Photo Credit: Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for Damon Dash Studios
Is it Time to Shift the Villain Narrative Surrounding Dame Dash?
Dame Dash been right more than he's been wrong. It's time to shift the perception from Dame the asshole to Dame the tireless advocate for Black culture.
Former Def Jam CEO and current YouTube Head Of Global Music Lyor Cohen sat down for a lengthy interview with Power 105’s The Breakfast Club earlier this month. When co-host Charlamagne Tha God brought up ostracized executive Dame Dash, the usually reserved Cohen uncharacteristically played the rapper role by posturing a childish “I don’t know who [Dame] is” routine. Apparently, Dame is still so good at rankling people that he can get a rise out of them without even being present.
The Breakfast Club hosts — Charlamagne, DJ Envy, and Angela Yee — who were all working in the industry during Dame Dash’s heyday, were unamused. They quickly recalled how much money Dame and Lyor made together in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, when Dame was the co-Owner of Def Jam subsidiary Roc-A-Fella Records with JAY-Z and Kareem “Biggs” Burke.
Lyor’s audacity to downplay their lucrative relationship is what stirred Dame to strike back on Instagram and call Lyor a “clown” who can “make money off us and then try to erase our true history and act like the real ones never existed.” That casual erasure compounded with financial avarice is at the root of why Dame has targeted Lyor and other executives such as Steve Stoute and Joie “IE” Manda as “culture vultures.”
In a later Instagram post, Dame surmised that Cohen’s business model is to “keep us dumb and take our money” while he “feeds his family and laugh at us behind our back.” Dame also called Cohen a “cancer” to hip-hop onThe Joe Budden Podcast for creating the dreaded 360 deal, which gives labels a percentage of every revenue stream an artist grosses. Cohen scoffed at the idea of being a culture vulture on The Breakfast Club, but in the same interview he admitted that “junkie” rappers can’t sip lean in front of him, yet he’s had no qualms about “opportunistically” signing them because “I got people to feed.” That statement unwittingly proved Dame’s assertions right. The 47-year-old has been right about a lot over his 25 year career.
Dame was right about JAY-Z when major labels were preposterously reticent to sign him in the ‘90s. He was right to give Cam’ron the platform for a mid-career rebranding, turning him into a cultural icon with Dipset. And most notoriously, Dame was right about Kanye West when others would kick him out of the studio and wanted him to stick to making beats. With Dame as the day-to-day leader, the Roc-A-Fella crew moved through the room full of culture vultures and went from down and out to a dynasty — together.
By the time JAY-Z’s In My Lifetime: Vol. 2 had gone 5-times platinum in 2000, Roc-A-Fella had American youth culture in the palm of their hands. Roc-A-Fella went into partnerships with clothing companies, shoe designers, tech brands and movie studios. They even brainstormed creating an amusement park. Dame was adept at finding ways to capitalize off of their influence — and making sure that, for the most part, he and his team were compensated properly.
Dame’s rigid advocacy for his artists was admirable, but time has shown that it was unsustainable in a music industry in which he made too many enemies. Village Voice deemed him a “pugnacious asshole in the boardroom” who could quickly lose his slick-witted cool and berate his peers in a borderline callous manner.
When Kanye expressed guilt for choosing JAY-Z over Dame in 2004, he said he wanted to learn how to be as likable as JAY-Z, subtly implying that Dame wasn’t particularly likable to the gatekeepers who provided access to the superstardom Kanye craved. There’s footage online of Dame relentlessly yelling at then-Def Jam President Kevin Liles. There’s also an infamous video of him screaming at Def Jam executives for holding a meeting about Jay-Z without his knowledge.
That video timestamped the end of his run at the steeple of the music industry. In 2004, he and Biggs ended their business relationship with JAY-Z, who was given the Def Jam presidency and had begun his solitary climb atop the corporate ladder. The trio that revolutionized the possibilities of hip-hop consumerism ended up selling their 50 percent stake in Roc-A-Fella to Island Def Jam and parting ways. Dame has previously blamed Lyor for the split. Lyor denied any culpability on The Breakfast Club But videographer Choke No Joke, who followed Dame and gathered footage which became The Last Days Of The Roc, alleges that Lyor once gloated to him that, “I shut that motherf*cker down.” It wouldn’t be surprising if other executives were similarly relieved at Roc-A-Fella’s split, as they no longer had to deal with Dame to work with JAY-Z.
While it would be simple to chalk up Dame’s relentless nature to being an asshole, his barbs were generally weaponized for the right cause: artist advocacy. While Dame’s resume isn’t spotless, as he has had financial disagreements with Currensy, Jim Jones, Beanie Sigel, and Choke No Joke, he carries an overall reputation of being a positive figure in artist’s lives. To this day, he fearlessly chides the music executives that the rest of hip-hop culture deifies or condemns only in nameless generalities. He’s repeatedly challenged so-called culture vultures to one-on-one debates, despite everyone —including himself— knowing they will likely never occur.
That’s why it’s fitting that JAY-Z likened Dame to Casino’s Sam Rothstein on 2006’s “Lost Ones.” Neither Dame or gambling ace Rothstein’s peers understood why their genius counterparts hadn’t “stayed in food and beverage,” behind the scenes of their respective industries, but both men asked for public debates to shed light on unfair treatment. Rothstein was denied a gambling license because he refused to placate a Las Vegas gaming board official by employing his dimwitted nephew, and Dame was “shut down” because he refused to placate industry higher-ups and advocated for Black culture. Both were industry outcasts. Rothstein was a Jewish mob affiliate in the still-rural ‘70s Vegas and Dame was a Black man at the top of a music industry run by white executives, and both felt the cold shoulder from their respective power circle for sticking to their guns. For Dame, the reasoning for taking a public platform is the same as Robert De Niro’s Rothstein: they both disdained the status quo, knew their value, and wanted their institution’s power structure to be publicly shamed for their misdeeds.
Dame publicly shamed disgraced movie producer Harvey Weinstein years before he was held accountable for his sexual misconduct via the #MeToo movement. Weinstein is facing life in prison for a multitude of sex crimes which had been whispered about in the industry for years. “Everybody knew what was going on,” Dame told TMZ. Dame recalls that he “always chose not to work with” Weinstein’s Miramax films because of his reputation in the industry. The one time he did work with Weinstein, in 2002 on the cult classic Paid In Full, he ended up punching him in the face.
Dipset’s Freekey Zekeyalleges that Dame slapped Weinstein after the movie producer abrasively tried to tell Dame about how the characters in Paid In Full —based on Harlem drug dealers Rich Porter, Alpo and Azie “AZ” Faison— should act.
Dame wouldn’t outright admit to TMZ that he hit Weinstein, merely noting that “someone definitely got punched on the set,” but he told them “I’ve never really liked the way Harvey treated my culture” and he “didn’t like the way [Weinstein] talked to people.” That’s why he wanted to “punish [Weinstein] publicly so people would know he was weak.” Paid In Full was a modest box office success, selling $3 million at the gate, and it got Director Charles Stone nominated for a 2003 Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature, but the acrimony between Dame and Weinstein hindered any future movie partnerships.
Dame also won’t be partnering with Lee Daniels anytime soon.The Empire creator got what he deemed a “wakeup call” from Dame after recently being accosted over an outstanding $2 million dollar debt. Dame said in a since-deleted Instagram post that, in 2004 he gave Daniels, who was also called out by Mo’Nique, $2 million “to pay for his dream of being a director.” Daniels’ dreams came to fruition, but Dame’s payback never did. Dame had been discussing Daniels’ debt in public for years, and sued him in 2014, but the general public only called Daniels out once Dame caused a public scene. It was an example of how his pitbull, in-your-face comportment was sometimes necessary to get what he deserved.
“As a black man, I gave you money that you needed, so how you not gonna give me my money?,” Dame incredulously asked Daniels in the clip. Once again, he was right: there are few firms willing to invest that amount of capital into someone simply because they’re Black and have a dream. Dame did, and his good deed was punished. Daniels’ conduct illustrates another lesson that Dame has extolled: the entertainment industry’s culture of dishonest business dealings isn’t rooted solely in racism, but in the greed that sustains capitalism. Sometimes, even another Black person will do you as wrong as a Lyor Cohen.
Lyor was given an air of reverence by The Breakfast Club, but Charlamagne wore a Roc Nation hat in a petty bid to antagonize Dame during his 2015 Breakfast Club appearance. Between Lyor and Dame, however, only one of them told Nore to make sure he stayed “hot enough” to be worth inviting to a yearly party. When Beanie Sigel was on trial for attempted murder, Dame Dash was in court with him every day; when Irv Gotti’s Murder Inc was under FBI investigation, Lyor allegedly put a poster in his office of him hugging Irv Gotti’s archenemy 50 Cent and mockingly told his onetime wunderkind Gotti — who had made him millions — to look at it during a meeting. Perhaps the respect levels that both men carry for hip-hop and it’s progenitors should be properly reciprocated.
JAY-Z’s 4:44 album was championed for its theories on Black capitalism, yet few noted that he was echoing Dame’s sentiments about self-reliance and Black solidarity. There are no think pieces about how JAY-Z’s Roc Nation empire is missing Dame’s ambitious, forward-thinking presence only in the physical sense; Dame himself had to note that “the same way that I've been talking about rolling out albums is the way [4:44] got rolled out” and that he can tell JAY-Z has “listened” to his advice through the years.
It’s time for more people to listen to Dame, and shift the perception from Dame the asshole, or Dame the hyperbolic financial advisor, to Dame the tireless advocate for Black culture. Way before it was trendy — or even a good idea — to be militant about Black independence, cultural authenticity, and fair compensation in the exploitative entertainment industry, Dame was a chief proponent for all three causes. He lost his stature in the industry in part by being the exact figure that so many hip-hop fans desire now. That’s why the narrative should be inverted from pondering why the music industry dislikes Dame Dash to questioning why Dame Dash dislikes the music industry. Dame lived long enough to see himself become the villain — but maybe it’s time to treat him like a hero again.
Andre Gee is a New York-based freelance writer with work at Uproxx Music, Impose Magazine, and Cypher League. Feel free to follow his obvious Twitter musings that seemed brilliant at the moment @andrejgee.