Rock-A-Fella's Damon Dash, 'The Ultimate Hustler'

Damon Dash is the former co-CEO of Roc-A-Fella Records, which also included an empire of film, apparel and more. He's started his own label under the Island Records-Def Jam umbrella, and he'll be the focus of a reality show, The Ultimate Hustler, premiering on BET in October.

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ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon and this is NEWS & NOTES.

What does a powerful multi-industry mogul look like? This one sports baseball caps, flashy sneakers and diamonds. Damon Dash is CEO of Rocawear, a multimillion-dollar clothing line, and heads the Damon Dash Music Group and Dash Films, which last year helped produce the critically acclaimed movie "The Woodsman" starring Kevin Bacon. This October, BET is turning the cameras on the business and personal life of the New York native. The reality show "The Ultimate Hustler" is "The Apprentice" with a hip-hop flair. We spoke recently, and I wondered if Dash was amazed at just how pervasive hip-hop has become in shaping the culture of the world.

Mr. DAMON DASH (CEO, Rocawear): Sometimes I'm amazed that it's not bigger, like--and I can tell you what I mean by that, like, as it relates to, like, movies. You know, "Hustle & Flow" came out, and I was really rooting for "Hustle & Flow" because, you know, it was a hip-hop movie and it was a good movie. It was well acted. I was very impressed with the performances, and I was, like, you know, this will definitely be good in the urban market, but I wanted it to translate in the outside of the urban market so people would respect the hip-hop world and it would open the doors to where we can make more hip-hop movies. Like, you know, when we go to make a movie, they still want us to make comedies. I would love if we had a little more respect as related to movies. You know, I also think that, you know, there's a lot of positives in hip-hop. I think, you know, the press tend to capitalize or rather just key in on the negative things. Like, you can do 10 great things. And one bad thing happens, all you hear about is the bad thing, you hear...

GORDON: Yeah, Damon, the truth is, too, there is this want to hang on no matter how far you go on the ladder the gangster image.

Mr. DASH: To me, like, gangsters are carrying guns and played out. I think it shows, you know, a lot of insecurity. I don't think it's gangster to carry on a gangster image but you can't forget where you're from. You just can't walk away from...

GORDON: But it's not an issue of leaving your boys behind or leaving the idea that you are who you are from birth...

Mr. DASH: Right.

GORDON: ...and you don't forget those experiences...

Mr. DASH: Yeah.

GORDON: ...but when you listen to some cats who now are multimillionaires...

Mr. DASH: Those cats are phony. I'm not advocating that at all.

(Soundbite of rap music)

Unidentified Man: (Rapping) Memories...

Mr. DASH: Kanye West, Common Sense--those are rappers, too. Those dudes are poets.

(Soundbite of rap music)

Unidentified Man: (Rapping) ...(Unintelligible). Got Uncle Zack smoking stuff they blow up they nose to cope with their lows...

Mr. DASH: Trust me, within the culture, we're looking at those guys that are professing all that gangsterness and we think they're clowns. So, you know, I don't advocate that, but I'm not going to say that that represents my whole culture...

GORDON: Right.

Mr. DASH: ...or the whole culture of hip-hop.

GORDON: Let me ask you this. What about this generation, allowed those of you who've been able to attain what is truly the American dream and beyond it? Was there something special about the way you grew up? Was there something special that allowed your generation to get it in ways that generations before just didn't economically?

Mr. DASH: I don't think my success or me having the opportunity to have success is from our generation. I think it's from the generations before us. I think it's the fact that people like Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers and people like that fought for us to have the freedom to do and say what we want and have the opportunity to make money. So I feel like it's just an evolution. Those doors are open for us that weren't open for them, and we're capitalizing. So we're just lucky. Like, I don't know if I would've had the chops to fight like Martin Luther King or Stokely Carmichael or any of those dudes. You know what I'm saying? Like, we didn't come up in that climate. So now that, you know, there's more freedom, we're allowed to speak, we can look at people in their face, we're allowed to be ourselves, and we're also allowed to question when people are taking advantage of us. And we're also able to learn from other people's mistakes. And, you know, we also have the wherewithal to, you know, have the cameras on somebody. Ought to be able to articulate our concerns. It's made it to where we can get treated a little bit fairer. I still don't think we're where we should be as a culture, but, you know, I think it's a progress in motion. So hopefully I'm opening the doors for other guys that'll be way bigger than I am.

GORDON: You know what I find most interesting is one of the things that you and others have been able to do is function with the idea of knowing what's popular in our community and not just putting your name on it but actually motivating others and yourself to be a part of it. I think of the idea that you guys have now bought into PRO-Keds.

Mr. DASH: Yeah.

GORDON: And the sneaker game has been big for a long time. Talk to me about the motivation of doing that.

Mr. DASH: Well, I'm an objective consumer. You know what I'm saying? Like, everything I sell is from my lifestyle and I'm one that's bought a lot of sneakers. And you know what's really funny is now that I'm, you know, making the PRO-Keds and we're becoming a competitor of, like, Nike and Adidas, like, you know, we're on these guys' radar. And, you know, Nike being a big corporation, they're trying to use their muscle to get us out. So they're actually going to the retailers and telling them, `If you take the PRO-Keds, we're not going to sell you the Nikes.' And it's like--that's like telling somebody you can't get money on your own block. You know what I'm saying? I'm the person that's been buying the sneakers. You guys selling your sneakers in my neighborhood, and you're going to tell me I can't put those sneakers in my neighborhood? So I'm up for that fight with Nike. You know what I'm saying? I think it's actually pretty much hilarious that they think they can exploit my culture and make most of their money from my culture, and then tell me someone of that culture can't get money from it. So, you know, I'm up for that fight. Me and Nike, we got a little bit of a beef right now.

I represent millions of people that are like me because I'm just an average cat and I know how to definitely talk and facilitate their demands for anything they need as it relates to sneakers. You know, it just only makes sense. You know, I'm a businessman. My job is to be an entrepreneur, and any opportunity that I have to capitalize off of my lifestyle and my true experience, I will. And I'm not going to let somebody outside of my culture ever tell me I can't sell to people in my culture. I mean, I just think it's crazy.

GORDON: Let me ask you something that you said that I found interesting. You said--and often you hear this from people who've made it--sometimes we want to be looked upon. Now you say, `I'm just an average cat.' Do you really see yourself that way?

Mr. DASH: Yeah. I mean, you know, I think...

GORDON: You don't see yourself in any means as extraordinary?

Mr. DASH: I mean, I think I'm extraordinarily motivated. You know, I have a lot of energy, you understand? But, you know, I was lucky. You know, I was lucky to grow up in two different extreme circumstances. Like, I was lucky enough to go to boarding school, go to school downtown, go to private school. You know, I saw the world when I was younger, you know, through the eyes of my mother, and, you know, she's a black woman that made sure I saw these things. She was a secretary and, you know, she did what she had to do to make the extra so I could see the extras and get educated and articulate myself.

But also, you know, I was raised uptown. You know, I was on 142nd Street and Lenox and I got to see some extremely rough things, and I learned how to survive. You know what I'm saying? So I think anyone that's been where I'm at--you know, it's almost like I've been built to do this, like, I'm built to represent the extreme circumstances as it relates to the urban culture, but I'm also built to survive in other cultures, like, to make my experience or represent my experience to people that couldn't fathom it.

GORDON: Let me take you, before we let you go, man, into some of your projects. And as I say, you always have so much on the table, it's sometimes hard to get to in the time limit. But one of the things I want to talk about is the new TV show, "The Ultimate Hustler"...

Mr. DASH: Yeah.

GORDON: ...which is going to be on BET.

Mr. DASH: Sure.

GORDON: It's kind of your reality show. Talk to me about it.

Mr. DASH: Well, you know, I had been approached by a lot of different networks to do a reality show. And I was, like, you know, to me, reality shows are corny--You know what I'm saying?--and they're just a waste of time. And I was, like, I'm not going to go anywhere where I'm going to get exploited. And, you know, when BET approached me with it, I was, like, you know, BET has done so much for me and my career. Regardless of what, you know, you can't knock them. You know, they're the only outlet we really have for our culture.

GORDON: Right.

Mr. DASH: And, you know, because of the success I've gotten from BET, I've been able to go and experience other things, and I've made so many different kinds of connections. So I was, like, well, if I can talk directly to my culture, directly to my people, and if I can bring production quality that I've gotten from the fashion world and the things outside of the urban world and bring that to BET, you know, I thought that that would be a score. I'll be teaching people my ideals, not to say they're right or wrong, but they're things that got me to where I had to go, but also the look of the show, I can bring that. And also I figured BET would give me a little more control. We got to outsource everything. I got to use all my connections in every business from the movie business to the fashion business to the sports business, and I got to bring all that and show my culture, not to say that my life is aspirational, but everything I'm doing outside of the culture as well and teach them how to do it and for them to be savvy about it and to live by the ideals of no lying and not snitching and be strong, the worth ethic. Like, I could really show it. And, you know, it's a funny show, it's very educational. A lot of people say they want to be entrepreneurs, but, you know, you'll see in the show a lot of them really don't have the chops.

GORDON: Let me ask you this, too. And that, we should note, will start in the fall. "State Property 2"...

Mr. DASH: Yeah.

GORDON: ...you've been dealing with, but what I found most interesting a lot of people don't know is that you were an executive producer on "The Woodsman"...

Mr. DASH: Yeah. Yeah.

GORDON: ...with Kevin Bacon, a critically acclaimed movie and not enough people, I think, saw that. It was actually a good movie that deals with topics that Hollywood often turns away from, and that was pedophilia.

Mr. DASH: Right. Right. Yeah, I mean, I thought it was important on a lot of different reasons or a lot of different levels. Number one, I am a true movie maker. And, you know, I am very much--I don't want to say infatuated, but I'm impressed with the art of making a movie and invoking emotion. You know, when I started making movies, I thought it was easy, and then when I got into it, I was, like, this is not easy at all. And, you know, I identified a really good script, something that was socially conscious, had really good talent--you know, Lee Daniels was the producer and I wanted to work with him. He had got an Oscar for Halle Berry. I wanted to work with Kevin Bacon and Benjamin Bratt and Kyra Sedgwick. And then I wanted to do something that sort of, like, broke down the stereotypes of an urban individualist. Like, people think urban people can only make urban movies. So I was, like, `Look, man, I can cut a check for this just like I can cut a check for "State Property," you know, and make a good movie and something that, you know, was, like I said, socially conscious.' And then, you know, to me, you know, I made my money back. It was a win for our culture just because, like I said, I feel like I'm an ambassador of it. And now people may take a person with a baseball hat cocked to the side a little more serious. And, you know, we made a good movie.

GORDON: Well, listen, man, whether it be the distillery and the vodka or the clothing line or the music line or the movies, you're keeping it up front. And as we, I think, showed people, you know, you're real about what you're doing, and I appreciate your time today, bro.

Mr. DASH: Thank you, man. I appreciate that.

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