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On a recent muggy evening, veteran Houston rapper Bun B performed in the basement of a luxe Tribeca gallery. It was a dark, crude space, packed to the gills, as if a Bushwick loft party had burrowed up through Manhattan topsoil.
Empty Budweiser cans collected in corners, smoke clogged the air, and condensation gave the walls the slick glisten of a slug's belly. "This is the hottest place in the world," Bun marveled, a sheen of sweat reflecting off his bald head. His live backing band eased into the opening bars of "International Players Anthem," and the crowd voiced approval. Among that congregation was Damon Dash, grinning, giving out hugs, and chortling with laughter, back in the thick of things.
Dash's new gallery, DD172 (his initials and the Duane Street address), is a different world from the dank catacombs beneath. The hardwood timbers are spotless; the white walls of the ground-level exhibition area soar upward into the airy office space where he now works. Six years have passed since the splintering of Roc-a-Fella Records, the hip-hop label Dash and Jay-Z built into a sprawling entertainment empire. Jay long ago ascended to a rarefied plateau of celebrity where the absurd is normal: He fraternizes with Russian billionaires, taunts Noel Gallagher at Glastonbury, and makes sweet love to Beyoncé on a mattress stuffed with unicorn hair. Dame has not been so fortunate: One by one, his flotilla of business ventures—in music, fashion, sports promotion, publishing, and film—have sunk. Following a much-publicized fall-out with his former cohort, his reputation as a cagey entrepreneur was tarnished, his fortune stripped clean, his marriage to fashion designer Rachel Roy torn asunder. And he is happier than ever before.
Morning sunlight spills into Dash's office, the man himself splayed across a furry white couch beneath a large, feathered Ojibwa dreamcatcher. He wears a fuchsia T-shirt with diagonal yellow stripes, jeans, and tortoise-rimmed glasses that, when coupled with the flecks of gray in his beard, give him a "rad dad" look. He shares the space with a pair of women in their early 20s who have ascended, in the manner of a metastasizing start-up, from assistants to heads of divisions. The woman who presides over the music wing is also a singer; the one running the magazine America Nu, Dash explains, "loves taking photos and doing artistic things." He says he prefers working with women because they're harder to yell at.
In a few hours, the compound will pulse with creative energy: Such up-and-coming rappers as Curren$y and Stalley will record in the music studios, while a video production team called Creative Control works from editing bays. Enjoying the morning's relative calm, Dash wanders from his office into a wider area where a few people quietly tap away at laptops. "I'm not surrounded by posters of guns and Scarface here," he notes. There's no sign of Tony Montana, true, but the gallery walls are covered with stylized portraits of marked militants wielding Kalashnikovs. This is the evolution of Dame Dash.
Born and raised in Harlem, Dame seemed to have hustling in his bloodstream. His mother sold clothing out of their apartment. His cousin, Darien Dash, was the first African-American to take a dot-com public. Actress Stacey Dash is a cousin. Discipline problems kept Damon bouncing around private schools like Isaac Newton and South Kent on scholarship, but he eventually earned his GED, and began promoting parties and managing musicians in the early '90s. "He was an undeniable ball of energy," says Clark Kent, the Brooklyn DJ and producer who worked with Dame at Atlantic Records and first introduced him to Jay-Z in 1994. "I saw that he had a relentless approach to having his way. He approached everything with an independent spirit that makes people either get down or lay down."
Roc-a-Fella became a record label that same year, a partnership between Jay, Dash, and Kareem that quickly led to a pressing and distribution deal with Priority Records; after achieving critical acclaim and moderate commercial success with Jay-Z's 1996 full-length debut, Reasonable Doubt, the Roc-a-Fella trio retained their independence and signed a co-venture deal with Def Jam for a reported $1.5 million in expansion capital the following year. "It wasn't like it was built to be this record label," says Kent. "Everything they did was like homeboys. The premise was to make one album, but it was too good and too easy."
Money started pouring in when Jay-Z's third album, 1998's Vol. 2 . . . Hard Knock Life, sprinted to the top of the charts and sold five million copies domestically. The LP's club-friendly combination of dexterous lyrics and sparse, spacey beats made Jay a star, and his reflected glow was enough to help Memphis Bleek's Coming of Age (1999) and Beanie Sigel's The Truth (2000) become gold-certified debuts. Roc-a-Fella was further legitimized as more than just a one-man show with subsequent signings: At full strength, the roster also included Kanye West, Cam'ron, Juelz Santana, State Property, M.O.P., and, strangely, Samantha Ronson. Other labels were crossing the Mason-Dixon Line in search of fresh talent, but Roc remained an obelisk of street-oriented East Coast lyricism and soulful-yet-punchy production in the face of the rising Southern tide.