The Business of Being Damon Dash (by Julian Mitchell)

It takes courage to stand alone and fight for what you believe when the world can’t conceive your vision. Yet, the great reward of standing your ground amidst opposition is seeing what was once denied or dismissed manifest into a reality bigger than what you imagined. One entrepreneur who embodies this relentless spirit of independence is Dame Dash.

Founding Roc-A-Fella records in 1995, alongside Jay-Z and Kareem ‘Biggs’ Burke, the iconic rap imprint sold millions of units worldwide, releasing a decorated list of era-defining hits throughout a celebrated run that lasted nearly two decades. The label boasted a roster that included Kanye West, Jay-Z, Memphis Bleek, State Property, The Diplomats, Just Blaze and DJ Clue.

In addition to solidifying himself as a music mogul, Dash expanded his enterprise into the fashion and lifestyle space, growing Rocawear into a prominent urban apparel company that eventually sold to Iconix in 2007 for a reported $204 million. Dame later opened the doors to DD172, an art gallery and creative collective in New York, in addition to founding Creative Control — a digital media platform that explored the intersection of music, art and culture. His growing portfolio of business ventures also includes a spirits brand, CEO clothing company and Dame Dash Studios.

His latest endeavor is the Dash Diabetes Network, a multi-media lifestyle platform that offers tips, tools and solutions for the 27 million people actively battling with diabetes. Living as a Type 1 diabetic for 31 years, Dash will bring together a community of musicians, artists, filmmakers, holistic doctors and other health experts to share their stories and educate the masses about the realities of managing the disease. Through a diverse slate of programming, Dash hopes to raise awareness and show that being diabetic is a lifestyle, ultimately urging millions to adopt healthier habits across various areas of their lives. Launching the network in partnership with Mannkind Corporation, the makers of Afrezza, viewers will also be updated on the latest innovations, medicines, exercises and culinary recipes.

I spoke with Dame about his business model, guiding principles, and the vision behind his new lifestyle network.

The same relentless fight for ownership and independence that got you scrutinized early in your career would lead to praise for you in this era — do you feel like you kicked that door down for today’s generation?

Dame Dash: Definitely, I did it on purpose and it’s been a long time coming. For years, logically speaking, it didn’t make any sense for us to be doing all of the work and not have ownership or anything to pass down to our family. I’ve always articulated that, but because of people’s fear, they’ve always turned their back on me or looked the other way. When I was young, I read the Bible, and I already knew what it meant to be the good guy — and look what happened to Jesus. So, I already understood that you get ridiculed for telling the truth, and I’ve always been aware of that. But, I’m a guy with confidence, and I’m not afraid. My delivery can be intense, but it’s intense because I need to be heard. I know that people don’t usually listen, as it relates to constructive criticism, without getting offended. So, I speak my mind with an attitude that I don’t care if you get offended, I just want you to get the message.

You emphasize being a man of principles and holding people accountable for their actions. What is your code or guiding principles you live by?

Dame Dash: For me, it’s about respect and being honest. If you say you’re going to do something, do it. If you bring someone around, then you’re accountable for them. If you sign on to do something and we have an understanding, I don’t care who it is, our word is bond and that’s what we abide by. In corporate America, you’re almost required to have no integrity. There’s too much smacking in the face and bending over. I can’t do that. I will never survive in the corporate environment, because I can’t be told what to do. I also can’t accept doing something that goes against my morals or principles. My worth is not defined by accolades. I do things because I want to, and I love it. What’s meant to be, will be. If you fight for the culture, you’re going to get scrutinized. You’re going to get rocks thrown at you. You’re going to get crucified. All of the people that are cutting corners and cheating will always try to make it look like something that it’s not. That’s what’s great about the millennial generation — there’s cameras everywhere. You can say what you want, but everything is documented, so you can’t escape the truth.

Running a label and reaching such a peak, while seeing and experiencing everything you did within the industry, did you always have plans to exit the music business?

Dame Dash: I never wanted to stay in the music business, so I left. The music business was like High School to me, and there was no real money in the music business. I did not want to sit around nerds all day. I saw people with the same jobs for 20 years, all hanging out with each other, all being yes-men to each other with no morals. Character didn’t matter as long as you were doing well. I saw people only loyal to success in the moment. I also saw a lot of people getting robbed, and a lot of people who looked independent, but as soon as they got around corporate, they lost it all. Then, I didn’t see any true longevity; it wasn’t sustainable. The rap demographic is 15-25. Anything over that, you’re being irresponsible. How could you be presenting a reckless lifestyle or delivering messages that are unproductive for the culture and feel good about yourself? A lot of the things we spoke about doing when we were younger, I could never speak about now at 46, knowing I have children. I could never advocate killing or putting drugs into the world when it impacts everyone I love. We made a lot of money off of that perspective, but I evolved. I’m also a guy that gets bored easily. After I accomplish something, I want to move onto something new.

How did your vision evolve after being in the music business and what drove you to always expand into different industries?

Dame Dash: I’ve always had a bigger picture. I came in the game to do everything. I was never here just to be in music. Music was just something I did first, and did it well. I empowered people and kept it moving. When I put Kevin Hart on, it didn’t come from a desire to get into comedy. I’m a funny guy, and can identify another funny guy, so I gave him a platform and directed his first three movies. When I put Lee Daniels on, I wanted to make a movie I believed in that would get me into festivals. I thought it was a smart script, so I funded the movie. Each time, I was just inspired in the moment. My job isn’t to make money off of other people, my job is to empower people I believe in, and put them in position to build their own empires.

You see so many artists and creators championing independence or demanding control of their careers — What does being independent mean to you?

Dame Dash: Independence is putting up your own money and being your own boss. Being independent is having complete ownership of what you create. Independence is having something to pass to your children. I can tell you what independence is not — having a job, collecting a check, and having someone be able to fire you. You’re not independent if you’re not in position to give your family jobs or put your people in position to get money. Having to ask someone for a vacation, or having to wake up when you’re told — that’s not independence. Not being able to pick your kid up at a certain time because you have to work isn’t independence. To me, you’re not independent if you have clients that control how you move or how much money you can make. They’re trying to make being independent corporate so they can monetize it. Being independent is the new business model until it becomes corporate.

Now, you have the internet, so you can see everything that goes on anywhere. You can live vicariously through the internet now, but it wasn’t like that back then. The internet makes it a lot easier to have a direct-to consumer relationship and reach people quicker. There’s no more lying, because you see everything, so there should be no more fear.

What was the initial inspiration to launch Dash Diabetes network and what makes this the right moment to do it?

Dame Dash: I’m diabetic, and one of the reasons I wasn’t extremely vocal about my battle with diabetes is because I didn’t have it all the way under control. But, when I got with Afrezza, which is an inhalable insulin instead of a needle, it gives you more control. It doesn’t take an hour and half to hit your body like using a needle does, it takes effect in 15 minutes. I was able to control my insulin and get to a level seven, which I was never able to do prior. This network was always on my ‘did that’ list. Once I had the capital, I wanted to create an entire network dedicated to Diabetes, bringing attention and awareness to it. Then, I found a sponsor, which provides support, but I still own the platform and the content. It just made sense at this point in my life, during this chapter of my evolution, to do something that will help people other than myself. Every day, I get direct messages and emails saying that I helped save lives or people who suffered from diabetic depression that find hope and strength through seeing what we’re doing. We’re helping people every day just by living and sharing what I’m learning every day.

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