Def Jam Records May Soon Be The Gold Standard For Rap Once Again (Video)
This week, it was announced that Eminem’s manager and Shady Records partner Paul Rosenberg will be Def Jam’s next CEO. Twenty years ago, the Detroit-based attorney started handling the career of Marshall Mathers when the rapper was self-marketing Infinite. One hundred million units sold later (through Shady Records), and Paul will try to work his magic with artists like Big Sean, 2 Chainz, Logic, Vince Staples, and potentially, Kanye West.
However, as Justin “The Company Man” Hunte points out in this week’s TBD episode, Paul Rosenberg represents more than just a hot hand behind a desk. In many ways, the founder of Goliath Management defied the status quo, with a roster including—you guessed it: Stat Quo.
“At its core, that’s really what Shady is: A boutique label. In its history, there haven’t been a ton of artists signed to Shady. Past and present, there’s about 12 acts who’ve ever brandished the Shady logo, which is pretty thin for a nearly 20-year-old imprint. Granted, any situation that includes the top selling rapper of all time, and possibly the greatest rapper of all time, at its cornerstone is ensured an incredibly high base level of revenue, but from mic to plug, Shady’s done an incredible amount with incredible efficiency: something not immediately equated to record labels or the music industry as a whole.
Efficiency is key in any business endeavor. But so is risk taking. The right gamble can break big. Paul’s had a few. Eminem only had two major albums on the market before he started working on 8 Mile. In the early 2000s, it was a major risk taking one of Rap’s brightest new stars away from the bars, hand him a script, and tell him to act. Had that movie turned out crap-tastic, who knows how it would’ve affected the imprint’s trajectory? But they took a risk. Boom: Oscar. Same thing with 50 Cent. Shady took a risk on 50 after he was blackballed from the music industry after he was shot nine times.” Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ dominated Rap and changed its look, feel, and ideologies in the 2000s. Hunte alleges, “It’s the type of artists signed to Shady that resonates. They’ve never signed shiny, jiggy-type rappers. They’ve built their reputation on a roster of grimy, lyrics-first MCs and lived off of storytelling and emotional depth.”
While Eminem, Obie Trice, 50 Cent, Bizarre, Yelawolf, Kxng Crooked, and Royce 5’9 are all different, they share these criteria. That’s what some say is true of the latest addition: Westside Gunn and Conway The Machine. Like Em, these MCs are from a rust belt place (Buffalo, New York) with lots of stories to tell.
Justin adds, “[Shady Records’] brand is built off of real Rap and you know what their brand stands for–what it means. Lyrics first is something I’ve always equated with Golden-Era Def Jam Records. DMX. Def Squad. EPMD. Jayo Felony. Early Roc-A-Fella was distributed through Def Jam at one point. Murder Inc was under Def Jam at one point. Venni Vetti Vecci [era] Ja Rule. Method Man. Redman. Public Enemy. Warren G. You knew what the Def Jam brand stood for, what it meant.”
Joe Budden seems to agree. On Everyday Struggle this week, Joe (an artist who found both success and frustration at Def Jam in the 2000s) said, “Paul [Rosenberg] is the perfect person to man that seat if I’m going by some of the old ideologies of what Def Jam stood for, which is: bars, Rap. They’re not hit-chasing. They don’t spend 100% of the time hit-chasing. They still have some integrity and Paul has all the integrity in the world and he has the ear to listen for that… I do like that over there.”
The Company Man says now is the right time. Def Jam has two #1 albums in 2017, and they’re from MCs: Big Sean and Logic. However, Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin’s baby needs more of the same. “The landscape seems poised for major label emphasis on real Rap. The streaming era is a singles era, but artists like Vince Staples, Logic, Chance, J. Cole, Kendrick have found tremendous success with a lyrics-first approach. There’s a polarizing political landscape which historically always bleeds into art. R&B is hot again. Hell, even TRL is returning. Lyrics matter and there’s market validation to justify a more focused approach. Everything is circular. And there needs to be a strong brand to present it, which he built with Shady, which is what Def Jam always stood for and arguably lacked since the 1990s and early 2000s.
There are a few things we’re still waiting to see. Shady’s never signed an R&B artist. The majors are massive companies and the behemoths value bottom line over everything. The boutique label strategy will have to expand. Fortunately, there isn’t any indication that Paul has a history of swimming out of his depth. But sincerely, if you love real Rap, who else makes more sense right now as the CEO of Rap’s most storied record label?”