The theory of “the Dionysian trap for young black men” was posited in March in the New York Times by Orlando Patterson, the Harvard sociologist, to explain the findings in several recent economic studies diagnosing “the tragic disconnection of millions of black youths from the American mainstream.” Patterson decried the pervasiveness and bankruptcy of “the ‘cool-pose’ culture of young black men”—“hanging out on the street after school, shopping and dressing sharply, sexual conquests, party drugs, hip-hop music and culture”—the power of which, he said, is “almost like a drug.”
Under this theory, then, Dash looks more and more like the dupe of a corrupt value system, an object lesson of empty consumerism. Dash has never been very interested in hip-hop as an artistic movement. “It’s all about finding ways to make money off an upscale urban product,” he says. “That’s what I do. I’m a businessman. Period.” In his view, if there’s more to life than money and taste, it’s all the great stuff you can get if you have money and taste.
Late on another morning, when Irv and Chris Lorenzo—previously known as the Gotti Brothers, the impresarios of the hip-hop label Murder Inc.—are standing trial in Brooklyn for money-laundering, Dash heads to the courthouse to show his support. Cameras flash as he ascends the limestone steps and tells the television reporters who follow him how important it is to be there for the principals of a rival record company. “These guys and I all came up together,” he says. Dash slips into the second row, amid the defendants’ relatives, all of them silent as Gerald Shargel, on cross-examination, methodically tears hole after hole in the story of one of the government’s star witnesses, Donnell Nichols. Then Dash points a finger at Irv, who sits solemnly at the defense table.
“I made that suit,” he whispers.
Dash may be no more or less a guilty party than some of his peers—Sean Combs comes to mind, and the case of Russell Simmons can be argued both ways—not to mention the (mostly white) record-company executives who got in on the action. But Dash is the one whose cash cow left him, and he still doesn’t seem to know what hit him. Currently, his payroll includes a photographer, Monique, who is at his side to capture his every move—the benefits he attends, the occasional audition he gives aspiring rappers.
“Damon says this is the most important year of his life, and he doesn’t want the world to miss out on it,” Monique says. She is at Damon’s office to shoot the scene when his barber arrives and sets about shaving his head. This happens every other day.
“I know Damon will figure something out, because he’s Damon Dash,” says Russell Simmons, Def Jam’s founder (he no longer owns the company). “The thing you have to understand about this guy is, he thought the whole thing up. Jay-Z just came from Damon’s imagination. The man is a visionary.”
At the moment, Dash says, he is focusing on his clothing lines—there’s the Damon Dash Collection, which consists of expensive handmade suits and dress clothes; CEO, for hip-hop clothes; State Property (which Dash created for the rapper Beanie Sigel when he went to prison), for canvas “work clothes—don’t call them ‘prison clothes,’ ” Dash says; and his wife’s Rachel Roy ready-to-wear line. And Pro-Keds, it’s worth noting, if only because of the weirdness factor, is introducing a line of sneakers with fruit-scented polyurethane soles. (“They smell like Italian ices—yellow is lemon and the green and red kicks are watermelon,” Dash says one day, pressing a tennis shoe against his face. “Man, my sneaker game’s ridiculous.”)
When Jay-Z decided to split, “he said, ‘It’s business,’ ” Dash says. “But we were always supposed to be about more than business, Jay especially.”
Although he has now started a new record company, Damon Dash Music Group, he isn’t terribly excited by the current state of hip-hop. “It seems like since I left the Roc, the only place where anything’s taken off is in the South”—Atlanta-based acts such as Young Jeezy, T.I., Gnarls Barkley, and Youngbloodz. “On the East Coast, there’s been nothing happening. It’s not really worth it to me right now.” As for his former artists, he points out that none have put up better numbers since they moved with Jay-Z. “Kanye’s second record did fine, but no more than his first, and it had a lot more muscle behind it by that time. Memphis Bleek ain’t what it was, Young Gunz sold about a quarter of the number of records with their new album than their last one did with me. I always went gold.”
Dash, who currently estimates his net worth to be “about $50 million” (he made nearly $20 million from Jay-Z’s buyout), grew up in Harlem, on 109th and First Avenue—“in the best building in a bad neighborhood,” he says, noting the first of many subtle contradictions in his background that fostered his awareness of class and notions of authenticity. His father—divorced from his mother—ran a methadone clinic on 116th Street. His mother, he says, “was a hustler. She was a secretary, she sold clothes out of our apartment. She got stuff before it was in stores.”