A few years ago, Shady Records/Goliath Management boss Paul Rosenberg found himself at a crossroads: hoping to expand his label leadership beyond his work with Eminem at a time when the record industry had bottomed out and major labels were downsizing. “When I first entered the industry, it felt like the way you’re going to get your Hall of Fame bust was to maybe one day run a major label,” he says now, sitting in his expansive new digs at the Universal Music Group offices in New York. “So I was a little despondent. I thought, ‘If that goal doesn’t make sense anymore, what’s my goal now?’”
After Rosenberg floated the idea of a new label venture past longtime partner Universal, UMG chairman/CEO Lucian Grainge in 2017 instead offered Rosenberg the chance to run Def Jam, the iconic hip-hop label that, since its split with Island in 2014, had lost some of the identity its founders instilled in the brand in the 1980s. Before he responded, Rosenberg asked Eminem to weigh in.
“He was obviously happy for me. Def Jam is something that means a lot to him, too,” says Rosenberg, recalling their conversation. “He called me a couple of days later and said, ‘I don’t want to stop you. But my one question is, is it going to affect what we do?’ I said that I will do everything I can to have it not affect our relationship. Once I made that commitment, he was cool.”
Still, he had some reservations. "First of all, I wanted to continue with my management company. I wasn't gonna shut down Shady Records. So the main issue becomes, how are you gonna do all this? Aren't you busy already?" he says. "Another reservation was, other than artists and partners, I didn't really have a boss. So all of a sudden I'm gonna have a boss and somebody to answer to."
It was Grainge who played a major role in convincing Rosenberg to accept the job -- plus the thought of what his 16-year-old self would say if he turned down the chance to run Def Jam: "He would have thought I was crazy and probably never would have wanted to talk to me again."
Rosenberg’s new job was announced in August, and he wasted little time shaping his team. In October, he named longtime G.O.O.D. Music executive Steven Victor executive vp A&R, and later brought on Complex chief content officer Noah Callahan-Bever as executive vp brand strategy and content and Loud Records co-founder Rich Isaacson as GM to help run operations while he juggles his other responsibilities and gets himself up to speed.
Next on the agenda is to "refocus the brand," with an additional emphasis on digital strategy and signing career artists. “First and foremost, Def Jam is a hip-hop label, and the music that comes out of here should be connected to the culture,” says Rosenberg, addressing his vision for the company. "The kinds of artists that we're signing and developing moving forward are going to help inform that vision. I've never considered myself being in the song business. I'm in the artist business, and I want to find and develop talent based on artists that I think are gonna be around for a minute."
But that doesn’t mean abandoning Def Jam’s established and rising stars outside of hip-hop, like Justin Bieber, Axwell + Ingrosso and Alessia Cara, the latter of whom is nominated for best new artist at the Grammys. “I’ve worked with artists outside of hip-hop, so it's not some foreign thing to me,” he says. “The artists that are here at Def Jam are permanent parts of the label. Moving forward, we’re going to pull things more in a hip-hop direction. It’s what Lucian wants, and it’s what the label was always supposed to be.”