Def Jam's New Tune; Stylish Hit Maker L. A. Reid Wants to Fashion a Fresh Direction for His Iconic Hip-Hop Music Label. but Will the Rough Transition Pay Off?

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Byline: Johnnie L. Roberts

It's near midnight on a recent Wednesday, but for Antonio (L.A.) Reid, the new CEO of Island Def Jam music--he took over in February--the workday isn't done. He's spent hours with young staffers critiquing music to be released soon on Def Jam, the hip-hop label. He's dancing in his seat and issuing sharp opinions on everything he hears. "I like this record, but sometimes he gets too wordy,'' Reid says of a cut by rapper Joe Buddens. Despite his take-charge approach, others are openly skeptical about Reid. For one, Russell Simmons, the hip-hop icon who cofounded Def Jam but sold it years ago, worries the stylish Reid may be ill-suited for the scrappy world of hard-core hip-hop. "L.A. Reid is one of the best record men in the business, but he doesn't hang out with [Def Jam artist] DMX. I'm with rappers every day. Managing them is a cultural process,'' says Simmons. "These are the things that made Def Jam.''

Now Reid gets to remake Def Jam in his image. It's a challenging transition in an industry that seems to be perpetually in a state of rough transition, thanks to piracy, shrunken sales and consolidation among major labels. All that turmoil has led to rounds of musical chairs for top execs, and Reid often ends up in the hot seat. He succeeded legendary Clive Davis at Arista Records in 2000. After delivering two best-selling albums--by Usher and OutKast--Reid was fired amid reports that Arista had lost as much as $200 million. But he was soon hired at Island Def Jam after its CEO, Lyor Cohen, jumped to Warner Music. Reid's arrival ignited a clash of management styles, tastes and egos. And he was greeted with the urgent task of bolstering Def Jam's ties to perhaps its most important artist, Jay-Z, and the Roc-A-Fella label he owns with partner Damon Dash. Late last week, Reid tells NEWSWEEK, Def Jam was close to buying out the partners from Roc-A-Fella and negotiating deals to keep them in the fold.

A lot is riding on Reid's ability to sail through the storm. Over the last 20 years, Def Jam became the most iconic label in hip-hop, with artists like Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, Jay-Z and Ludacris. Reid's background in R&B and pop, and his more structured management style, make him an unlikely casting choice for Def Jam's free-wheeling, harder-edged culture. But his bosses have given him free rein. "Do what you have to do to make yourself proud,'' he was told by Doug Morris, CEO of Universal Music, which owns Island Def Jam. "You are L.A. Reid.''

And who is L.A. Reid? The Cincinnati native started out as a drummer in a soul band in the 1980s. He and bandmate Kenny (Babyface) Edmonds later became a successful songwriting team, penning R&B hits (33 No. 1 singles). In 1989 they launched LaFace Records, a joint venture with Arista. By 2000 their stars included TLC, Toni Braxton, OutKast and Usher. BMG bought out Reid and Edmonds, and dumped Davis at Arista for Reid. There, he signed a new talent named Avril Lavigne (Lavigne and Pink, another Reid discovery, have sold more than $250 million worth of records alone). But the losses were piling up, so BMG fired him. His defenders say talent spotters like Reid are usually paired with a disciplined financial type. …