Very rarely do record labels reach a level of popularity where everyone can instantly recognize their logo. Roc-A-Fella Records did. Very rarely does a label birth the career of an artist who changes the landscape of not just hip-hop but music. Roc-A-Fella Records did, twice.
When we talk about the Roc, the two names people think of, understandably so, are Jay Z and Dame Dash. Kanye is in there, so are Memphis Bleek and a host of others, but for as pivotal as he was in shaping Roc-A-Fella, I really don’t think Kareem “Biggs” Burke gets enough credit. Without this man we wouldn’t have Reasonable Doubt, The Black Album, College Dropout, and in some ways TIDAL, Blue Ivy or that Memphis Bleek shampoo commercial.
Someone who was that important to one of the most important labels in hip-hop must have some amazing gems in his back pocket and lucky for us, Biggs shared a ton of them in an amazing interview with Elliott Wilson and Brian "B.Dot" Miller on the Rap Radar Podcast. If you have an hour and a half to kill I highly recommend it. If you don’t because, for example, your job isn't to listen to rap podcasts, I've taken the liberty of laying out the most succulent factoids for you.
Just the other day, I was listening to Reasonable Doubt and it reminded me that the now-iconic “Dead Presidents” is one of the most rapped over beats in all of hip-hop. It is crazy to think about that record... as a Mase song. And to be clear, as Biggs explained, this wasn’t just a beat Mase had in the archives, he had a full version recorded with his own verses and that same Nas flip. That’s a song, not a borrowed beat. If Mase moves forward with his version of “Dead Presidents” it doesn’t become a historic litmus test for damn near every rapper in history.
Ancient footage of rappers is coveted material in our world, which is what makes this DMX vs Jay backstage battle so amazing. It was also the moment Biggs really saw Jay’s prowess. All amazing, but when Biggs said it was Big L who filmed it, I kind of lost it - they were all there together? To have Jay, DMX, and Big L in the same room, and by happenstance to have Big L with a camera, is a wow moment. If only Big L had put the camera down and gotten in on the action...
Another one of those butterfly effect moments. If the Roc team signs to Sony instead of Def Jam with Lyor Cohen do they become the giants they are today? Is Jay Z the same Jay Z? Even crazier, is Lyor Cohen still Lyor Cohen?
He's one of the most powerful, richest men in hip-hop and it’s hard to see that same success achieved had the Roc gone to Sony. No Roc/Def Jam partnership, no 300. No 300, no Migos and no Young Thug and Fetty Wap. It’s just amazing how many genre-changing careers were built off the R-O-C.
Speaking of Lyor, he wanted to drop Kanye very early on in Kanye’s Def Jam career. I can forgive him since everyone seemed to overlook Kanye at the time, but what I can’t understand is why he wanted to do it after hearing “Through The Wire.” The first time I heard that song I knew that dude was “it” and if I could see it, how could Lyor not?!
Even crazier, at the time Kanye already had the idea for his next two albums, Late Registration, and Graduation (or maybe it was Good Ass Job). If Kanye gets dropped, we might never have had any of those albums. It’s scary to think of a world without literally my favorite album of all-time. Would he have gone to Cash Money? I think we need a "Last Call 2."
This might be me reading way too much into things, but as the three were discussing building the Roc with the intention of selling the company because at the time rappers had 2-3 album careers, it was brought up that Jay would always say he was only going to do one more album. Offhandedly Biggs said, “He told me that the other day” and then added, “I laughed and said, ‘C’mon man, you are too close to The Beatles now.”
They were all laughing and it was more of a joke than serious, but I couldn’t help but believe that there was some truth to it. Is Jay plotting another album?
I have to admit, I don’t think I realized how important Biggs was to Roc-A-Fella and I think I know why. Yes, Biggs kind of vanished after serving time while Jay rose to legendary status, but more importantly, I’ve never once heard him complain or shoot off a diss. He’s remained an ultimate professional in an industry where egos and money drive everything. In the interview, he talks about never expecting Jay or Dame to hold him down while he was in jail because they were business partners and had no obligation. The perspective is astounding. If I was in his position, I don’t think I would have the same outlook.
Hearing these great stories, learning about his role, it made me appreciate him, but hearing his lack of anger or ill-will made me respect him as a music exec and as a human.
Here’s to the Roc.