The two of them knew, also, that the making of records alone was not going to pay the kind of bills they hoped to be incurring. “The music business isn’t so profitable, especially not hip-hop,” he says, attributing this to the high copyright fees of sampling other songs. “I couldn’t buy what I wanted to buy. I’m talking cooks and drivers. I got into clothes to make more money.” Dash and Jay-Z’s Rocawear clothing label was a smashing success of cross-promotion. Anything Jay-Z wore in his videos sold out within days.
Dash looks down on music-industry executives for having what he sees as an ambition deficit. “The people in this business all think they’ve made it because they’re in charge of their little record labels,” he says. “I’m like, this isn’t even my main source of income. I already did this business. And I made movies”—he got an executive-producer credit on The Woodsman, in 2004, and has also produced Shadowboxer, an odd movie that opens next month and stars Cuba Gooding Jr. and Helen Mirren—“and I designed clothes and I got my own vodka and my own Swiss watchmaker” (Armadale and Tiret, respectively, newer additions to Dash’s horizontal empire). “I like to be the brokest guy in the room. That inspires me. I don’t get why people are proud to say they’re old money,” he continues. “That just means they had it given to them. I rubbed two sticks together and made money.”
In 2002, there were rumors in the hip-hop press about a rift between Dash and Jay-Z. One factor was Dash’s giving the rapper Cam’ron, a childhood friend and somebody Jay-Z had never been fond of, his own imprint at their record label, behind Jay-Z’s back. Subsequent tension allegedly involved the conflicts of interest posed by each man’s side projects. Dash made a small, satirical movie, Death of a Dynasty, about the rumors, and it turned out to be prophetic.
“At a certain point, I got ready to depend on my other artists,” Dash recalls. “I started putting together an army—Kanye, Cam’ron, Beanie, the Diplomats. I figured Jay gave me time to prepare.” But in December 2004, Jay-Z invited Dash to dinner to discuss the offer from Def Jam. They met at Da Silvano. “I said, ‘Go ahead and take the money and the job, but don’t take the name—don’t take Roc-A-Fella with you,’ ” Dash recalls. “I didn’t say please, but I might as well have.”
Jay-Z offered that Dash could keep the Roc-A-Fella name if in return he relinquished possession of the master recordings for Reasonable Doubt. Dash wouldn’t agree to it.
“He said, ‘It’s business,’ ” Dash says. “But we were always supposed to be about more than business, Jay especially.” Dash saw his own role as the executive’s so that Jay-Z could remain an artist at all times. “I did everything I possibly could so that he didn’t have to raise his voice. He just had to whisper something in my ear and I’d take care of it. The people I fought with to make money for him, Lyor Cohen and Kevin Liles”—executives at Def Jam—“he’s made friends with. He hangs out with Puff now. It’s like if your brother leaves you.”
Many of the most successful artists in Roc-A-Fella’s stable (Kanye West, Memphis Bleek, Peedi Crakk) remained with Jay-Z rather than sign with Dash. Cam’ron, whose full name is Cameron Giles, left Roc-A-Fella after the buyout and went to Warner Music, though in January 2006 he made it clear where his loyalties stood by recording a song called “You Gotta Love It,” a full-fledged attempt to humiliate Jay-Z. It begins by listing his reasons for writing the song: “First, you stole Roc-A-Fella from Dame / Second, you stole Kanye from Dame / Third, you stole Rocawear from Dame.” Then, Cam’ron raps, “It was Rocawear when Dame had it / Now you got it, call it Cock-A-Wear.”
Meanwhile, Jay-Z had rapped on the remix of “Diamonds Are Forever,” a single by Kanye West, “I took the name, I take the blame.” Another verse goes, “I’m not a businessman / I’m a business, man / So let me handle my business, damn!”
In playing the bottom-line card and brashly chalking up the decision to leave as “just business,” Jay-Z—pensive and sphinxlike—was beating Dash at his own game. It upsets Dash to not be able to view the matter as coolly as the person he’d always let on he was would.
“Despite what he says, Damon takes everything personally, way too personally,” says Al Branch, a former Dash employee who now works for Kanye West. “He thinks everyone’s out to get him.”