There’s Roc Nation Records, which counts Rihanna, J. Cole, and Jaden and Willow Smith on its roster and has a global partnership with Universal Music Group (UMG), from which Roc’s label has generated over $200 million. There’s Roc Nation Management, which boasts Meek Mill, Mariah Carey and Shakira as clients. There’s a publishing wing with divisions specifically for country and Latin music; a touring arm, which handles live ventures for JAY-Z, as well as the annual Made in America Festival; and Tidal, the music streaming service and content hub Roc Nation purchased, rebranded and launched with 16 artist stakeholders in March 2015.
Roc Nation Sports represents some of the most famous athletes on the planet, including CC Sabathia, Kyrie Irving and Victor Cruz; Roc’s film/TV division has produced acclaimed docuseries on Kalief Browder and Trayvon Martin. Spirits, branding, apparel, consulting, indie distribution, a venture capital fund and philanthropic efforts -- the S. Carter Foundation, which raised $6 million in scholarship money during its gala on Nov. 15 and 16, and REFORM, a criminal justice reform initiative with Meek Mill, among others -- all fall under Perez’s purview too, giving her one of the broadest job descriptions an entertainment conglomerate could conceive. And that, somehow, doesn’t cover all of it.
Yet the Bronx-born Perez -- who runs the company alongside JAY-Z, CEO Jay Brown, co-founder/president of A&R Ty Ty Smith and her husband, head of Roc Nation Sports Juan Perez -- still manages to be the confident eye at the center of the Roc Nation storm. “I’m fair, I’m strong, and I’m transparent,” she says about her management style, which also includes picking up calls at all hours -- especially when her phone flashes “No Caller ID.” “You never have to worry about what I’m thinking -- I’ll always tell you.”
“Desiree is one of the most driven women I’ve ever met,” says Atlantic Records COO/co-chairman Julie Greenwald. “I always kid her and say, ‘When are you taking a vacation?’ She never does, because she’s always working. She’s there morning, noon and night, really driving that business. Everyone looks at Roc Nation as synonymous with JAY-Z, but she’s really the engine that drives it.”
In Perez’s telling, that drive comes from being the daughter of Cuban immigrants, as a girl helping her Spanish-speaking father run his moving company in the Bronx and learning how to sell his company’s services to English-speaking clients. “My dad was a big influence on me because he worked so hard and he came from nothing -- it was really gritty,” she says. “I learned how to drive a truck at 16, how to drive a tractor-trailer at the age of 17. I learned how to change transmission oil and motor oil and all those things that normally ‘girls,’ quote-unquote, wouldn’t learn. So I think he empowered me in that way.”
Perez herself never intended to get into the music business -- she was running a company that sold cellphones and beepers when she was first asked to help run promotions at a nightclub in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood -- but she had the drive to run with the opportunity. By 1996 she was managing a series of clubs. That year, for $5,000, she booked a young rapper named JAY-Z and his DJ, Clark Kent, to play one of her venues.
A few years later, Jay, Juan and Desiree opened the 40/40 Club in Manhattan and Desiree became its director of operations, eventually launching additional outposts, including in Atlantic City, N.J., and Las Vegas. (The latter two have since closed, though the original club in Manhattan and one inside Brooklyn’s Barclays Center are open.) In 2008, after Jay struck his deal with Live Nation to create Roc Nation, he brought Desiree over to be his COO. “I don’t know that I would be anywhere in this business if it weren’t for Jay’s trust in me and his belief in me,” she says. Roc quickly expanded beyond its initial purview.