“People in the record business had always made a lot of money. Not the artists, who kept dying broke, but the execs. Still, regular fans had no idea who they were. Russell changed that. His brand as an executive mattered not just within the industry, but among people in the street. And with Def Jam he created one of the most powerful brands in the history of American entertainment.
Russell also made being a CEO seem like a better deal than being an artist. He was living the life like crazy, fucking with models, riding in Bentleys with his sneakers sticking out the windows, and never once rapped a single bar. His gift was curating a whole lifestyle—music, fashion, comedy, film—and then selling it. He didn’t just create the hip-hop business model, he changed the business style of a whole generation of Americans.
The whole vibe of start-up companies in Silicon Valley with twenty-five-year-old CEOs wearing shelltoes is Russell’s Def Jam style filtered through different industries. The business ideal for a whole generation went from growing up and wearing a suit every day to never growing up and wearing sneakers to the boardroom.
Even as a teenager, I understood what Russell was on to. He’d discovered a way to work in the legit world but to live the dream of the hustler: independence, wealth, and success outside of the mainstream’s rules. Coming from the life I was coming from, this was a better story than just being a rapper, especially based on what I now knew about how rappers got jerked.
I first met Russell when Dame, Biggs, and I were negotiating for a label deal for Roc-A-Fella after Reasonable Doubt dropped. I remember sitting across the table from him and Lyor Cohen in disbelief that we were negotiating a seven-figure deal with the greatest label in rap history. But I was also feeling a dilemma: I was looking at Russell and thinking, I want to be this nigga, not his artist.” - Jay-Z, Decoded