Damon “Dame” Dash is anything but coy. His thick gravitas allows fans to flock to his Instagram account like a fireside chat for gems on the music business, life and the spaces in between. If you do a deep dive on YouTube, you’ll discover interviews from the former industry titan that hold lessons rooted in clever decision making, self-worth and preserving black culture. As a co-founder of Roc-A-Fella Records with JAY-Z and Kareem “Biggs” Burke, their legacy included the early sonic footprints of Kanye West, cult films like Paid In Full and collectives like The Diplomats and State Property. But along with the wisdom and success, there have also been assumptions of Dash as a brash and unsettled businessman with a short fuse. As his reputation continued to proceed him, Dash became a hip-hop punching bag and the “bad guy” in many hip-hop fables.
But as the industry tides turn toward more conscious figures, Dash has emerged as a beloved whistleblower. As fans give him flowers and execs shake in their Birkenstocks, the world is finally listening to Dame Dash. He had alleged for years that filmmaker and producer Lee Daniels didn’t pay him back a $2 million investment to jumpstart his career, and after a viral video of him confronting Daniels, Daniels told TMZ that Dash was right and promised to compensate him properly. Dash’s term “culture vulture” has become one of the most common phrases used to criticize people who make money off of hip-hop without being a part of it. And the same harsh, artist-first perspective that Dame was banished for has helped acts like Joe Budden become one of the most successful new hip-hop media personalities around.
“It was never a time that people listened, I always had to show and prove,” Dash tells VIBE in a Skype session while munching on avocado toast in his Malibu home. “If I tell them something new or something that’s against the general thing that’s around the campfire, there’s always been some degree of mental ostracisms. But I never cared. I enjoy that.”
Whether we believe him or not, Dash is getting busy–and having a ball in the process. In the past year, he has released a book called Culture Vultures: Conversations With Dame Dash to give game to industry hopefuls and teamed up with Kanye West to release a film called Honor Up. And his Instagram stories are full of him smiling with his girlfriend and business partner Raquel Horn, and his children. While the clip of him yelling at execs like Kevin Liles may be stained in some minds, the days of him happily popping bottles may be more apropos than you’d think. “Look at my life,” Dash said. “I ain’t got nothing to be mad about.”
VIBE: Were you surprised that the Lee Daniels video went as viral as it did?
Dame Dash: Yeah, I was. You never really anticipate a hit record. I thought it would be effective, but I didn’t think people would relate to it that much. I think it was just very relatable because I think those kinds of things have happened to almost everybody in some shape or form.
Did you feel a sense of validation from it?
Absolutely. Being patient is what I suspected would work. The truth would always reveal itself in exactly the way it’s supposed to if you don’t push it, and if you’re confident in it and you’re not overcompensating.If you look at it in the book The Culture Vultures, there are chapters about it and I’m like “it’ll work itself out.” I was very confident about it. Everything else that’s happened in my life with all these accusations and misconceptions of what my reality was, I never did anything to stop it, I didn’t care. I know the truth, my family knows the truth and that’s all that matters. That’s what you have to take care of first and foremost, is your family.
Let’s talk about the book. What made you decide to put your experiences in a book and be so forthcoming?
Generally speaking, I’m pretty generous with information. I don’t see the reason for sugar coating anything. Kenyatta started to tape me for his book and I was like yo, let’s give this information out for free because people need it. I know how much better things would’ve been for me if someone would have taken the time to tell me what and who to look out for, but I never got that. I’m smart, but I know a lot of people that just want guidance. So instead of talking about problems, I like to give people solutions. I just tell my truthful experience and what I’ve gotten based on my experience. I know what experiences have made things happen slower for me. I’ve had to learn the lesson later based on pain and loss of money and friends. There are people that I think people should generally look out for, because of my personal experience with them and how they treat the culture.
Do you think that sometimes your brashness, or the fact that you’re willing to say what other people don’t say, can be a turnoff for people?
I don’t care. If you’re not talking about the truth, I don’t even want you around me. I’m a businessman who puts up his own money so I don’t have time to hear about emotion. I gotta get right to the point. I’m going to tell you the truth, I’m going to address the elephant in the room, and we’ll all move forward. And if you can’t do that, you need to go, you know, go get a job.
You coined the term “culture vulture.” How do you think that it’s impacting? People are getting it now, right?
Well, it just sums up a lot of things in one [phrase], and people don’t want to be called culture vultures. So they see it, it’s a consciousness that’s happening, a respect for our culture. That’s exactly what I wanted to happen. I started the fighting for most of the culture. The win is not for me, it’s for the culture. I feel like my job is not to make a bunch of money and be famous, but to make us better. I see my culture being empowered right now. I see us knowing our worth right now, and I know I’m a part of it. I know guys like Lyor Cohen have changed their business model because I’ve made us conscious. I know I’m a part of that.
Are there any mistakes that you’ve made that you wish you could take back?
It’s not a mistake if you learn from it. Everything I’ve done, it was for the first time. So, of course, you could make what you call a mistake, but I learned from it. If it puts me out of business to where I can’t recover, if it puts you in jail, or kills you, or takes a limb, that’s a mistake. But something you can learn from and make better, that’s just like a bad workout. Just come back with a better one and practice.
“I see us knowing our worth right now, and I know I’m a part of it.”
You’re doing a lot with film and television. How can people reach you if they have scripts and ideas and they want to act?
I feel like I’m a magnet. I don’t really look, I manifest. So, I know what I need, and what I want to work with. A lot of times people want to know how I can make their dreams come true, and you know I respect you, but your dreams don’t inspire me. Why would I take my time from my dream? That’s another reason why I’m teaching everyone how to do it for themselves, so they don’t have to call me. That was the purpose: you don’t have to ask me more questions, read the book. I gave you all the tools.
Some people are like “what page addresses this?” That becomes a culture vulture master class at my gallery, that I’m going to do once a month. I did it already with Van Lathan (of TMZ) and Letty (of Genius). It was great. So, I just think I’m going to answer all your questions before you ask them, just because I’m not answering them in the form of a question. You don’t want to have to wait for somebody to be inspired by your dream, for your dream to come true. So if you have a dream, I suggest you do it on your own. The only people that have helped me are people that have equity in what I’m doing, and that are inspired by what I do. But they know there’s a future there because if you don’t make money, you still get the knowledge to go do it someplace else. My students are Jay-Z, and Kanye, and Kevin Hart and Lee Daniels, and I taught them that. Sometimes I feel like I’m their ghostwriter.
What do you mean by that?
I tell them things, I say things, and then I see them do it. My version of a record is my business. I have plans for my record, and then I talk about it, and then, you know, the actual things I do with my rhymes and I see people doing my rhymes. I want them to. That’s why I’m so generous with it because I like it. I want team players.
Do you feel like you get enough credit?
I don’t care. For me to sit around worried about what other people are thinking is a waste of time, there’s no money in that. That’s not an emotion that would feel good. The amount of time it takes to be worried or be mad at somebody, and then be talking about it, I’d rather be laughing in that time, or having sex, or making money. I don’t have time to be upset. Look at my life. I ain’t got nothing to be mad about. Maybe if I wasn’t enjoying my circumstances. But I’m enjoying my circumstances, I’m getting the credit for it. I’m living in a great place. I paid for my kids to go to college, they all went to private school. They’re on television, they all got careers, I hang out with them daily. I don’t visit my kids, I raise them.
I watch all your stories on Instagram, and your happiness just resonates off the screen.
I would say that would make me the most wealthy if I got the most happiness. That’s the thing people call an ultimate success. What I realize is, I don’t care what it looks like. If I’m not happy, I’m losing. I just have to make the circumstance most happy 100% of the time. You gotta know what makes you happy. I know just being around the people I love makes me happy. Not being around a hundred people all day. I know eating good food and being healthy, and feeling good makes me happy. I know laughing makes me happy. I know being creative makes me happy. I know being in good weather, and getting in a hot tub. So I just architect only to do what keeps me happy.
My favorite part of the book is when you talk about your daughters Ava and Tallulah and how you just want them to have like puppies and fairies and soft things.
What do you see around me? Puppies all day. Cupcakes, oceans, laughter, butterflies, sunshine. You know, what I can control, I’m gonna make their life perfect.
You talk a lot about investing in women.
I can’t stand dudes.
You sound like Obama right now. Did you see his quote?
I sound like Obama right now? He sounds like me. Okay, let’s get it right. I’ve been saying all this stuff. Now Obama, he must be on my brand. He’s taking my rhymes again, now see that he’s jacking my rhymes. I’ve been saying to invest in women, I apologized years before #MeToo. I stopped fucking with dudes, it doesn’t make logical sense for a guy to hang out with a bunch of dudes that wanna be him. That are gonna be jealous. That need mommies. That are insecure. I can tolerate all those elements if you’re a woman. I don’t care, sexual preference none of that. But if you got nuts, you have some testosterone, and you’re supposed to be able to tighten up, and get it together, and do what’s in the best interest of the business. So if there’s gonna be emotions, they should be healthy emotions.
The difference is when you tell certain women things, they go do it. I mentor a lot of people. Everyone that works at Roc-A-Fella, none of them didn’t get a job. Some of them went on to do other things, but at the end of the day, they all got high-end positions.
What’s your best advice for women entrepreneurs?
Invest in yourself, stop waiting on ni**as, ’cause these dudes will make you their muse, but they won’t make you their partner. (pauses and looks out the window at his partner, Raquel M. Horn)
When your girl is your partner and you depend on her for everything, it’s hard for her to be able to start a family, have a baby, stuff like that. The challenge now is to transition her out of some of that. She deserves to have babies. She deserves that, and I want to have that with her. Even when I was with Aaliyah, we never got time to just be together. We didn’t know if we were really in love until we were able to spend six months together with no work. I wasn’t able to do that with Aaliyah. I was able to do that with Raquel. We were able to just spend six months together in North Carolina, on a lake. We even did a month or two on a farm. When I was away from her, even for a day, I missed her. I’m in love for all the right reasons. What I would suggest for anyone who wants to enjoy their life: to find that partner and architect at that time. My greatest happiness is when I’m watching my children laugh, or watching my girl laugh.
Biba Adams is a Detroit-based writer and online content creator. Her work has appeared in Ebony Magazine, AllHipHop.com, and Revolt.TV. Find and follow her on social media at @BibatheDiva.