Asylum Records’ President Dallas Martin — Future 25
This story appears in Rolling Stone‘s 2021 Future of Music issue, a special project delving into the next era of the multibillion-dollar hitmaking business. Read the other stories here.
Others may opt for docs about Jay-Z or the Notorious B.I.G.; Dallas Martin’s favorite music movie is Inventing David Geffen, about the manager, label exec, and film producer. “That’s my favorite documentary,” Martin says. “Just to see the levels he took music to, and the level he took his artists to just by believing in them, and the way he built his company to sell it for the amount of money he did–that was very inspiring.”
The hip-hop and R&B player’s rhapsodizing over the man who brought us the Eagles, Jackson Browne, and other old-school L.A. rock may sound unusual, but it’s actually perfect: In January, Martin became the president of Asylum Records, the label Geffen started 50 years ago, in a symbolic changing of the industry guard.
“A lot of people have been asking the question, ‘Is R&B dead?’ But it’s become more progressive,” Martin, who is 36, says. “A lot of younger artists are inspired by Young Thug and Future, more of a melodic style in rap, and that’s the future of music. In the beginning when Drake did it, it was like, ‘What’s this? He’s singing and rapping? You can’t do that.’ Now it’s more in the space of ‘You can do that too’ or ‘You can pick up a guitar and do a rap.’ It’s just mind-blowing.”
Martin has been aiming for a power-player role like this since he was a high school student in Flint, Michigan. Growing up a fan of classic Nineties hip-hop — he points to Biggie, Nas, Noreaga — he longed to be involved in the music business, but didn’t know where to start. “When I was in high school, it was a big cliché—either you sell drugs, play sports or rap,” he says. “And I wasn’t going to sell drugs and I wasn’t that good at playing basketball and I couldn’t rap.” But he did notice names of execs like Irv Gotti and Damon Dash in the credits of some of his favorite rap records.
“I was like, ’OK, what do those guys do?’” he recalls. “I didn’t see Irv Gotti on the mic all the time, but he’s part of the process. So I educated myself on what A&R was.”
At Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta, Martin studied marketing. Outside of the classroom, he helped throw parties that, by way of a friend, helped connect him with Def Jam exec Shakir Stewart. Martin wound up interning at Def Jam — one of his jobs was sifting through 50 to 100 demo CDs a day to see if anything was worth his boss’ time — and he was soon hired by the label. When one of his acts, rapper Juelz Santana, began having issues with the label and didn’t deliver an album, Martin was fired and returned to Atlanta, dejected. Luckily for him, Warner Brothers was looking to increase its R&B and hip hop presence and Martin wound up landing an A&R job with the label in 2011. There, he brokered a deal that led to Rick Ross bringing his Maybach Music Group to the label.
During his Def Jam intern days, Martin would try to watch Ross in the studio but would be repeatedly kicked out. Now, he was not only working with Ross but also with Maybach artists like Meek Mill on Meek’s debut Dreams & Nightmares. Martin later moved over to do A&R for sister label Atlantic, where he signed Nipsey Hussle (working on Hussle’s Victory Lap) and helped pull together another vital hip hop record: Roddy Ricch’s Please Excuse Me for Being Antisocial.
Along the way, Martin also dealt with unexpected tragedies beyond losing his dream job at Def Jam. Stewart, his mentor, committed suicide in 2008. “It was tough, man, because he was a father figure, someone that changed my life,” Martin says quietly. “It was a very hard time for me because I didn’t understand what was going on and I didn’t know whether it was the music business that made him do this. My ultimate conclusion was that you have to make sure you take care of your mental health first and foremost before you try to please everybody.”
Hussle’s shooting death in 2019 also made Martin realize not to take his friendships for granted. “It was heartbreaking,” he says. “I always thought I would have more time with Nip.”
Martin also remembers being in his office in 2017 when he heard that Meek Mill, already convicted on a gun charge, had been sentenced to two to four years for, among other things, popping a wheelie on a dirt bike without a helmet. Recalling the latter charge, Martin still sounds exasperated: “You’re like, ‘How fucked up is the world right now?’” When Meek was released from prison two years later, Martin found himself coping with “the most pressure I’ve ever been under” working on the rapper’s post-jail comeback, Championships. “We were trying to build his brand back up,” Martin says. “It was one of those projects when it was like, if you don’t deliver on this and we don’t make a great album, it could put a stain on both our careers.”
The stress continued to the end: Jay-Z didn’t deliver his contribution until five days before the album was scheduled to be released. But in the end, Championships was a runaway success, and Martin is currently helping A&R his next in-progress new album.
Much like Geffen 50 years ago, Martin sees his new home of L.A. as a creative hotbed community, and like Geffen, he also sees Asylum living up to its name as a refuge for developing artists. The label’s signings to date include Detroit’s Sada Baby, underground Houston female hip-hop artist KenTheMan, and Seattle’s Jay Loud, who blends rapping and crooning. Between that and his ongoing A&R job at Atlantic, he’s often juggling three different recording projects a day, even during COVID times. One thing he still hasn’t accomplished: interacting with Geffen. “I’m really looking forward to meeting him one day,” he says. “I want to make everybody proud. I’m definitely looking forward to bringing Asylum into the forefront of the dope labels.”