Damon Dash Resurrected

Cast out of Jay-Z's kingdom, a notorious hip-hop mogul takes a kinder, gentler, hipper approach to reinvention

There's no shortage of people who've made and squandered fortunes in the entertainment world. But Dash's crash was magnified by the success—totally unprecedented, really—that Jay-Z has enjoyed. It would have been acceptable if the rapper had reached an artistic peak after the Roc-a-Fella break-up, but his most notable accomplishments came in Dash's supposed realm of expertise: marketing, branding, endorsements, and a spiderweb of business deals, including a small stake of ownership in the New Jersey Nets. In 2006, "Lost One," an early Jay single after his "retirement" hiatus, included what appeared to be a line directed at Dash: "I heard motherfuckers sayin' they made Hov/Made Hov say, 'OK, so make another Hov'/Niggas wasn't playin' they day role/So we parted ways like Ben and J-Lo." Both the winner and the loser were clear.

Where Roc-a-Fella was a stronghold for the baggy-jeans-and-dangling-medallion set, events at DD172 attract a downtown crowd where guys in gingham shirts, thick glasses, and colorful sneakers mingle with attractive, post-neo-soul girls. At a recent opening, a group of attendees sipped caipirinhas made with coconut water and inspected those menacing pictures of gun-toting extremists. It was entry-level stuff, but fun. For Dash, this scene is ideal: "When I look at a hip-hop mogul that was relevant 10 years ago, they should be doing exactly what I'm doing," he says. "It should be something intelligent and renaissance." He uses words like "renaissance" frequently—also "moral fabric" and "quality of life" and "evolution." There's a classist strain of pride in his discussion of transitioning from the hip-hop world to that of fashion and culture, but his fabled obnoxiousness has been tempered with some humility. Still, midway through being interviewed, he stops mid-sentence to gripe: "Know why I'm tight right now?" he asks the room. "Nobody taping me." Someone grabs a digital video camera and starts filming.

Dash has begun working with a new collective of hip-hop artists, and he naturally draws comparisons to the formative days of Roc-a-Fella. But in a case of dramatic reverse-engineering, one of the notable proponents of glittery mainstream rap has been reborn as a purist backpacker. "I wasn't aware of this beautiful movement of artists that stick together, that don't rap about negative things," he says. "They have swag, style, and they're with me because they love the fact that I preserve their independence. I'm not exposed with them. I didn't have to give them any money to get down with me." One project, titled 24-Hour Karate School, brought together Ski-Beatz, a producer who created much of Jay-Z's Reasonable Doubt, and underground artists like Mos Def, Jean Grae, and the Cool Kids. The BlakRok LP put indie rockers the Black Keys in the studio with Jim Jones and RZA. After years of rolling to shows 20-deep in expectation of brawls, Dash expresses awe that Curren$y, a New Orleans rapper once affiliated with Lil Wayne, tours without an entourage.

Likewise, the troupe of young artists who records in DD172 was surprised to encounter the current incarnation of Dash. "I grew up seeing Dame pouring bottles on models and doing dances and being very arrogant," says Stalley, a bearded rapper from Ohio. "But he's nothing like that. He's very down-to-earth, very humble. I think the other way that he did it wasn't as much fun as it is now."

Last week, Curren$y released his LP Pilot Talk on Roc-a-Fella Records, joining Kanye West and Jadakiss as the only artists to put out albums on the label since 2007. It was Dash who put together the pressing and distribution deal with Def Jam; the familiar Roc logo is both imprinted on Curren$y's album and hangs from a chain around his neck, suggesting the label may be in mid-resurrection. Dash, veteran promoter that he is, effuses praise for his new charge: "He'll be bigger than anyone I've ever worked with," he says with conviction undiminished by the statement's unlikelihood. To him, things are always possible: "A lot of things I'm saying now will not resonate to the average individual for five years," he says. "So five years before it happens, I sound crazy."

Battered but far from broken, Dash remains a feverish salesman, an entrepreneur with a proud independent streak, and a self-proclaimed visionary. One thing he's never been is a musician. He's never rapped, never sung, never produced the tracks his artists performed over. Now, he rises from the couch in his office to lift up a turquoise guitar. He sits back down, rests the instrument on his knee, and strums a simple melody. It's shaky, but he stumbles on. "I can do this all day," he says happily. "I've been playing the same exact song for six months, and nobody cares."

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