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Photo by Phil Knott

Dame Dash Talks Exclusively

The hip hop mogul returns in 2010 with a Warholian flair

A recent Observer New York feature profiling 38-year-old ex-hip hop mogul Damon Dash was titled “The Wannabe Warhol”. The Harlem hustler is building a new collective in New York that is a far cry from the Roc-A-Fella days, the label he infamously co-founded in 1995 with Jay-Z and Kareem Biggs, an empire that would net him an estimated wealth close to $100 million. His split from Jay-Z (and their Russian investors), Roc-A-Fella, Roc-A-Wear, his ex-wife model and designer Rachel Roy and their own fashion company fortunes left Dash with a public beat down and the need to reinvent himself for 2010.

Embracing independent creativity, Dame’s all-encompassing arts space on 172 Duane Street in Tribeca does have a slight Warholian ethos, it’s a flop house for artists, musicians, producers, skateboarders and filmmakers. When Dazed Digital spent a day hanging with Dame Dash at DD172 the downstairs gallery was recovering from an opening party for artists Graham Gilmore and Jeremy Wagner. In a strange pairing the underground Mic Manipulator Edan was jamming with Jay-Z / Reasonable Doubt producer Ski in the basement studio. Dash’s online TV network Creative Control was upstairs premiering a rough cut of the haunting new Gil Scott Heron music video, whilst his next rap prodigy Curren$y was swaggering about helping himself to the Vitamin Water. Fashion designer Christopher Bevans was working in the office and Dame was signing off the latest issue of his magazine, America. Dash calls it the 24 Hour Karate Club and its environment the birthplace for Blak Roc, his brilliant comeback record featuring bluesy garage rockers The Black Keys and the RZA, Mos Def and Jim Jones on the mic.  

Dazed Digital: What were your fondest memories growing up in Harlem?
Damon Dash: Shit, I had so many. Harlem defined my business, my aesthetic, my swagger, the way I carry myself and the way I carry other people. I was a real participant of Harlem. I remember roller-skating at the rink, The Apollo on Wednesdays, amateur night, everyone went. We just needed an event to get dressed up and be fly. I would throw parties at the Cotton Club, we had a crew called The Best Out. Roc-A-Fella was adapted from The Best Out, we used to give the first 100 girls a bottle of champagne, it wasn’t about making money, it was about having fun.

DD: What’s the deal with the Blak Roc project?
Damon Dash: I’m going to tell you a story. Birthdays to me are very important. It was Raquel’s birthday (who works with me) and they were going to The Black Keys concert. I was like, what the fuck you going to a concert and I’m not invited? They said it was sold out. I was like, who are these Black Keys that you all played me for? I started to listen to them and it became my theme music. I became a fan. Not in a business way but a genuine - I wonder what they do every day? - fan. I was like, yo, find them.  

DD: Then you hooked up Mos?
DD: I ran into Mos Def in my neighbourhood in Tribeca. I think he has a time machine - he was doing something with Elvis or some shit. He knew The Black Keys and was excited to get in the studio. We opened it up. I called RZA, me and him have the same barber in LA... Raekwon, Pharoahe Monch, Q-Tip...

DD: This is your new independence?
Damon Dash: We did this very indie. We pressed up the records, shipped them ourselves, we didn’t pay radio or press, it’s been very organic. It was the least traumatising experience I’ve had in the whole music business and one of the most impacting things I’ve ever done.

DD: How about your work with the fashion world?
Damon Dash: I left music to do high fashion with Rachel Roy my wife, soon to be ex. I just sold half of that to Jones New York which is a five billion dollar company. I don’t have to watch that shit no more. I have to get back to what i was good at - music.

DD: And DD172 is the return?
Damon Dash: I got a black belt in music. Roc-A-Fella. I don’t really have to speak on that. The last person I signed before the Blak Roc was Kanye. And movies I got a blue belt. I haven’t got that Oscar yet, but I’ve worked with Oscar winners and shit like that. With that said, in this building we do the music, merch, videos, websites, books, magazines, we got the gallery, we do the radio stations - everything. And we still making movies. I’m making a documentary with Mos on the black punk rock group from the 70’s called Death. We call it the 24-hour Karate School, because it never closes, you have artists, skateboarders, filmmakers, all under the same roof.

DD: You built one of the biggest empires in hip hop, how do you approach what you do now?
Damon Dash: The last year was the public beat down. They were fucking with me everyday. But it’s cool, the best thing is when a champ gets knocked down and gets back up. I had to completely start a new. No Roc-A-Fella helping any of this. It’s interesting to see how people carry you when they’re thinking you’re not who you were. There’s got to be love. You can’t work with somebody despite the fact that the way that you don’t agree with the way they act just to make money. Quality of living means more to me than anything.

DD: You’ve taken risks throughout your career, in 2010 will you continue to do this?
Damon Dash: You got to. There is no business model that existed before the recession that can be relevant now. Nobody saw this coming, that means that everybody has to change and also everybody is broke. This is when fortunes are made. Everyone is holding their last, they’re scared, I’m putting my last on the street. This is the time to gamble all of it. You get rich now, you stay rich for the next 30 years.