Hey! Today’s update covers Def Jam’s decision to re-sign LL Cool J and DMX, and the Michael Jackson estate’s wealth accumulation and its tireless efforts to preserve his embattled legacy. Both updates are a bit longer, so there’s only two today.
Why Def Jam Re-signed DMX and LL Cool J
The iconic record label is going back to its roots. This month, Def Jam re-signed veteran rappers DMX and LL Cool J. Both artists plan to drop new music soon. GQ just put out a vulnerable profile on the “Ruff Ryders Anthem” rapper. DMX has promised that his new album is “going to be great.” Meanwhile, LL has spent his past few days clarifying misunderstood lyrics from his hit records. He also had time to respond to a fan who questioned whether LL has ever actually been called “Big Elly”—a reference to 2004’s “Headsprung”. These signings coincide with Def Jam’s reintroduction of its iconic leather jacket, which was re-released earlier this month during New York Fashion Week.
Def Jam celebrates its 35th anniversary this year and is gearing up for its next move. In the streaming era, back catalogs have become extremely lucrative. Def Jam has data which of its former artists get streamed the most. LL and X are definitely on the high end of that list. “Party Up” is not my favorite DMX song, but it’s easily one of the most played rap songs of its era. The same can be said about Big Elly’s “Mama Said Knock You Out” and “Doin’ It”. (I tried to use Big Elly in a sentence and it sounded weird, right? That’s the last time!)
Here are a few reasons why Def Jam made this move:
- Additional content. Since Paul Rosenberg took over as President of Def Jam, he’s been clear about his goal to shake things up. Several record labels have entered the content creation business in video and podcasts. There have been discussions about a Def Jam mixtape documentary. A label like Def Jam, with a historic past and a commoditized present, can set itself apart with content that commemorates its history.
Variety wrote an article about this in May:
“With Def Jam celebrating its 35th anniversary in 2019, Rosenberg’s focus has been bridging the label’s past with its future. Among the projects on tap is a documentary about the history of the mixtape, which Rosenberg described as “a vital part of the history of the culture and the genre we don’t feel has been really examined thoroughly and properly enough or given its day.” The documentary will be helmed by hip hop mixtape connoisseur DJ Tony Touch and feature interviews with the likes of Fat Joe and DJ Khaled.
An important part not only of the [35th] anniversary, but Rosenberg’s own legacy at Def Jam, is to honor the label’s heritage. That’s why Rosenberg is intent on reconnecting with artists who played an important role in Def Jam’s history including LL Cool J, DMX and Chuck Stanley. “My goal for the label is to make Def Jam a place where all the artists that are connected to the culture that we represent want to sign again — as it once was,” Rosenberg said of his vision going forward. “If we have everybody wanting to be there and sign there, that means we’re doing everything right.”
- Def Jam Reunion. Five years ago, Def Jam held a star-studded concert at the Barclays Center for its 30th reunion. DMX, Rick Ross, 2 Chainz, and many more came through for the event. It was a high-priced, star-studded event, but it was only a one-night event. There potential to expand this concert to a traveling tour.
Last week, Def Jam also announced plans to start a new division in South East Asia. Here’s a quote from Adam Granite, Universal’s EVP of Market Development (via Variety):
“Our goal is simple: To drive domestic growth in countries around the world through strategic investment, artist development, business innovation and most of all, great music. This investment involves building infrastructure, resources and hiring the best local employees, but first and foremost, it’s about identifying and developing the best artists from around the world and working with them to reach new fans locally and globally.”
This expansion relies heavily on Def Jam’s brand, which is further strengthened by strong content that can remind potential talent about what’s the label has accomplished.
The Michael Jackson Estate Strategy
Since we’re talking about the commercialization of back catalogs, here’s the latest from the Michael Jackson estate. From The Blast:
Michael Jackson has been gone for over 10 years, but the business behind the King of Pop is skyrocketing, earning more than $1.7 billion dollars as of the beginning of 2019.
The shocking revelation was made in an accounting document of MJ’s estate, which is filed with the L.A County Court.
According to the legal documents, obtained by The Blast, Michael Jackson’s executor and lawyers have been working to rebuild Jackson’s brand and stabilize his finances for years.
“With the assistance of their counsel, the Executors have successfully rebuilt and enhanced Michael Jackson’s image, solidified the MJJ business as a significant entity in the entertainment industry, entered into and continue to enter into unprecedented business deals that have produced, and will in the future produce, significant revenues for the Estate,” his team wrote in the filing.”‘
These documents were likely revealed during the estate’s lawsuit with HBO over the Leaving Neverland documentary. The estate sued HBO for violating a 1992 non-disparagement agreement between Jackson and the network.
Two things stick out with this lawsuit (and the MJ estate). First, Jackson’s estate goes out of its way to “rebuild and enhance” Jackson’s image. It does this on the smallest opportunities, like when Jackson’s daughter Paris took to Instagram to challenge 50 Cent’s declaration of Chris Brown as the King of Pop. There are also major examples, like this HBO lawsuit. There’s a whole FAQ section on michaeljackson.com related to instances like the HBO doc:
Many of these bother us every bit as much as they bother the fans. However, we make a serious analysis with the help of our litigators to determine whether or not we have the legal grounds to stop a particular project. If we do, we act. But in many cases, we do not. And to make an unsuccessful effort to stop projects would only bring more attention to these awful and, in many cases, vile projects. The one thing that can be said is that no music under our control will be heard in these projects.”
Second, it’s easy to assume that the stronger Jackson’s image is, the more money his estate can earn. But I question whether that’s true for someone like Michael Jackson.
By now, the people who still listen to Michael Jackson’s music are fully aware of all his scandals and incidents involving children. That hasn’t stopped them from supporting the $1.7 billion estate machine, and it probably never will. It may make the apologists and non-believers listen and support more of his music to spite the reporting. And if that’s the case, the estate would earn more money from the spiteful support.
That’s a cynical business model, but it would hardly be the first time that an entertainer (or their estate) relied on the “all publicity is good publicity” adage.
The Jackson estate has received much praise this past decade for managing the estate. But the bar it surpassed is fairly low! My guy Prince never had a will, which is a shame. For Jackson’s children, the legacy protection is more of an integrity move than one done for pure financial return. They might win this lawsuit against HBO, but the impact on both Jackson’s public image and bankability will be largely unaffected. It’s a sad but true reality, especially in today’s media and cultural landscape.
Great Content from Elsewhere:
Dark Man X: The Resurrection (Mark Anthony Green – GQ)
The vulnerable profile I referenced earlier on DMX. He shared several stories that even the most devoted DMX fans probably didn’t know about.
Mogul: S2 Part 1: The Walls Were Sweating (Brandon “Jinx” Jenkins / Gimlet Media-Spotify)
This season of Mogul explores the birth of Miami hip-hop through the 2 Live Crew. The first episode is out, so check it out. You already knew that Uncle Luke was a wild boy, but DAMN. That boy was wild.
Disgraceland Podcast Season 4 (Jake Brennan)
This podcast is about popular musicians getting away with terrible acts. There are two upcoming episodes this week on N.W.A. I’ve enjoyed a number of their episodes. My favorite episodes so far were the ones on John Lennon and Motley Crue. Shoutout to Trapital Member Brady Sadler who markets this podcast with the host Jake Brennan.