Trouble in the Oval Office of Rap
Burrell, Ian, The Independent (London, England)
The suicide of the young head of Def Jam Recordings threatens a new battle for control of the label that brought hip-hop to the world. By Ian Burrell
The New York headquarters of Def Jam Recordings, the legendary label which was pivotal in turning an African-American street culture into a global industry, were yesterday plunged into a state of turmoil.
Hip-hop pioneers including Public Enemy, LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys, and latter-day stars including Kanye West and Rihanna, were unleashed on the world from the so-called Oval Office of rap on 8th Avenue. The label also spawned the spin-off venture Def Jam Comedy, which helped launch the careers of Chris Rock and Bernie Mac, and the fashion label Phat Farm.
But with the shock news of the death of the record label's young head, Shakir Stewart, killed by a single self-inflicted gunshot to the head on Saturday, the Def Jam empire has descended into fresh despondency.
Though Georgia police confirmed that Mr Stewart, 34, had committed suicide in an apartment he owned in Atlanta, conspiracy theories quickly surfaced on the internet, prompted no doubt by the power struggles that have dogged the label.
"Shakir was an amazing man in every sense of the word," said L A Reid, the Def Jam chairman and record producer, in a statement. "[He was] a truly incredible friend and father who was an inspiration to not only our artists and employees, but to his family and the many people that had the privilege of counting him as a friend."
Def Jam has struggled to find its feet since Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter, a presidential figure in hip-hop if ever there was one, announced on Christmas Eve last year that he was quitting his role as president and CEO of the company.
It was hardly the label's first setback since being set up by Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin a quarter of a century earlier. The Beastie Boys walked out during money arguments that followed their successful first album. Public Enemy departed in 1999 amid further acrimony and began referring to the founder as "Hustler Simmons" in blog postings.
Simmons himself has now severed all links with the label, after the music giant Universal, which had already acquired a majority stake in Def Jam, bought out the founder for a reported $100m (63m). The ownership of Universal did not guarantee stability; the label was further unsettled when Lyor Cohen, the president of Island Def Jam Music Group, and Kevin Liles, president of Def Jam, left to join rival company Warner.
During his three years in charge, Jay-Z, working on an incentive- based contract, restored Def Jam to its former glories, even managing to persuade his great New York rap rival Nas to join the label. Jigga, as Jay-Z is also known, even came out of retirement himself to release the 2006 album Kingdom Come, but the move drew criticism from old skool stalwart LL Cool J, who thought that a label president who was focusing on his own musical career could not be paying sufficient attention to the rest of the roster. …