If you have any interest in hip-hop and the music industry, then you definitely have heard of Damon Dash and his role during the glory days of Roc-A-Fella Records. His relationship with former business partner and friend Jay-Z has been subject to countless rumors and speculations. However, he has since moved on with his life, launching the DD172 media collective, running a successful fashion brand with ex-wife and fashion designer Rachel Roy, opening up art galleries, and many other ventures. We had the chance to meet up with this interesting personality while he was in Hong Kong for the gallery opening of the adidas Collide Project. During the past few years, he's been quite active in the Far East after his friend and business partner, Shelly Pecot – now DD172's Asia representative – relocated to the continent. In our conversation with him, we touched upon a range of subjects that included his relationship with China, his current view on the music industry, and the delicate symbiosis between business and true artistry.
Could you outline your relationship with China and Hong Kong in particular?
I've been coming back and forth to Hong Kong for the past three years. I haven't been inspired musically for a while so I wanted to see what's beyond America. Not to say anything bad about America but this place here has inspired me right away so that I was forced to come back. I like what I saw so I sourced some talent and other opportunities. I think Hong Kong is like the New York of the East. They have everything here. I also went to Shanghai and to Beijing to connect with some talent out here. We have been making music together, collaborating on various levels and we built up a nice little roster. I've connected with MC Yan for instance. That's my man right there. I like his perspective on things. He is always learning and always teaching. He can create things like glasses, furniture, glasses, underwear and music and it's cool (laughs). He's someone who's been doing it for the art of it for so long. He's an OG and well-respected, so we are kicking it. The young people he brings along with are really good at what they do but at the same time really humble as well.
You are involved with adidas and their 'Unite All Originals' initiative out here. How did this come about?
It's an organic relationship. I've always been a fan of adidas and this campaign is about art, so it was just natural for us to join forces. I was planning to open up a gallery here, feeling things out. So we took a little test drive and it worked out well. They were able to showcase their art in my pop-up gallery while it was also showing Raquel Horn's DD172-collection that has been also been presented in New York and my gallery in Charleston. That's what 'Unite All Originals' is all about, it's a collaboration of artists of different kinds. A beautiful thing.
How do art and business coexist?
A true artist wants to maintain a good lifestyle. But the problem is that it is hard for them to make money because they have to deal with people they usually don't want to deal with. Business implies doing things that you necessarily don't want to do and doing it at a certain level. For artists, in order to get their art monetized, they probably need a true business person behind them. That's why I stopped doing it in the music business because I did not like the people that I had to deal with. At the end of the day, it is not worth it because I would rather just make it for the love of it as opposed to squeezing every possible dime out of it. As far as I am concerned, I'm really artistic. I am more artistic than I previously realized.
When you are creative, you simply have to figure out how to pay the bills. Sometimes there are things that can be monetized within your comfort zone and protect your artistry at the same time. So yea, there are things that I do that make money and there are things that I do that don't make money -- I simply do them because I'm inspired. It is great when you worry about something and you don't have to bastardize it for the sake of the dollar. So for music, when you have a certain formula -- and it has to be edited and adapted for a play on the radio and a certain type of audience -- it's not art anymore. There are no rules and regulations with art. You have to compromise to some extent in order to be seen. You have to be willing to do that step. For artists, the internet is great because it provides you with a platform to do that without having to compromise. However, at the end of the day, you still have to figure out how to break bread and pay the bills. A real man takes care of himself and his family. So there has to be a balance. Figuring out how to keep your family alright and not be selfish while also being creative and inspired. That is true artistry. Protect that. You can't really monetize something that is in its purest form. And I like things to be pure. I don't like to compromise when it comes to certain things, but the bills have to get paid. It's a clear line. You have to know what pays the bills and you have to know what is completely creative and uncompromisable and it's not supposed to make money. But the fact that it's so cool, usually ends up you making some money.
Speaking of art, how do you evaluate hip-hop culture in 2013?
I can't really say because I'm too old. Hip-hop is a 15- to 25-year-old game. Then you just love it. Don't get me wrong, I will always be hip-hop but it is hard to relate to something that caters to a 15- or 25-year-old demographic when you are 40 or 42 years old. So you have to let them learn and do their things on their own. I remember my state of mind when I was 25 and it is completely different than it is today. Sometimes, when you listen to hip-hop as an adult, you may not necessarily agree with everything that is being expressed but you have to let that spirit breathe. So it is hard for me sometimes. I love the music, I love the culture but when I hear about certain drugs in some songs for instance, I be like "damn, they doing that now?" I mean it was only weed when I was coming up (laughs). People are proud of that nowadays whereas people were ashamed of it back in the day (laughs). So it's a different mentality to me sometimes. But yea, I do see a lot of talent. I love A$AP Rocky because he's from Harlem. His swag is ridiculous. I respect that. To me, he's 21 and he's a rock star from Harlem. I love Kendrick Lamar because he has great lyrics and also dresses like a R&B singer to me. But I'm not into it like day-to-day. That's why I've been involved in more rock projects and fashion.
Would you say there is an age limit for hip-hop?
I don't think there's an age limit in general, but for me it is. There are people that are committed to it till they die and there's nothing wrong with it. As for me, things can get irresponsible sometimes and I have to live by example. I have kids, so I cannot be that irresponsible.
How has the music world changed for you personally in the past decade?
You have to understand my perspective. I know what it is do it at that level and what you have to deal with. Once you do it, you don't have too much to prove anymore. Everyone needs to get it out their system. That's the business. It's the matrix. If you're doing it in a way where everyone else is making money off you, you are not likely to make a big buck. You might look big but your margin is small. You might have perception but you don't have a good quality of living. When you live better while you're on the road than you do when you go home then you don't have nothing. If you can't take care of people then things aren't right. That's what the music business does. It makes you think you have money when you don't and everybody is robbing you. It makes you conform which makes you corny. It takes your spirit while everybody watched you compromise your art. Back in the day getting signed was a big deal. To say someone owns you is a big deal. They got you so mind-fucked that saying you belong to someone else is a good thing (laughs), but now a lot of people are realizing that they can do it independently. You don't have to look big but you can live a great life. You can get 40,000 to 50,000 a show without ever being on the radio. If you don't want to compromise, then you have to work harder than everybody. And that's my thing. I don't want to compromise but I also don't want to compromise on the quality of living. The fact that I don't compromise gives me the ability to raise my children in a peaceful environment.
Would you recommend pursuing a career in the music industry today?
Not in the industry, not unless you're talented. If you're not talented, then it doesn't really matter. You can auto-tune your sh*t up, contrive stuff as much as you want – people won't buy it.
But what about label people?
What label people are really cool? Who can be cool working for a cornball? You understand what I'm saying? (laughs) Everybody in the music business is corny. Period. You got a job and somebody's telling you what to do and you making people compromise so they can make money. That's whack. They got no swag and that's how it is.