. Dame’s yellin’, Jay’s listenin’ to music, so I’m the guy people talk to.”
(24:00) It would be Biggs’ brother Kyambo “Hip Hop” Joshua that would help accelerate Roc-A-Fella to the next level. Biggs credits his acclaimed A&R and manager brother for the additions of Kanye West and Just Blaze (among others) to the empire.
(25:00) Biggs also describes his late brother, Bob Allah—who has been mentioned in Jay lyrics. The discussion extends to say that Kareem “Biggs” Burke was not a fan of Jay Z’s pre-Reasonable Doubt material. One storied battle changed that. “It was at the battle with DMX that me my brother Bob Allah and I were like, ‘Damn, this dude is dope,’ when he was talking about money dancing on the ceiling, and all that.” Biggs suddenly identified with Jay’s subject and flow, as opposed to his work with Original Flavor and Jaz-O. “That battle was legendary,” says Biggs, before revealing that the footage available was filmed by a fellow legendary MC. “Big L had the footage […] Big L was the one taping it.” The late D.I.T.C. MC, who worked with Jay Z, was filming him in the early 1990s. “That lil’ bit of footage that we have, that came from Big L.”
— Rap Radar (@RapRadar) April 1, 2016
(28:00) Kareem Burke makes another powerful mid-1990s revelation. “We had ‘Dead Presidents’ with Ma$e rapping on it first, but I didn’t like the way his voice sounded on it.” Ma$e, who was a new artist at Bad Boy Records, and had ties to Big L, McGruff, and Cam’ron, was removed from the cult-lauded single. “Nobody heard it.” Biggs said that the Roc nearly signed the storied underground Harlem group Ma$e worked with. “We was [working with Children Of The Corn] with him, [Cam’ron], and Bloodshed. It was a group.” Ma$e, Cam, and Big L would all subsequently achieve gold and platinum albums.
(32:00) Biggs recalls the days that Roc-A-Fella set up shop, creatively, at D&D Studios. He explains that he’s the voice heard on “Bring It On,” and that DJ Premier proved to be an early and affordable 1990s ally (three songs for $9,000) following admiration for the way Jay and Roc handled label business prior to their Def Jam deal.
(40:00) Biggs discusses the earliest days of Kanye West’s tenure with the Roc. He adds that he just saw West at his Madison Square Garden event. However, Biggs believes that Def Jam’s early 2000s CEO was not a fan of the producer/MC. “Lyor [Cohen] wanted to drop Kanye [West] and the Young Gunz.” Biggs adds that during those discussions, Roc-A-Fella shopped Kanye and Young Chris & Neef to Capitol Records. He recalls working closely with State Property, Young Gunz, and Kanye West at the early 2000s, “I was controlling the label at the time.” Biggs credits himself as playing many roles, including A&R, executive producer, and label manager—despite the label’s wide staff.
Biggs recalls reuniting with Jay Z and Dame Dash in recent months. With Jay, who he also saw at West’s February event, he says the pair laughed for five minutes before a word was spoken. By the 58:00 mark, he adds that the three partners discussed all signings before making them—a point of controversy in popular reports surrounding the addition of Cam’ron and The Diplomats.
Lastly, Biggs closes with some revelations that Roc-A-Fella very nearly signed Scarface and Twista. ‘Face would work closely with Jay and Kanye during 2002’s The Fix campaign at Def Jam. He adds that N.O.R.E. received his own personal Roc-A-Fella chain upon signing a solo deal with the label. Notably, Noreaga’s lone Roc release (N.O.R.E. y la Familia…Ya Tú Sabe) came after the label was sold to Def Jam, and released on the Roc La Familia sub-imprint. Thereby, Biggs politely asks that someday get his medallion and chain back from the Capone-N-Noreaga co-founder.