It was either, depending on how you looked at it, a great blessing or a growing problem: Def Jam had way too many rappers on its hands. In a single year, the record label had gone on a mad signing spree for one young act after another, prompted by streaming’s growing revenue and the public’s hypothetically untapped appetite for hip-hop. At the end of 2018, Def Jam had around two dozen fresh faces on its roster — from artists with burgeoning loyalty clubs to brash 17-year-olds newly plucked from SoundCloud — and the burly stacks of paperwork raised a dire question: How would the label be able to break all these new names?
Almost as a joke, one of Def Jam’s A&Rs threw out an offhand idea: Why not save time and money by breaking them all at the same time?
Most of the rappers had never met one other before, or even heard of one another. And nowhere in their record deals did it say they had to team up. But a few months ago, Paul Rosenberg, Def Jam’s newly installed CEO who is most famous for managing Eminem’s career, greenlit the experiment of an all-in “rap camp,” a collaborative free-for-all to see what this new class of rappers could come up with when tossed into the same room.
The label ushered its recruits out in droves to lay down tracks together at West Hollywood’s Paramount Recording Studios, where they rotated in and out from three in the afternoon to three in the morning in week-long stretches. (By far the toughest part, A&Rs say, was getting all the rappers to arrive on time.) What began as a cost-cutting measure then bloomed into something Def Jam could actually sell: Undisputed, a compilation album showcasing work from 15 or so freshman acts, paired with an eight-part documentary series à la Real World about their lives during the making of the record, was released today.
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From Instagram darling YK Osiris to designer-turned-artist Dominic Lord to neon-haired teenage duo S3nsi Molly and Lil Brook, the coast-spanning artists comprising Undisputed‘s tracklist are a nearly overwhelming list of new talent and, more importantly, an ambitious, untested new hit-making strategy for hip-hop labels. If the album catches on, Def Jam, which turns 35 years old this year, will think seriously about refashioning its whole business model.
“We never thought it was going to fit like this. Like, if this went bad — you know what I mean? It would have been bad,” Rico “Rico Beats” Lamarre, an in-house Def Jam producer and A&R, tells Rolling Stone on the night of Undisputed‘s production wrap, a few days before the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles. He rubs at his eyes — it’s past midnight and everyone’s been up nearly the whole week straight making final tweaks to the record and preparing to promote it — then shrugs. “But it’s great. It worked.”
That Def Jam ended up with such a crowded ledger of freshmen in the first place was a result of pressure from the very top. When Universal Music Group CEO Lucian Grainge handed Rosenberg the reigns of Def Jam in 2017, he did so with one particular missive: remake the label into the best hip-hop factory in the world. Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons’ founding of Def Jam in 1984 had established the label as a home for rappers like Public Enemy and LL Cool J, but their more recent successors strayed from those roots to chase more mainstream singers like Alessia Cara and Justin Bieber as it continued to release music from stalwarts like Kanye West and Pusha T. In the meantime, labels like Warner’s Atlantic and Universal’s own Interscope wedged themselves into the top of the charts with their own rap acts (Cardi B and Kendrick Lamar are two leading examples) and haven’t budged from the throne since.
As music-streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music bring major new revenue streams to the business, with rap leading the surge in listeners and money alike, Def Jam’s history as a hip-hop label quickly became its focus again. UMG wants to make sure Def Jam keeps up its legacy and doesn’t lose out — especially amid the industry-wide gold rush for new acts.
Rosenberg says the team at Def Jam really “wanted to do something organic” with its new rappers after signing them and recalls the inspiration for the compilation name coming from a wistful remark someone made, around the time he first arrived, when looking at the logo of the label: “It’s just the undisputed greatest hip-hop label of all time.”
Members of the new freshman class — who are being introduced as Def Jam’s vision for not only its future, but the future of hip-hop — don’t necessarily care for that legacy. (At Def Jam’s Manhattan office one afternoon, a dozen employees drop everything at their desks to go hang out with DMX, who’s swung by for a quick visit; “Who’s DMX?” says Brook, unperturbed.) But when they were asked (a.k.a. told) to participate in rap camp, all of them reacted with curiosity rather than apprehension. “We made music. We had tattoo sessions, basketball sessions, haircut sessions. It was a good environment,” says YK Osiris. Fetty Luciano, a former member of Bobby Shmurda’s GS9 crew who recently finished a three-year prison sentence, was perhaps the most game for the idea: “I’m on parole, so, anything to get out of New York, I’m out of here,” he says.
During every session, dozens of artists, producers and A&Rs stuffed themselves into studios together, which led to claustrophobia and creativity in equal measures. The two dozen artists churned out some 200 recordings in two week-long blocks, the best of which were then refined for Undisputed. Rap camp “started with a few of us wanting to put our acts together, and then it grew into other A&Rs participating and then the artists coming back and telling us ‘We believe in this, and it’s okay for y’all to do what you gotta do on the business side,'” says Pedro “Dro” Genao, one of Def Jam’s team of A&Rs. “I’m grateful they trusted us. To be honest, we never knew this was going to be a project. When we flew out there we were just giving each artist some foundations.” Adds A&R vice president Alexander “A.E.” Edwards: “I think this is a glimpse into the future. It is a foundation of the future. A lot of times, there are artists who don’t have the resources. It’s a blessing to be at a label that allows you to pluck roses from the streets and nurture and develop artists.”
“I like chaos. I feel like when you have chaos, the really good people emerge from it. It was kind of an exercise.” —Steven Victor, Def Jam EVP
While “synch camps” are common in the country and pop sectors of the music industry — group events that bring together songwriters to compose material for ads, films and other commercial work — labels tend not to throw novices together to see what happens. Egalitarian songwriting camps may be regular occurrences in pop, but other group project are usually handed off to a proven, bankable star; Kanye is famous for assembling large groups of talented artists in one room, including untested rappers and producers, but the end result is a Kanye West album. Def Jam’s bet, then, was that even without a guiding creative focal point, that model would still yield results and, crucially, create its own stars rather than support an established one.
From a financial view, the decision to corral everyone together was easy: “The more people you get involved on the business side, eventually the cheaper things are going to be, when you’re paying out studio time and engineers and people’s time,” Dro says. “So the more you have in the pot, the cheaper things eventually become. The more people participated in it, the more sense it made. It made so much sense on the business side.” From all other standpoints, it was a thoroughly risky idea. What if the artists all hated each other?
Yet Steven Victor, the former G.O.O.D. Music COO who Rosenberg brought on as Def Jam’s executive vice president last year and oversees the entire A&R team, wasn’t all that worried about the artists getting too cutthroat with one another. “I like chaos. I feel like when you have chaos, the really good people emerge from it,” Victor says. “So I was looking forward to seeing who would flourish within the chaos and who would not. It was kind of an exercise.”
There were moments of harmony, like when Fetty was stuck trying to finish a verse and Landstrip Chip, who’d just touched down from a cross-country flight, strolled into the studio and, without missing a beat, tacked on a lyric that went on to make the master. The relatively unknown Nimic Revenue, Def Jam’s first-ever signee from Minnesota, reveled in the challenge of working with other people’s vision. TJ Porter came into rap camp with one sound and left with another entirely. Victor anticipates a twofold reaction to Undisputed: A group of people “who are like, ‘Who the fuck are all these kids?'” and, hopefully, a larger crowd who thinks something along the lines of: “‘Oh, man, these kids are really talented and I’m looking forward to seeing what they have in store.'”
“The more you have in the pot, the cheaper things eventually become. The more people participated in it, the more sense it made. It made so much sense on the business side.” — Pedro Genao, Def Jam A&R
Dro says he was pleasantly surprised that the sense of competition between the artists, while palpable in the room at points, didn’t hinder their work. “Everyone was having a different vision and checking in with each other to see who’s who,” he says. He acknowledges the inherent impossibility that all of them — or even most of them — will catch listeners’ attention, though. “I think for each and every one of them, everybody feels like they’re the one,” he says. “What determines it is time. You see who has solid goals and vision.” A.E. recalls the artists “always working, always hungry for more time” at all times of the day. Rap camp is “where everybody found their foundation or rhythm or sound,” Dro says.
A producer in the studio puts it more frankly: “It’s coming out of their budget, so they’re not here to fuck around.”
The total cost of the rap camp experiment comes out to around the sum that it would usually take to break a single artist, according to one executive’s rough estimate. So if just two or three members of the current cohort are able to make it onto streaming playlists and radio stations and YouTube trending charts — all the usual markers of one’s star rising — the gamble will pay for itself. Def Jam’s A&Rs are already planning the next iteration of rap camp with a new list of names, and will potentially mix in some older, more established acts, both to provide tutelage and anchor audiences’ tastes.
Rap camp as a long-term model could serve as a cost-efficient training ground, as well as a way for Def Jam’s team to easily observe which artists are savvier or quicker on the uptake than others. For Dro, seeing young artists in group settings demonstrate confidence and control over their own brand is a major indicator of their future triumphs. “I say to artists, what kind of gallery do you want to be in?” he says. “Are you trying to get in downtown galleries, or do you want to be in a museum? Can you see that far?”
Victor says the team didn’t try to prep any of the rap camp artists on how to approach the tacit competition for attention, preferring to observe how they fared when thrown headfirst into the water. “I did say to them: You gotta be aware that everybody is here for your spot, not just the kid who got signed the same time as you; an artist who just started could be your peer in a short amount of time, and the established artists want to be the primary focus too,” he says. And adds: “All the artists from rap camp have a bond now. That was something I didn’t expect. But I guess when shit clicks, it clicks.”
“Undisputed is fair. Bang — the world gets it and they’re gonna eat up what they like.” — A&R vice president Alexander “A.E.” Edwards
If there’s one thing the streaming era has done for labels, especially ones like Def Jam with legacies to uphold, it’s to push them — aggressively — to try new strategies for making and breaking new artists, lest they lose their sway in the music world to streaming companies themselves, who are also starting to make and break new artists of their own. But as Def Jam’s rap camp crew makes its official debut this weekend, it will still have to abide by one of the oldest and most unchanged rules of the music business: There’s only so much room for success.
“The truth of the matter is, the cream will always rise to the top,” A.E. says. “Even if you have a team that all has ‘Def Jam’ on the jersey. Heat rises. The cream rises to the top. The star players are gonna go out there and shine. The hungrier players. Eventually, the universe will gravitate to who strikes a chord. And I think this was the best way to give all the artists a fair shot — it’s not like, ‘YOU DIDN’T GIVE ME A SHOT! IF ONLY I GOT WHAT HE GOT!’ In the past, it was harder for artists to clear the runway to get to the shrink wrap, the release, the magazines. Now, you all get the same platform. The same start. Undisputed is fair. Bang — the world gets it, and they’re gonna eat up what they like.”