‘Every Bad Stereotype’: Inside the Shutdown of Russell Simmons’ All Def Digital
On Monday morning last week, everything was business as usual at All Def Digital. By the end of the day, the media company had rounded up its employees and fired almost every single one of them.
The rap- and comedy-focused brand, which Def Jam Recordings co-founder Russell Simmons set up in 2013, had been spinning its wheels since Simmons’ exit from the company last year due to sexual assault allegations, suffering from rampant mismanagement and a toxic work culture, six former employees tell Rolling Stone. Online video publication Tubefilter reported last week that the company was laying off its entire staff and closing entirely, with a business advisory firm coming into its Los Angeles building to divvy up assets — but CEO Chris Blackwell disputed that this week, saying to Variety that “we are reorganizing the company in advance of a strategic deal.” Simmons, Blackwell and other executives did not respond to Rolling Stone‘s request for comment on the current status of the company.
“No one knows the truth, which is the scariest part of it,” says one former employee who requested anonymity. “I don’t think anyone’s ever been told the truth in that building. The way Chris is talking about it now makes it sound even crazier.” Several people, speaking under the condition of anonymity because of fear of retribution, say they were told on Monday that the company could not continue operating because it had been hit by one too many scandals and was “radioactive” in the eyes of investors and other music industry firms.
All Def Digital began as a YouTube network in 2013 in collaboration with DreamWorks Animation’s AwesomenessTV. It went on to develop original programming for distributors like HBO and Facebook, and raised around $18 million from investors like Andreessen Horowitz and WPP Ventures. The company snagged a high-profile Spotify partnership in 2017 with Traffic Jams, a Carpool Karaoke-like series that paired producers and performers in spontaneous studio sessions in the backseat of an SUV. “Working with the All Def Digital team, we were able to produce a best-in-class hip-hop series that tells stories that have never been told before,” Tom Calderone, global head of Spotify Studios, said in a press release at the time.
But as one former employee puts it: “The content was dope, but the leadership was piss-poor.”
Though Simmons stepped down from All Def Digital last year after multiple women accused him of rape during the #MeToo movement, an uneasy atmosphere lingered at the company. Simmons’ media mogul status was “kind of a backbone” for multiple investments that fizzled shortly after his exit, a second ex-employee tells Rolling Stone. The newly installed, less-experienced executives were rumored to have bungled a deal with a major record company and mistimed other business decisions. A highly anticipated deal with investment firm TPG fizzled out when TPG became embroiled in its own scandal involving college admissions this year, and All Def began to seem like its “runway for funding was running out,” according to ex-employees familiar with the matter.
“Every bad stereotype that you hear about what this industry could be thrived in that environment. It was everything you were warned about.” — former All Def Digital employee
An already toxic work culture only worsened after Simmons’ reign. “Every bad stereotype that you hear about what this industry could be thrived in that environment,” a third former employee, who’d been with the company for several years, says. “It was a shit show from the day I started. It was everything you were warned about. This ‘oh it’s post-Russell’ era? It was just a jersey they wore for show. We were down to just two women at one point because literally every other person with a vagina walked out of the building.”
According to ex-employees, four women quit at the same time because they were unhappy with the work environment. In other instances they recounted, employees were guilt-tripped to take on multiple jobs and suffered injuries from being asked to perform physical labor outside of their roles. The staff count eventually dwindled from 60 to 15. Multiple employees – both female and male – said they attempted to file HR reports over instances of harassment and bullying — only to be told that an HR department did not exist.
While the company endured multiple layoffs and “scares” after Simmons’ departure, executives reassured the staff that business was booming. “Money was always an unsure thing for us, but we were always cranking out tons of content,” the second former employee says. “It was always sketchy how things operated, but for the most part we kept our heads down. They made a lot of empty promises. It feels like the rug was pulled out from under us.”
On paper, All Def Digital was a multi-platform media company with major distribution partnerships, live events, and its own in-house agency — but, in the words of its employees, it is one of a number of digital-era music companies run to the ground by mismanagement. “The potential for ADD to be great was so, so profound,” says another former employee. “With that group of people in control, it never stood a chance.”