After promoting at the Palladium, A&Ring under Funkmaster Flex’s wing, and resurrecting rap and R&B at Warner Bros., Joie “Joey I.E.” Manda became president of Def Jam Recordings in March 2012. In 12 months, he oversaw three No. 1 albums, Nas’ renaissance, 2 Chainz’s explosion, and Frank Ocean’s game-changing debut.

Then, just as he marked his one-year anniversary at the esteemed rap record company, the Italian kid from Gravesend, Brooklyn, made yet another power move, announcing that he was heading to Cali to become president of urban music at Interscope Records. Hip-hop’s taken Joey far; here’s where he’s taking it next.

Interview by Dan Charnas (@dancharnas)

This feature appears in Complex's June/July 2013 issue.

What was your first encounter with hip-hop?
Run-DMC, LL Cool J. Licensed to Ill was huge for me. I played that for a year straight. A lot of people describe their musical taste as eclectic. I only listened to one thing: hip-hop. It was special to me because you had to seek it out. There was no Hot 97 playing hip-hop records all day and all night. I taped Red Alert and Mr. Magic and Marley Marl once a week. I didn’t miss a day of Video Music Box. I knew every video, what everyone was wearing. After seeing Biz Markie, I had to go to Albee Square Mall.

How did you break into the business?
I dropped out of high school in the 11th grade, in 1989. I worked a bunch of different jobs. A friend of mine was a party promoter in Brooklyn, and sometimes he gave me 50 bucks to pass out fliers. I was still living with my mom. Then I started throwing my own parties. I moved out of my mom’s house. I started working for club owner Peter Gatien, who owned the Limelight, the Tunnel, and the Palladium. I did Saturday nights, which was a bunch of bridge-and-tunnel kids who came to listen to house music.

 

I knew Rick Ross because we tried to sign him at Warner when Shakir [Stewart] signed him to Def Jam. We stayed in touch. I watched what he was doing and said, “That’s our A&R guy.” I bet on him even more than the artists he was working with.

 

I brought Funkmaster Flex in and he gave me my first shot. I traveled around with him, went to all his shows, and helped him book shows. We were constantly together. He signed a deal with Kevin [Liles] and Lyor [Cohen] to do an album on Def Jam and he said, “I want you to A&R this album.” That was my dream.

Todd Moskowitz [then head of business affairs for Def Jam] let me sit on his couch and I ear-hustled, listening to how he, Kevin, and Lyor cut deals. In 2004, when Lyor went to Warner, he called Todd and me to revive Asylum Records. He wanted to make an infrastructure for urban entrepreneurs, to find the next Cash Money, the next Suave House.

For almost two decades, Warner Bros. Records had no presence or credibility in black music. When Todd took over and put you in charge of urban music, everything seemed to change: Common, Gucci Mane, Jill Scott, Waka Flocka, MMG. How did you make Warner a player again?
We made good decisions. I knew Rick Ross because we tried to sign him at Warner when Shakir [Stewart] signed him to Def Jam. We stayed in touch. I watched what he was doing and said, “That’s our A&R guy.” I bet on him even more than the artists he was working with. I knew he was gonna work as hard, if not harder, than us. It paid off.

You were at Def Jam for a year, doing big things. What made you decide to move to Interscope?
I’m excited about what’s happening at Interscope. John Janick just came over. I’ve known him for some time, and Jimmy Iovine is one of the top music men ever to do this. They’re rebuilding Interscope completely. That’s appealing to me, making something better and fine-tuning it. That’s what I love to do.

You had a strong relationship with Ross and Maybach Music Group. How do you feel about parting company with them?
It’s difficult. I was at Def Jam for God Forgives, I Don’t. I won’t be there for the next Ross album. But even though I’m not the president of Def Jam anymore, I consider Ross a brother.

From working the door at the Tunnel to running a major label, what’s the most powerful role you’ve played?
Breaking an artist is the most powerful thing in the music business—helping them make a record and bringing it to market, believing in it with them. It’s powerful when you’re the only person in the room who sees an artist’s potential and you can show everyone else what it is and bring it to fruition.

What do you attribute your success to?
Growing up in hip-hop music and understanding it. I don’t mean to be cliché, but I’m a fan first.