The Rocafella Records break up was perhaps one of the most unforeseen occurrences in hip hop history, or was it?
How could a label helmed primarily by two legendary figures, Dame Dash and Jay Z, who started it from scratch, along with Kareem “Biggs” Burke, come to an end?
Was it the money? Was it the fame? Was it women? Was it executives?
We’re going to dive into what led to the downfall, demise, separation and ill will that seems to be harbored by former friends that built a dynasty!
Let’s start at the beginning. Before they were Rocafellas, they were street fellas. Jay Z, Dame Dash and Kareem “Biggs” Burke.”
Jay Z, born in Brooklyn, New York, and raised in Marcy Houses projects, a housing project in Brooklyn’s Bed Stuy neighborhood, attended Eli Whitney High School in Brooklyn with rapper AZ.
However, that high school was shut down and he was moved to George Westinghouse Career and Technical Education High School. The same high school rappers The Notorious B.I.G and Busta Rhymes attended.
Jay Z also had a brief stint at Trenton Central High School in Trenton, New Jersey. However, Jay Z did not graduate and dropped out during his sophomore year.
According to Jay Z’s lyrics and interviews he was now selling crack cocaine during that time period. He has also said that music saved his life because at the time his friend was arrested he wasn’t there because he was making music.
Dame Dash, born in New York City, Harlem, had to learn to grow up fast. Dame Dash lost his mother at the age of 15 due to an asthma attack.
Dame Dash has spoken of the loss of his mother and said that his biggest fear was to lose his mother as she provided everything for him. Dame Dash put himself through boarding school after his mother’s passing by being a hustler in the streets of Harlem. He’s stated that he had more money than his teachers and drove better cars than them as a teenager.
Dame Dash credits his hustle mentality to his mother saying “he learned to hustle” from his mother. Dame Dash has stated that his mother would buy shoes, clothes, etc, at wholesale and sell them at retail.
Dash Dash got out of the drug game, as he states, when Harlem drug lord Rich Porter got killed. He says that if Rich got killed, then It can happen to him as well.
Dash moved on from drug dealing and launched a small business throwing parties and promoting clubs. This would lead him towards a career in music management and his first client was a rap group called Future Sound.
Dame Dash, as manager, led Future Sound to sign a deal with Atlantic Records under a record executive named Rodolfo Franklin, aka, DJ Clark Kent. Don’t forget that name as we’ll come back to it. DJ Clark Kent is pivotal in the Dame Dash and Jay Z alliance.
KAREEM “BIGGS” BURKE
Kareem “Biggs” Burke, born in New York City, Harlem, is the third founding member of Rocafella Records.
During his party throwing days, Dame Dash was in a crew called Best Out. Kareem “Biggs” Burke was in the crew with Dame Dash.
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FORMING ROCAFELLA RECORDS
It was in 1992 when Dame Dash, then managing music acts Future Sound and Original Flavor, was presented to a former Brooklyn drug dealer Shawn Carter, aka, Jay Z, by DJ Clark Kent, who knew Jay Z since they were teenagers.
Immediately Dame Dash was awestruck by Jay Z’s talent and became his manager. Dame Dash handled all of the business related concerns for his new act, Jay Z.
Dame Dash went all out for Jay Z and brought him to several record labels, all closing their doors as they didn’t see the young rapper as a valuable act.
Due to the continuous rejection of Jay Z by record labels, Dame Dash and Jay Z decided to start their own record label. They approached Dame’s friend Kareem “Biggs” Burke with the idea of starting their own record label and he accepted and became the third founding member of Roc-A-Fella records.
With Jay Z as the talent, Dame Dash handling the business side and Biggs bringing the lifestyle to the table, they started their own label, Rocafella Records, through Priority Records.
THE ORIGINS OF THE NAME ROCAFELLA
The exact origin of the name Roc-A-Fella Records is highly debated. However, there are two prominent tales as to the name of the record label.
Tale of origin number 1 is that Roc-A-Fella was named after an alleged Brooklyn born hustler named Rocafella. How true this is we don’t have the facts to prove it. But nearly a decade after the launch of Rocafella Records when Jay Z and Nas were at odds on the mic, on the song Ether Nas spit: “Rockafeller died of AIDS, that was the end of his chapter and that’s the guy y’all chose to name your company after?”
Tale of origin number 2 is that Roc-A-Fella Records was named after the man considered by many to be the wealthiest American of all time, John D. Rockefeller.
The first project the trio released under Rocafella Records was Jay Z’s debut album, Reasonable Doubt. It was an independent release that got them a distribution deal with Priority Records shortly after the album’s release.
Reasonable doubt was not an grandioses success in terms of record sales, by any means. Released June 25th, 1996, It sold 43,000 copies its first week. Not a success at all considering the colossal numbers or other hip hop artists and groups who released albums that same year, including 2Pac’s All Eyez On Me which sold 560,000 its first week, Nas’s It Was Written, 270,000 its first week, Snoop Dogg’s, The Dogfather sold 470,000 its first week and The Fugees The Score sold over 20 million records worldwide.
Though Reasonable Doubt was promoted with the release of four singles, none of them reached the Top 40. The first single off the album, “Dead Presidents” did not chart at all. The following single, “Ain’t No Ni**a” featuring 17 year old Foxy Brown, DJ Clark Kent’s cousin, was its highest charting single reaching number 50.
The other two single releases, “Can’t Knock The Hustle” and “Feeling It” did not peak higher than 70.
In its first year Reasonable Doubt sold a total of 420,000 records. It came 80,000 records shy of being certified gold.
ONWARD TO HIP HOP DOMINANCE
In the next post, From Street Fellas To Rocafella: The Successes Of A Dynasty, we will see that things were just heating up for Rocafella. Fame, money and hip hop dominance were just around the corner…with Def Jam Recordings.
And as always we like to close with a saying, quote or adage and today’s is from Jay Z: BELIEF IN ONE SELF AND KNOWING WHO YOU ARE, I MEAN, THAT’S THE FOUNDATION FOR EVERYTHING GREAT.
Now, go forth and change the game!