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Def Jam EVP Rich Isaacson on Pioneering Street-Team Marketing and His Iconic Label’s Future

Since the beginning of his career in the music business, Def Jam Recordings executive vp/GM Rich Isaacson's "unwritten mission statement" has been to elevate the underdog.

Since the beginning of his career in the music business, Def Jam Recordings executive vp/GM Rich Isaacson‘s “unwritten mission statement” has been to elevate the underdog. So in 1991, at age 27, he left his position at an esteemed Manhattan law firm to pursue his dream job. He co-founded Loud Records with childhood friend Steve Rifkind, looking to provide a platform for up-and-coming hip-hop artists.

Isaacson’s approach paid off in 1993, when Wu-Tang Clan leader-producer RZA started to use his group’s street buzz to shop for record deals. RZA wanted to maintain creative control over the act’s music and give individual members the freedom to sign solo deals with other companies, a then-unprecedented contract point that had scared away other labels. But Loud agreed — and Isaacson and Rifkind got one of the iconic acts of the ’90s, as well as a reputation for valuing artistic integrity. They built a roster that included Big Pun, Mobb Deep, Raekwon and Three 6 Mafia.

Along the way, Isaacson experimented with the then-new concept of street-team marketing — on-the-ground promotion run by tastemakers that catered to hip-hop fans directly in their neighborhoods — to promote Loud’s artists and allow them to work with major corporations on a shoestring budget. “We were creative out of necessity,” he says. “There’s still a lot to be said about physically touching people [instead of] doing it through the phone.”

Rich Isaacson
A pen collection designed by management client Mika. “I have represented Mika for 15 years, and he never ceases to amaze me. Pilot asked him to design six pens for their 100th anniversary and he created a collection of 24, package and all.” Daniel Dorsa

Thirty years later, that ingenuity led Eminem manager Paul Rosenberg to make Isaacson one of his first hires when he became chairman/CEO of Def Jam in January 2018. Rosenberg tasked Isaacson with running the label’s day-to-day operations and helping to restore the iconic imprint to its top-tier status in hip-hop.

Now, Isaacson says he has come “full circle,” working for the company that he considered the “gold standard” during his time at Loud. Under his purview, Def Jam released Undisputed — a compilation of 17 newly signed acts, including recent XXL Freshman YK Osiris, who created songs during a label-sponsored “rap camp” — and the company has landed No. 1 albums by the likes of Logic and Kanye West. Isaacson’s approach to acquiring talent remains the same. “There’s nothing more exciting, motivating, energizing or validating than working with a new artist,” he says. “One that only has great music — nothing else.”

You started your career in law. How did you end up in the music business?

One of my closest friends growing up was Steve Rifkind. He went into the music business to work with his dad [Jules Rifkind]. I went to a big corporate law firm and hated every second of it. Steve used to come to New York and visit, and one time, he [was] like, “Hey, I got a label deal. We can go into business now.” When we were younger, we used to talk about it as a joke. I jumped at the chance.

Rich Isaacson
A gift from RZA on the 25th anniversary of Wu-Tang’s debut album. “A life-changer for me and all of us at Loud Records,” he says. Daniel Dorsa

The birth of street marketing is attributed to how you promoted your acts at Loud Records. Did it feel like a major innovation at the time?

We started street marketing because we had no resources. It was cheap. There was no internet, and hip-hop wasn’t on the radio like it is today. So we had to touch people where they were — whether that was in a club, a barbershop or a swap meet. At the time, nobody was doing that, especially on the corporate side. We were lucky to have artists like Wu-Tang Clan and Tha Alkaholiks and Mobb Deep early on. And it was because we were doing things that other people didn’t know how to do.

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How are you implementing those ideas at Def Jam today?

On a recent tour of historically black colleges and universities, when we visited a campus, we made sure our artists actually met the students. In 2018, we spent a ton of money on a blimp letting everybody know about the new 2 Chainz album. YG released a big song, “Go Loko,” so we had a taco truck go all over Los Angeles and New York giving out tacos, playing his record, and he would pop up in person. That’s all street marketing.

Rich Isaacson
“Boxing is one of my hobbies, and the poster of Muhammad Ali inspires me each day,” he says. “Not only [was he] the greatest heavyweight champion but one of the most important figures of the 21st century.” Daniel Dorsa

After leaving Loud, you started the Latin marketing and management firm Fuerte Group in 2002. What has changed in the Latin market since then?

Back then, there were already really strong signs that it was going to become as successful as it is now. When I got into the Latin business, reggaetón was having a massive moment and had several big stars, [including] Tego Calderón, Daddy Yankee, Don Omar and Zion & Lennox. The industry was so eager for growth that it was premature to have a whole reggaetón station playing the same seven or eight artists over and over again. It took hip-hop 20 years to get from a phenomenon to becoming pop culture. But now, because of the internet, streaming in Latin America, Mexico [and] South America is exploding. Those numbers don’t lie.

How did you wind up at Def Jam?

I knew Paul [Rosenberg] from the time he was an intern at BMG in Detroit. After all these years, he called me and asked me to help him rebuild Def Jam, to make it the No. 1 hip-hop label again. At any given time, I’m working with an artist’s manager, solving a problem about getting a clearance; or I’m working with our department heads and planning releases or a personnel issue; or helping close a deal with a new artist. It’s kind of all over the place, which makes it fun.

Rich Isaacson
A book of photos, scripts and trivia from The Godfather. Daniel Dorsa

Rosenberg has spoken about wanting to build career artists at Def Jam. What projects is the label launching to find those kinds of acts?

We’re constantly finding ways to have our artists perform in front of people. We have a partnership with Courvoisier, and we have 20 showcases over the next year. That’s what artist development is about. It’s not just putting out a music video or a song on Apple and Spotify and praying that it gets playlisted. It takes a lot of hard work. We don’t expect things to happen overnight. Rap camp was one way of introducing new, talented artists into the world. Many of those artists that were part of that experience weren’t artists that had big streaming numbers. That was the first time many of those artists were exposed to audiences outside of their own social media.

How much does data play a factor in signing decisions?

One of the things that Paul really brings to the table is that he’s not just looking at statistics. Anybody can get millions of streams if the stars align. Paul’s mandate is to find and sign real artists and not be so preoccupied with numbers.

What does innovation look like for Def Jam today?

There are no rules. Find great artists, and figure out a way to make them want to come to Def Jam. We’re always looking to be creative and not be constrained by what’s in vogue at a given moment.

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 24 issue of Billboard.