|Parent company||Def Jam Recordings a division of Universal Music Group|
|Founder||Shawn "Jay Z" Carter
Damon "Dame" Dash
Kareem "Biggs" Burke
|Distributor(s)||Def Jam Recordings
(In the US)
Virgin EMI Records
(In the UK)
|Country of origin||United States|
|Location||New York City, New York|
Roc-A-Fella Records was an American record label founded by Damon "Dame" Dash, Shawn "Jay Z" Carter and Kareem "Biggs" Burke. It operated as a subsidiary of Universal Music Group, being distributed by Def Jam Recordings.
1996–2000: Formation and early years
The foundation of the label occurred in 1996, beginning as an independent outlet for rapper Jay-Z's first album. After being turned down by several major labels, Carter, Dash and Burke started their own label through Priority Records, using money from the music videos provided by Payday Records due to their singles only deal. Though Reasonable Doubt didn't immediately attain commercial success, it spawned several hits, and a close relationship with The Notorious B.I.G. and procured Jay-Z a reputation in the hip-hop community. Starting out as Roc-A-Fella's only artist, Jay-Z was supported by Biggie producer DJ Clark Kent and DJ Ski, who was then working with Camp Lo; affiliated rappers included duo Da Ranjahz, Sauce Money, Jaz-O, and a young Memphis Bleek, though only Bleek would eventually sign with the label. According to Dame, the label had intended on releasing Nas' group The Firm, but the deal fell through:
|“||"Nas and AZ was supposed to be on 'Bring it On,' they kept not showing up. That's when we wanted to put out the Firm. They didn't show up. We was meeting and they was saying, 'Yeah,' but they wasn't showing up. We would be waiting and we would be getting offended. So we brought Sauce [Money] and [Big] Jaz on the song."||”|
|— Dame Dash, MTV News|
The snub, and a sample clearance issue with the Nas-sampling Reasonable Doubt song "Dead Presidents II," were elements that contributed to tension between Jay-Z and Nas. As such, Roc-A-Fella Records' only release in 1997 was Jay-Z's second album, In My Lifetime, Vol. 1, but the label and its figurehead artist saw increasing popularity, mainly due to a high-profile appearance by Jay on B.I.G.'s posthumous Life After Death, complete with Roc-A-Fella Records and Dame Dash references. While Memphis Bleek signed with the Roc, Sauce Money chose to pursue a deal with Priority Records, and Jaz refrained from signing anywhere and provided production for only one song on Vol. 1, "Rap Game/Crack Game." In 1998, Roc-A-Fella Records released the movie Streets Is Watching and the accompanying soundtrack; the film compiles various Jay-Z videos into a continuous story, and the album introduced more affiliated acts, including Ranjahz member Wais, then-signed Oakland, CA based R&B duo Christión, future Roc-A-Fella Records signees N.O.R.E., M.O.P., and DJ Clue, as well as producer Irv Gotti and the short-lived group, Murder Inc. (namesake of Irv's record label, Murder Inc. Records).
Jay's 1998 album, Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life, saw him largely depart from his previous entourage and venture forth with producers Swizz Beatz, Timbaland, The 45 King and Jermaine Dupri. Vol. 2 spawned his first major hit, "Hard Knock Life", and became the label's first platinum release; it was the last Roc-A-Fella Records release to see appearances by Jaz-O or Sauce Money, and the first to feature new Roc artists Beanie Sigel and Amil. DJ Clue released the first of his collaboration-album-style series in The Professional, which saw the first Roc-A-Fella Records appearance of Cam'ron; meanwhile, DJ Ski had, at the time, formed the production company Roc-A-Blok, affiliated with Sporty Thievz, although the company folded after Ski moved out of New York to take a break from music.
Though Da Ranjahz put in appearances on Memphis Bleek's first album, Coming of Age, in 1999, they soon parted ways with Roc-A-Fella Records. Jay-Z's 1999 album Vol. 3...Life and Times of S. Carter continued Jay's new affiliations with then-popular producers; in 2000, the label saw a redefinition in both sound and roster. Jay-Z put out The Dynasty: Roc La Familia as a solo album. Originally intended to be a collaboration project, it nonetheless featured heavy appearances by Beanie Sigel, Amil and Memphis Bleek, along with a Philly rapper Freeway guest spot that led to his being signed to Roc-A-Fella Records. Rather than return to Timbaland or Swizz Beatz for production, Jay selected beats from a new crop of producers: Kanye West, Bink, The Neptunes, Just Blaze. Each beatsmith would go on to become consistently involved in future Roc-A-Fella Records projects.
2000–05: Prominence and Split
The new millennium saw Roc-A-Fella Records begin to expand one figurehead artist. While Jay-Z remained the label's prominent image—with the acclaimed release of The Blueprint and the closing of his trial for the 1999 stabbing of producer "Un" Rivera—other Roc artists began to gain popularity and acceptance. Beanie Sigel's The Truth had reached #5 on the Billboard charts in 2000, and DJ Clue released The Professional 2 in 2000. Despite the lackluster sales of Amil's albums, Jay-Z and Dame Dash began signing up new talent, including Cam'ron, Freeway, and several young Philly rappers that were later compiled into the Freeway/Sigel-led group, State Property. During this time, Jay-Z and Beanie Sigel were embroiled in a feud with Ruff Ryders Entertainment artists Jadakiss and DMX. Disses back and forth between Jay-Z and Jadakiss implied a conflict between Jay and former groupmate DMX, led to a full-on war of words between Sigel and Kiss, and eventually culminated in a diss by Beanie Sigel over Jada's hit "Put Your Hands Up," after which the rivalry faded.
Cam'ron put out his Roc-A-Fella Records debut Come Home with Me in 2002 to platinum sales, and shortly signed his group The Diplomats to Roc-A-Fella Records, as well. From 2002 to 2003, Dame Dash signed several artists in response to Jay-Z's talk of retirement after his 2002 album The Blueprint2: The Gift & The Curse. He signed M.O.P. and Ol' Dirty Bastard, gave Grafh a joint-venture deal, and attempted to sign Twista and Joe Budden. Roc-A-Fella Records experienced its height in product releases and overall popularity as a brand name during this period, seeing the release of State Property's Chain Gang albums, Juelz Santana's From Me to U, Freeway's debut Philadelphia Freeway, The Diplomats' group debut album Diplomatic Immunity, Memphis Bleek's M.A.D.E. and Jay-Z's alleged final album, The Black Album. Rumors of friction between Carter and Dash became apparent; though denied by both camps at the time, problems involving Dame's media attention and Jay's alleged inaccessibility had been brewing since the video shoot for "Big Pimpin'".
After Jay-Z's supposed last hurrah, it was revealed that he had accepted a position as CEO and President of Def Jam Recordings, and The Island Def Jam Music Group purchased the remaining 50 percent stake of Roc-A-Fella Records that IDJ didn't already own. Dash, poised to take greater control in the company, began heavily promoting artists Cam'ron, The Diplomats, State Property, Kanye West and Twista. In 2004, Kanye West's album, The College Dropout, became a huge commercial and critical success, selling multi-platinum, and Foxy Brown was signed and began work on her album, Black Rose. The infamous 'split' occurred when it was revealed that Carter, Dash and Burke had sold their 50% interest in Roc-A-Fella Records to The Island Def Jam Music Group, making the label full owners. As President, Carter retained control of the Roc and his masters, ousting his two former partners. He later explained that he had offered to turn down the position and ownership for the masters to Reasonable Doubt alone:
|“||So I was like, let me get Reasonable Doubt and I'll give up [the rest of] my masters. I'll give up Roc-A-Fella Records, I'll give up president and CEO of Def Jam Recordings—everything. Just give me my baby to hold on to so 10 years down the line, I can look back and I got something—I'm not empty-handed. And I was the one being offered everything. I thought it was more than fair... And when that was turned down, I had to make a choice. I'll leave that for the people to say what choice they would've made. That's about it. I don't really wanna talk about Dame or Biggs. I don't have nothing negative to say about them.||”|
|— Jay-Z, XXL|
As Dash and Burke set up their own fledgling record label, originally called Roc4life and later rechristened to Dame Dash Music Group, each artist was offered their choice of labels. The Diplomats were the first to make the move to Dame Dash Music Group, and began a public campaign against Jay-Z, dissing him in songs and interviews, backed heavily by Dame Dash; Cam'ron was especially vocal, claiming Jay-Z blocked him from an executive position Dame Dash had offered him at Roc-A-Fella Records.
Beanie Sigel, then doing a year's incarceration on an attempted murder charge, put out his album The B.Coming on Dash's label; this was accompanied by accusations from Dame that of all the members of State Property, only Oschino had gone to visit Sigel in prison. Though Beanie had initially chosen Dame Dash Music Group, the rest of the group refused, preferring to remain on Roc-A-Fella Records; in response, Beanie Sigel effectively put the group on hold, claiming disappointment in his groupmates. M.O.P. and Grafh also left Roc-A-Fella Records for Dame Dash Music Group, though both acts parted ways with Dash soon thereafter. Due to the 2004 death of Ol' Dirty Bastard, Dash also brought with him masters of the rapper's project and promises to release the album, A Son Unique, though this never occurred.
Memphis Bleek and Kanye West released 534 and Late Registration, respectively, in 2005, along with the Young Gunz' sophomore effort and Teairra Mari's debut, though only Kanye West's project saw significant reviews or sales. It was stated by Memphis Bleek that Cory Gunz had signed, but nothing materialized. By the end of the year, Dash had split his label from Def Jam Recordings and Jay-Z's role overseeing his project, after asking for more money and a bigger role in the company. Dame Dash Music Group left Def Jam Recordings and was subsequently dissolved.
2006–09: Roc Redefinition and departure of Jay-Z
In 2006, releases were largely limited to those of Roc-La-Familia, a Latino-geared label under Roc-A-Fella Records that followed the trend of Reggaeton. Hector "El Father" and N.O.R.E. both put out albums, and the label was home to New York rapper Tru Life, but has since folded. Jay-Z made his return that year with Kingdom Come, to mixed reviews. He stepped down from his Def Jam Recordings position and put out a second album in 2007, American Gangster, to more positive reviews and sales, along with Kanye West's Graduation, Beanie Sigel's The Solution, and Freeway's Free at Last; Kanye West's album sold multi-platinum to rave reviews. Freeway's project received critical acclaim but not major sales, and contained comments aimed at Kanye West and Just Blaze for not supplying production. He later amended his comments, stating he desired to work with Just Blaze but the producer hasn't reached out. This may have been due to Just Blaze's work on American Gangster and complications regarding his Atlantic Records-distributed label, Fort Knocks Entertainment, and his artist Saigon.
The signing of Ruff Ryders Entertainment artist Jadakiss, former rival to both Jay-Z and Beanie Sigel, also came in 2007, as did Uncle Murda. Foxy Brown was dropped from the label after two years, in light of a jail sentence. Though Young Chris and Peedi Crakk continued to appear on projects, neither seemed any closer to solo projects, and in 2008 Peedi Crakk announced that the entire State Property group had been dropped from the label. This was countered by Beanie Sigel's manager, who confirmed that Beanie Sigel and Freeway were still part of Roc-A-Fella Records. Young Chris also apparently signed as a solo artist. 2008 saw only the release of Kanye West's 808's & Heartbreak, garnering decent sales. It also brought repeated disses in songs and interviews from Peedi Crakk towards Jay-Z, claiming the rapper/exec held up his project on purpose, though he claims to have moved on. During that year, Jay-Z had inked a $150 million deal with Live Nation that included concerts, endorsements and recordings, and included a platform for him to launch his Roc Nation label. Uncle Murda left the label after a year and a half with no release, citing lack of executive interest after Jay-Z's exodus from parent label Def Jam Recordings.
In March 2009, Freeway procured his release from Def Jam Recordings, claiming a need to explore his options; shortly, he announced his signing to Cash Money Records, while stating he would always respect Roc-A-Fella Records. Longtime signee Memphis Bleek also reported his departure from Def Jam Recordings, deciding not to travel to Roc Nation in favor of starting his own record label, but he is still very closely associated with Roc-A-Fella Records. Additionally, rapper Tru Life has been referred to as a "one time [or past] affiliate" of Roc-A-Fella Records upon his turning himself in to authorities for his connection to a retaliatory stabbing. On May 21, 2009, Jay-Z had bought back his contract from Def Jam Recordings for an unprecedented $5,000,000 and started his deal with Live Nation.
2010–13: Final years and TufAmerica vs. Roc-A-Fella
Jadakiss briefly moved to Roc-A-Fella Records and released an album The Last Kiss before reuniting with his previous partners, the Ruff Ryders. On May 3, 2010, Damon Dash relaunched Roc-A-Fella Records after nearly a year of inactivity with his first artist being former Young Money Entertainment rapper Curren$y. Curren$y's third album, Pilot Talk, was to be released under the newly relaunched Roc-A-Fella Records however, Curren$y stated in interviews with both XXL and Complex that the album would be released under Damon Dash's DD172 record label division, BluRoc Records and distributed through Def Jam Recordings. On August 8, 2011 Jay-Z and Kanye West, released a collaborative album titled Watch the Throne, it was later revealed that Jay-Z was part of a short relaunched Roc-A-Fella Records, as the album was released on Roc-A-Fella Records, Roc Nation and Def Jam Recordings.
In September 2012 Tuf America, a record company; filed a lawsuit on the grounds of copyright infringement by Roc-A-Fella, seeking undisclosed damages. The complaint filed in federal court in Manhattan claims Roc-A-Fella and their parent Universal Music Group paid them a $620,500 license fee to sample Eddie Bo's "Hook and Sling, Part 1" in Kanye West's "Who Will Survive in America?" and "Lost in the World". Despite this, TufAmerica says UMG and Roc-A-Fella "failed and refused to enter into written license agreements that accounted for their multiple other uses of ['Hook and Sling']". The unmentioned uses TufAmerica refers to are the "Lost in the World" video and the short film based on Kanye's "Runaway". TufAmerica is represented by New York attorney Kelly Talcott. On June 16, 2013, Jay-Z announced with a tweet : "VII IV XIII Roc A Fella Records/Roc Nation", hinting a possible relaunch and revival of Roc-A-Fella Records and a possible merger with Roc Nation. However, it meant that Roc-A-Fella was only relaunched for the purpose of releasing his new album, Magna Carta Holy Grail.
In 2002, following the release of the Rocawear clothing label, Roc-A-Fella Records released through Lions Gate Entertainment, State Property. The movie, while not the first for Dame Dash, would be the start of ROC Films/Roc-A-Fella Films. The film studio would go on to release Paid in Full the same year and follow up in 2003 with Paper Soldiers and the hip-hop satire Death of a Dynasty. In 2005 the sequel to the studios debut release would hit theatres State Property 2, featuring rap stars such as Beanie Sigel and Damon Dash, who also produced and co-created the story. Cameo roles included musicians Kanye West, N.O.R.E and Mariah Carey, and Light Heavyweight champion boxers Bernard Hopkins and Winky Wright. The list of films include:
- Streets Is Watching (1998)
- Backstage (2000)
- State Property (2002)
- Paid in Full (2002)
- Paper Soldiers (2002)
- Death of a Dynasty (2003)
- Fade to Black (2004)
- State Property 2 (2005)
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- court TV becomes truTV
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