They had so much in the way of resources that they put out Jay-Z’s first album, Reasonable Doubt, without major label support. When Def Jam came around, interested in Jay-Z, instead of signing him to a typical deal, the company bought a 50 percent stake in Roc-A-Fella for seven figures. Mr. Dash, Mr. Burke and Jay-Z retained control of the label. It was a checkmate move for a label only one year old.
WHILE MUCH OF this business savvy is now solely credited to Jay-Z, in the shadows there lurks the ever-fading wild-style touch of his former manager and business partner, Mr. Dash, who was ubiquitous in hip-hop at one point. There he is in many of Jay-Z’s videos, tugging his diamond chain across his neck back and forth, with his hat cocked to the side, licking his lips, doing a dickhead’s jig to the music. These were the golden years, the years of excess. Roc-A-Fella was a big-deal label in some ways, but it was also a victim of its own hype. Most often, there was only one serious moneymaker on the roster, Jay-Z himself. It was up to Mr. Dash to try to expand it.
In the late ’90s, Jay-Z and Mr. Dash walked out of a disappointing meeting with executives at Iceberg, a European sportswear company, with a clear understanding that they would have to create a line for themselves.
“In the beginning it was laughable,” Jay-Z writes, “since we had no idea what we were doing. We had sewing machines up in our office, but not professional ones that can do twelve kinds of stitches; we had the big black ones that old ladies use. Eventually, we got some advice from Russell [Simmons] and did the necessary research, got some partners, and launched Rocawear properly. … I’m lucky that Iceberg didn’t give us the bullshit we asked for in the first place … because we might not have ever started a company that is poised to bring in a billion dollars in revenue.”
The company that gave Jay-Z his true liquidity was Rocawear, not Roc-A-Fella. It was a company that was Mr. Dash’s baby. But even a really fantastic country can only have one king. Dan Charnas, the author of The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip Hop, broke it down for me. “Jay is an amazing guy, but Jay didn’t always like Dame’s choices. Dame wanted to sign Kanye West the producer as Kanye West the artist, and Jay, while not ever nixing the idea, he wasn’t so sure. He was somewhat less enthusiastic about that than Dame. So Dame was just starting to prepare Roc-A-Fella for life after Jay-Z ’cause Jay-Z said he was going to retire in 2003. He was just starting to do that when Jay pulled the plug on him.”
The humbling of Mr. Dash has been biblical. His luck post-Rocawear has been that of Job. A man once crowned one of hip-hop’s greatest moguls by CNN in September saw the Tribeca loft he owned and lived in with his on-again, off-again wife, Rachel Roy, the designer of the eponymously named fashion line, foreclosed on and sold. When Mr. Dash broke with Jay-Z in 2005, he sold his stake in Rocawear to him for a reported $30 million. Two years later, Jay-Z would sell the brand to Iconix Brand Group, owner of Candie’s and Joe Boxer, for a staggering $204 million. In a Village Voice profile, Mr. Dash said, “The people that I was helping, once they realized their dreams, they did what a criminal does. They stabbed you in the back.”
The coordinator of Mr. Dash’s new art gallery in Tribeca, DD172, refused my requests to speak to him, citing a previous profile in The Observer that she felt was “mean.”
I cold-called a few other numbers of people supposedly connected to Mr. Dash. I sent out a text-message blast begging for a contact to him. I received a text back from a successful hip-hop business manager.
“Yes, isn’t he important?” I responded.
“Historically maybe. Now he is n—a scraps.”
“What?” I typed back.
“You know, um, like pieces of a man.”
THERE ARE TWO men who are said to have taken Mr. Dash’s place in Jay-Z’s business maneuvering. One is John Meneilly, his manager, a former executive of Provident Financial. Mr. Meneilly is in many ways the exact opposite of Mr. Dash: He is older, Irish and, last but not least, refuses to speak to the press. He worked for Mr. Dash and Jay-Z before he took over Mr. Dash’s old role. The newer force on the scene is Steve Stoute, Jay-Z’s business partner, marketing guru and friend.
Mr. Stoute is the man behind Jay-Z’s deals with DJ Hero, Heineken and Reebok. Once known as the manager of Nas, Mr. Stoute now helms his own advertising firm, Translation. He is a convincing pitchman, part post-racial philosopher, part Gordon Gekko. He speaks in terms of concepts, usually ones he has come up with himself, and I could not help but imagine that the only thing missing from our conversation was a PowerPoint presentation. To him, Jay-Z’s success derives from the rapper’s decision to “go narrow and deep.” “Most people go wide,” he said. “You go narrow and deep, very myopic, very pure to what you believe in, which is the narrow, and find depth in that, depth in that. Jay is one of the very few who took the long route, letting it cross over to him rather then crossing over to it.”
For Mr. Stoute, crossing over isn’t a bad word. It is a talent. And though he can seem slick, he is likable, perhaps because one gets the sense that his ideas, even the ones that seem misguided or bizarre, are ideas he truly believes in.
“The tanning of America,” he told me, “is a natural evolution of what I’ve seen hip-hop do for culture. What hip-hop culture has done to young adults. Over the last 20 years, this similar mental complexion–and I call it tanning, seeing the world as the same complexion–this whole notion is that young adults come through, and because of what hip-hop has done and the clothing, all of those things, they arrived at a similar complexion mentally.”
It is difficult to discern what the sociological fallout of such race bending is. Are white youth becoming more sensitive to the history, victories and plights of black America, or are black youth relinquishing blackness? Tanning is an idea that seems improvised, something made up to make sense of Jay-Z’s astoundingly lucrative appeal.
JAY-Z’S PARTNERSHIP WITH Bruce Ratner has brought him into the big business of New York City development. Mr. Ratner sought out Jay-Z because he wanted to buy the New Jersey Nets, bring them over to Brooklyn and build them a stadium. An alliance with Jay-Z was a priority because Mr. Ratner knew he would need the support of homegrown Brooklynites who were also big-time. It is, after all, a $4.9 billion project. In August 2004, Mr. Ratner’s group beat out the two other competing bids to become the official owner of the Nets. They paid $300 million. The Nets on the court, however, have not been as illustrious as their owners, and in the six years since their purchase the team’s worth has fallen 10 percent. This did not dissuade Russia’s second-richest man, Mr. Prokhorov, from buying a controlling stake in the team last year. Two hundred and fifty million dollars later, it was becoming an increasingly motley crew: the middle-aged developer, the rapper and the Russian, who together now own 22 acres of Brooklyn.
Unlike the controversial Racino Aqueduct Casino project, where last month the New York inspector general’s report revealed that Jay-Z was not actually an investor, only a potential performance fixture, Jay-Z has become a frontman in the Atlantic Yards-Barclays Center project, which has been hotly contested by local neighborhood activists all along. Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, a 7,000-person-strong coalition that “is formally aligned in opposition” to the project, has described Jay-Z as being little more than Mr. Ratner’s “marketing device.” This seems loaded, but there is some truth to it. At the groundbreaking in March, Jay-Z brought the crooked-arm language of the left to bear, saying the project is “so overwhelmingly in favor of the people: the job creation, the housing that’s being built.” It was time again for shout-outs, and this time he dedicated them to “Brooklyn–we did it again,” and to Biggie Smalls. Jay-Z is a natural orator; he can say much or nothing, and it not only sounds good, it also sounds heartfelt.