POPPINGTON STICKS OUT.
On an otherwise subdued stretch of Orchard Street on Manhattan's Lower East Side, the gallery announces itself in a way befitting of its owner, former Roc-A-Fella label head Damon Dash: with a giant, bright, red and teal neon sign. On entry, visitors are greeted by a huge mural that spans a curved wall; opposite it are surrealist paintings of street scenes with obvious nods to Dali. It's only slightly cooler in here than the muggy Manhattan day outside. The faint smell of weed lingers in the air.
From the upstairs office that overlooks the gallery, a staffer addresses us from above. We ask to speak to Dame, and—despite having a vaguely set time—are met with a confused look. Eventually, after being told to come up, we find the source of the smell: Dash, barely lit blunt in hand, holding court with a few people—a project manager, a director, an assistant, a British girl who has something to do with online video—as images flicker on a 50-plus inch Samsung monitor. A friendly yellow labrador, Dusko, wags his tail at Dame's feet. Another Dusko—the forthcoming whiskey—sits on a corner table.
The confusion is fair: Despite being invited, we aren't really here on any particular business so much as curiosity. A couple of days ago, the music world had far more than a thousand words when pictures of Jay Z and Dash, his former business partner, emerged on Instagram. And not just any flicks of Jay and Dame, but photos of the two smiling together at the birthday of a former Roc-A-Fella employee, surrounded by other smiling people. There's even one with Dame's arm around Jay, probably the first photo like it in almost a decade—the falling-out of Roc-A-Fella wasn't pretty, to say the least. Since their separation, Jay Z has gone on to be a (kind of) NBA owner, sports agent, label boss, husband, father, stadium filler…and the list goes on.
Dame's last decade, on the other hand, has been a little lower profile. Most recently, he launched his media collective DD172, which includes Poppington as well as a video agency, a media agency, and record label BluRoc (which released the Black Keys hip-hop collaboration project, BlakRoc, in 2009).
Not that any of it's been easy: In 2010, a New York Observer profile of Dash's new enterprises was headlined "The Wannabe Warhol." In 2011, the City of New York tried (and failed) to bust him on a charge of illegal alcohol sales. That was the same year he admitted in an interview with Sway to financial setbacks and owing the IRS $2 million in back taxes. In that same interview, Dash also explained that his money was moving around in all kinds of different businesses, and that he stays busy with a diversified portfolio of projects. Still, given the very public successes of his ex-partner, Dash has been pounced on by cynics eager to exaggerate his failures, which is to say nothing of the friendship between the two men (which Dash once joked he'd need Dr. Phil to help mend).
'The photo,' we say. 'Tell us about the photo. With Jay. What was it like?' Dame sighs, leans back in his chair, and looks up at the ceiling. Either a winsome smile or frustrated grimace creeps onto his face, we can't really tell.
Cynics or not, Dash does have his holdings. Besides the gallery—which, so you know, actually puts on shows that sell art—there's also Vampire Life, the clothing line. And, also: film. As we settle in his office, Dash screens a short film he directed in Hong Kong called Beef & Broccoli. It features a blonde model under attack in the middle of a market, who's defended by a fitted-Yankee-hat wearing young guy, who proceeds to make short, violent work out of the bad guys. "It's based on an experience Dame had in Spain," an assistant explains.
Another short, 15-minute movie is a series of slow-motion vignettes set to an operatic, classical score. It starts with a staged burglary, then moves to an actual crackhouse featuring actual crack dealers cutting and baking rock and what we are told several times is an actual crackhead smoking actual crack. During the scene when the dealers score a new cache of assault weapons and one joyfully pumps shotgun shells out of an automatic shotgun, Dash leans back in the couch and laughs, new blunt in hand: "Look at him! Look at how happy he is!"
Truth be told, it is an impressive video, shot and cut beautifully. So is the video of Dame hanging out in Jamaica with reggae superstar Sizzla, right in the middle of Judgement Yard. Dash is bullish on pursuing film. "I'm getting in my director-mode this year. I'm gonna direct, like, a real movie. At least an hour and some change. Then we're gonna direct this television series about the Zoo, you know, Treach's old crew. That's what I want to focus on this year. Scripted shit."
There's more work, wherever you look. Like the giant, freehand Fumero mural in the gallery and the comic-book panels that co-creative director and in-house designer/artist David Barnett—who was responsible for Curren$y's Pilot Talk artwork—shows me, incredible for just how in-progress they were. Where's this all going, though?
Marveling at the depth of it all, we ask Dame why he hasn't put so much of this work out. The footage with Sizzla, for example, which was scored a few years back. "We not quite tragic yet," Dame mumbles, before explaining: "Not everybody want their shit out there like that. But we got that shit"—that kind of interview footage—"with everybody."
And it's not like nothing's moving. The clothing line, for example. And when we ask which art pieces are for sale, Dash shoots back a quickfire response: "Everything's for sale. Why, you want something?" An assistant explains that prints of the art are available online (the site, when we last looked, was broken).
When we ask if he has any partners, Dash embarks on what can't really be called a trademark rant—as this is not the angry, berating, fuming Dame Dash of the Roc-A-Fella days—but more of an impassioned spiel. "It's time. It's all independent. We do it on our own. At some point, when I get focused, I'll figure out how to put it all together, monetize it. I got a television network structured already. There are just too many different things reacting right now. Vampire Life is reacting in a big way. A lot of our focus is figuring out how to keep it"—everything, all of Dash's projects—"independent."
It all sounds vaguely familiar. This is, after all, a man who has publicly, profanely screamed about the interference of Def Jam in Roc-A-Fella business more than a few times. He continues: "Keep everything independent. Bottom line is that once corporate gets involved, everything gets fucked up. Once you're not paying your [own] bills no more, you got a boss to tell you what to do, that fucks everything up. So my thing is to have a good, profitable company, for it to be 100% owned independently."
We ask Dame if he finds it easier to be an entrepreneur now than it was 10 years ago, thanks to the proliferation of online media, and how that's changed his business. "It's easier now because of the Internet," he explained, "but it's also easier now because nobody else is putting up the dough. I'm the only one who puts up their money. I don't have to ask anyone's permission. I don't have to convince anyone. That freedom? Pssh. It's unexplainable, to be able to do that."
But isn't that hard to maintain? "I've been doin' it," he says, a hint a defiance in his voice. "Under a lot of scrutiny, too."
Scrutiny or not, we note, you need deep pockets to run independent ventures such as his. Dash fires right back: "Nah. You gotta have a deep hustle."
"I don't ever want to argue with somebody because of my vision. And that's what I've been doing. I'm figuring out how to protect that."
"I'm never gonna owe money," he says, "because every time I get a dollar, I put it into another business, whether it's to buy goods or develop other companies. You don't have money, you have companies. That's one business model. That's mine. And I only associate with other people that are putting up their own money, 'cause they're the only ones that can relate. Know what I'm saying?"
More people are already milling about in the office space. Dame isn't onto them yet, though. In a span of a few minutes, he tells us about his motor oil, his upcoming women's line, and BluRoc's latest jazz act (Harold O'Neal). Even the way he introduces his DD172 creative director to us—"This is David. Chang. David. Motherfucking. Chang. Davechang!"—is a sell. This is Dame doing Dame.
It becomes difficult to question the practicality of running this many ventures—or how they manifest—when they're so dizzying in nature. But there's even an answer, there.
"At this point right now, it's really just like making a real good foundation where the companies are at least covering their costs, so that I can be as creative as I want and pay the bills. And that's really all I want to do. I want to be as creative as I want," Dame laments, before finishing: "I don't ever want to have to compromise, I don't ever want anybody ever to tell me what to do, I don't ever want to argue with somebody because of my vision. And that's what I've been doing. I'm figuring out how to protect that."
We are now leaving the gallery, head spinning, trying to make sense of the DD172 empire in all of its abstract mass and scale. Based on our experience, Dame Dash is either one of the busiest men in New York or someone with a lot of big plans (but even stronger weed)—or both. At the very least, he's got a pretty great dog, and a seemingly devoted staff of plucky downtown kids who want to make those ideas work.
As we exit, though, one nagging question remains…
The photo, we say. Tell us about the photo. With Jay. A pause. What was it like?
Dame sighs, leans back in his chair, and looks up at the ceiling. Either a winsome smile or frustrated grimace creeps onto his face, we can't really tell. He laughs, leans forward, and looks up at us.
"I don't want to talk about it. It's a personal moment, nah'm saying?" He stretches out the word: "Godddddd, man," laughing again. "Instagram, huh?"
Well, we explain, we had to ask.
"Ask him," Dash shoots back. Never has a pronoun sounded so loaded.
He's too busy doing performance art, we note.
"Ah. Ha," Dash chuckles to himself, crystal clear on the reference.
We say goodbye to some more assistants, and start to head down the stairs when we hear Dash's voice booming behind us.
"What you think it was like?"
I don't know. It looked…Nice? Pleasant? Meaningful? Maybe like closure?
"Huh," Dash smiles again.
Am I close?
"Yeah. You got your answer right there."
"That's right. You said it right! If that's how you tell it, you'll be telling the right story."
A touch of the poet, we shrug.
Dame Dash leans his head back and laughs as we make our way out.
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