July 11, 2020

Will the Def Jam Africa deal help SA Artists?

def jam africa
Image Credit: DEF JAM AFRICA

Not so long Universal Music Group announced the launch of DEF JAM AFRICA and this trended on social media for a few days.

It’s understandable though. The Def Jam brand is iconic and one of the most recognizable names in the music industry.

In fact I’ve always been a Def Jam fan (for many years now – but I’m still under 40). I was mostly fascinated by the labels transition from indie label to a semi- major label. 

Most Hip Hop labels from the 80’s such as Cold Chillin Records and Sugar Hill Records have since closed shop. However Def Jam remains relevant till this day.

It’s now 2020 and we all know by now that Def Jam Africa has finally decided to invest in and promote African talent.

But will the deal help South African artists?

A little bit of History

Def Jam was originally founded by Rick Rubin in 1983 in his dorm room while studying at New York University.

But the first official Def Jam release (which contained the Def Jam logo) was a single by T-La Rock and DJ Jazzy Jay “it’s yours”. The single was well received mainly on the underground scene and eventually landed in the hands of then-young party promoter Russell Simmons.

Russell Simmons decided to join forces with Rick Rubin and the two immediately released LL Cool J’s “I Need a Beat” and The Beastie Boys “Rock Hard” and that’s when Def Jam Records took off.

The sales success from those singles helped the label sign a lucrative licensing distribution deal with CBS Records-Colombia Records (now Sony Music Entertainment).

The first Def Jam albums under the CBS deal in 1985, LL Cool J – Radio, and The Beastie Boys- License to ILL solidified Def Jam’s position in hip hop.

Financial Pressure

After ruling the billboard charts thanks to artists such as LL Cool J, Public Enemy, Slick Rick from 1984 until 1989, by the early 1990’s things started to change.

Def Jam Records was in financial trouble and was about to be declared bankrupt. The problem started when Russell Simmons and Lyor Cohen (CEO at the time) formed the now-defunct Rush Associated Labels.

Rush Associated Labels was created to provide an additional revenue stream for the company. They tried to replicate a major label structure by funding and promoting subsidiary labels and artists (Nice and Smooth, Jam Master J Records, etc) under the Def Jam/ RAL banner. 

But they ended up losing a lot of money and owed Sony Music about $19 million as a result.

Def Jam West

In 1994 as luck would have it, PolyGram purchased Sony Music’s 50 per share in Def Jam; Lyor Cohen signed Warren G to the label and Def Jam West was born.

The label was back with a bang after the successful release of Warren G’s debut album- Regulate.

With the exception of Warren G and Montel Jordan, Def Jam West didn’t blow up to a large extent. And it was not surprising when the label’s head honchos decided to refocus the attention on the east coast.

Def Jam South

By the mid to late 90’s Southern Hip Hop was starting to attract attention of the major labels, especially after the Independent success of Master P, No Limit, and the Cash Money Crew.

Def Jam wanted to get a piece of the action and formed Def Jam South. Scarface of Geto Boys fame was appointed as the president and CEO of the newly formed division.

His first signing was Ludacris in 1999 and he went on to become an international superstar.

However Def Jam South was shut down in 2003 only to be revived in 2005.

But Ludacris and his Disturbing the Peace label is by far the best def jam south success story.

Def Jam Africa

During the 90’s and maybe early 2000’s and back, the music industry was still lucrative for the labels from a sales standpoint.

So I’m asking myself why it took so long to launch Def Jam Africa when the industry has gone through such a major transition – it’s not the same organic industry that we all used to know.

What is the incentive for Universal Music, Def Jam and the artists signed to this division?

It has been reported that Nasty C, Cassper Nyovest, Boity and Tshego amongst others were added to the roster.

But, what will Def Jam Africa do for these artists that Universal Music Group cannot do?

Or maybe it’s just a way of keeping the brand fresh and relevant? I don’t know.

However this might be good for the artists from a marketing point of view because the major labels have the resources and a better distribution clout to break them into the international scene.

I would like to hear you thoughts. If there is anything you would like to add please comment below.

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