Mike Will Made-It Manager DJ Mormile on A&R, Working With Eminem and Drinking With Dr. Dre
Dominick "DJ" Mormile didn't plan on a career in hip-hop. The current senior vice president of A&R at Columbia Records -- who also manages Mike Will Made-It as part of his management company Fakework -- graduated from Boston College as a finance major in 1999 and was plucked by his uncle, Jimmy Iovine (co-founder of Interscope Records turned Apple executive) to intern at Interscope in '98. After earning his degree and moving out West, he landed a gig helping Iovine and former Universal Music Group chairman/CEO Doug Morris run what they touted as the "first Internet record label," FarmClub.com under UMG.
From there, Mormile worked with acts like The Black Eyed Peas and Eminem, but admits he was kind of faking it. "When I was still in college, [Will.i.Am] was my guy, then I was working with Em, and then I started working with 50 Cent," he says. "I was involved in all these things but I still didn’t really know what I was doing. A lot of people pretend they know what they’re doing but I was just feeling it out and doing what feels right."
Whatever that was, it's still working. He helped Polow Da Don become a multi-platinum producer and groomed Soulja Boy, who pioneered viral hip-hop with 2007's "Crank That (Soulja Boy)." The Staten Island native (who now resides in Westwood, California) even named his own management agency Fakework as a wink to critics who assumed he would just ride on his uncle's coat-tails. "I figured when I got successful, it would really piss everybody off for no reason and it would push me, because if I failed with a company named Fakework, I’d make a fool of myself -- and I’d never let that happen."
Here, Mormile discusses transitioning into his new role at Columbia Records, what he considers his first professional success and launching a sports agency. The interview has been condensed for clarity.
What was your relationship with hip-hop growing up?
Well, I was around it because Jimmy signed Death Row [to Interscope] when I was 13. So I was around Suge [Knight] when I was 14 and I think I might have had my first drink with Dr. Dre, so it was a very unique situation. But as far as music, I didn’t even really listen to music as a kid. I was 100 percent sports all the time; the only music I really listened to was Billy Joel. If anybody asked me to do karaoke, it would probably be Billy Joel or Rae Sremmurd. I helped sign Kendrick [Lamar] with Manny [Smith, current senior vp of A&R at Interscope], so I did all the TDE stuff right before I left. I watch so many A&R people, because a lot of A&R people are musicians that failed or didn’t get to be what they wanted to be as artists and this is their way to be in the business.
You recently left Interscope Records for Columbia Records. How did you know it was a time for a change?
It was just time. I mean, of course, part of it had to do when Jimmy was transitioning out and going to Apple. [Interscope became] very numbers based, but I’m just still an old school A&R guy -- I came from that home-run mentality that Jimmy built. Obviously that’s my family but I’ve seen it before between Jimmy and [Steve] Stoute and [Chris] Lighty and Paul Rosenberg and whoever I was around, it was always like, “You do what you gotta do.” It’s obviously a business, but it never felt like one. And I’d run my course, I was there 17 years.
I never thought I would work inside a record company again because I didn’t want to work for anybody. I only work for Jimmy and that’s just because I kind of don’t have a choice -- I have Thanksgiving with him anyway. It’s family so I work for him even when I don’t work for him but I never in a million years thought I would take another job but when I met Rob [Stringer] we hit it off so well that it just felt right. Now, I’m a year in [at Columbia Records] and it’s show and prove: I still fall in that thing where people don’t know if I’m good at what I do, if Jimmy just gave me everything or if I earned it.
Who are some of the acts you are most excited about bringing to Columbia?
I have three acts signed already and they’ll all be coming in 2017, which I’m super excited about. Aldae Long is an R&B singer from Arlington, Texas, who is crazy; this kid Camino from Mississippi, and this Bay Area rapper Symba. He’s got great records, great personality. Then Mike Will did [Beyonce's] "Formation" so I came in [to the company] on a wave. We have other stuff going on, like my producers who work with Mike did the single for Lecrae who’s on the label, and Mike just did the remix for John Legend's "Love Me Now." So it’s bringing all my producers, managers, artists, everything I have into the company and just trying to merge the two worlds.
You launched your management agency Fakework in June 2003. What made you decide to venture out on your own?
I’m more of an artist person -- although I was a business major so I’m a businessman -- but I like the gambling side of it, so management really was attractive to me because it was like if something makes a million dollars, you make a certain amount of money and if it doesn’t make any money, you make nothing -- that’s motivation to me. Incentive-based business is kind of how my brain works.
How did you learn what it meant to be a good A&R?
I was blessed to be around a lot of people when I was young. It was Jimmy, it was Tom Whalley, my first boss was Steve Stoute, and another mentor -- rest his soul -- that I spoke to almost everyday was Chris Lighty. A diverse group of people that had enormous success but all had different views on it, and me being a white kid from Staten Island -- my whole life was based around sports, girls and pizza basically growing up. Working at Interscope, I was willing to do [the work] because I never cared about publicity or getting credit.
What specifically did you learn from them?
Watching how good Jimmy is at getting to the bottom line. He fires off home-run ideas and he’s relentless. He’s as witty and smart as they came and doesn’t take no for an answer -- that’s kind of where my competitive side comes from.
Steve Stoute is a marketing and branding genius. He’s able to market everything he does. Nobody puts themselves in situations to win more than Steve and he knows how to be in the right room. Chris was just the ultimate hustler, who knew how to make make a dollar faster than anyone I’ve ever known. Doesn’t matter how cold his client was, if he somehow needed to make $50,000, he’d figure out a way to make it happen in a day.
I worked with Steve Stoute for a year and I was blessed to be in the 825 8th Avenue building that also had Roc-A-Fella and Def Jam so I was on that floor and it was me, Stoute, Gee Roberson, Hip Hop [Kyambo Joshua], Dame [Dash] and DJ Clue. Gee Roberson was an A&R guy working on Jay Z’s album at 23 years old and I was working on Eminem’s album at 21 years old and we were just sitting on the floor of our offices playing beats. If I'd started in LA, I would’ve just been Jimmy’s nephew to everybody but since I was in New York, I got to be myself.
What would you consider your first professional success?
Well, after the Black Eyed Peas and Eminem, my first real success was when we signed Jim Crow, this Southern rap group in 2001 and Polow da Don was the lead rapper. They were supposed to be the next somewhere between Outkast and Goodie Mob, and it didn’t work out. Me and Polow both kind of had to figure out what to do when the group disbanded and we decided to make him a producer. I had never managed anything before, he really never produced anything before and we just decided we were gonna make it work. He had five No. 1 records in two years, so that vindication for both of us.
How do you balance working in the music industry with running a sports agency?
Music is a huge passion for me but sports has always been my love. I’m friends with Maverick [Carter] and Rich Paul through Jimmy and the Beats stuff but I never wanted to feel like I was using somebody else’s juice. I wanted to build my own thing and now I’ve done it. We’re getting a basketball division started but the football division is already moving, we have Su’a Cravens from the [Washington] Redskins, who I think is one of the best young players. We have Kenny Britt, the No. 1 receiver on the [Los Angeles] Rams who is having a great year. It’s building on word of mouth.
Do you scope out artists the same way you do athletes?
We do recruiting just like anybody else, but I’m very personality based. I don’t go after the big names just because I believe I can make money off it -- of course I care because it’s a business, but I don’t care how much money is in it if I don’t like the person. If you can’t enjoy winning with the person, who cares?